Judge Gordon Sullivan sings the praises of Ernst Lubitsch.
Four films from a pioneer of the movie musical.
For those just tuning in, the Eclipse series is an attempt by the folks from the Criterion Collection to release lesser-known works that, for whatever reason, aren't ready for the full Criterion-style restoration/extras combo. This time out, they focus on Ernst Lubitsch, a German director who was lured by the lights (and budget) of Hollywood. He's typically known for his sophisticated studio output in the 1940s, but he also made significant contributions to the early sound cinema, especially the genre of the musical. Four of those musicals are released here, and they're worth checking out.
Facts of the Case
This Eclipse release presents four movies on four discs:
• The Love Parade tells the story of Count Alfred Renard (Maurice Chevalier, Love Me Tonight), a notorious philanderer and military attaché living in Paris. When news of his exploits reaches the ambassador, he is recalled to his native land, Sylvania, for an audience with the queen (Jeanette MacDonald, Love Me Tonight). They fall passionately in love, and decide to marry. According to the rules of Sylvania, Alfred will not be king, but prince consort, with no governmental responsibilities or privileges. Alfred must navigate his suddenly sedentary lifestyle while maintaining the affection of the queen.
• In Monte Carlo, the Countess Mara (Jeanette MacDonald) leaves her groom, Duke Otto (Claud Allister, Czar of Broadway), at the alter to head for the titular city. Once there, she loses her limited funds at the roulette wheel, but finds an admirer in Count Rudolph (Jack Buchanan, Brewster's Millions). He poses as a common hairdresser to be closer to her, but can a countess really fall for a hairdresser when her betrothed is a rich and forgiving duke?
• Maurice Chevalier returns to play The Smiling Lieutenant, Niki, who makes the mistake of smiling at his girlfriend Franzi (Claudette Colbert, It Happened One Night) while on duty. His smile and wink are misconstrued as an amorous advance by visiting Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins, The Heiress). Niki must forsake his love and, by order of the Emperor, marry the princess. But when Franzi shows up in Niki's new home, things begin to get out of control.
• One Hour With You reunites Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier as a happily married couple who have trouble once her best friend Mitzi (Genevieve Tobin, Goodbye Again) appears. Mitzi can't help but flirt with Maurice Chevalier's Andre, and he does his best not to respond. The bounds of marriage and propriety are tested in this comedic meditation on fidelity.
Arguably, The Jazz Singer started it off, giving the American public a taste for sound films, and a taste for musicals. There was a huge boom in musical productions around the Depression, and they grew increasingly sophisticated in choreography and orchestration, giving rise to such auteurs as Busby Berkeley. Ernst Lubitsch was another pioneer of the early sound film, and contributed the first narrative musical to cinematic history, The Love Parade. Along with the other three films in this set, we can now trace the development of the movie musical and the personal style of Ernst Lubitsch.
With the visual opportunities for style limited by the primitive recording capabilities of the day, The Love Parade depends primarily on its performers to carry the film. They deliver with striking ease. Maurice Chevalier plays a slightly exotic charmer with exquisite comic timing. He takes the "nudge, nudge, wink, wink" form of humor to new heights. Jeanette MacDonald is equally impressive as Queen Louise. She simultaneously projects competence and vulnerability, as well as an acid tongue. Their interactions are the highlight of this set.
The plot is surprisingly progressive, even by today's standards. The film seems to be saying that the division of labor is unfair to both parties: being the monarch (or typical breadwinner) is difficult, but so is being the stay-at-home spouse. What sets The Love Parade apart from other films that have tackled this subject is that it refuses to say that men or women are naturally better at either role. Instead, both roles are recognized as difficult, even if the film capitulates in the end to stereotypical positions. But even if you don't dig that deeply, the witty dialogue is satisfying, and it's fun to watch both stars squirm as they deal with the fallout of their love.
Another surprising aspect to the production (and indeed, all the films in this set) is how risqué it seems for the period. The film was made before the Hays Code was in effect, and it shows. In the first five minutes we see adultery, faux suicide, and a woman's bare legs. In a later scene, the queen relates a dream while in a bubble bath. These aren't scandalous scenes for us, but for those that imagine a conservative and idyllic past, this film will burst a few bubbles.
Monte Carlo was produced in the wake of the success of The Love Parade, and what a difference a year makes. Here we have a moving camera, rhythmic montage, and greater freedom in set design engendered by technical ingenuity, all of which lay the groundwork for the future of musicals. Sadly, that technical innovation doesn't support as interesting a story this time out. I couldn't help but think as the movie played out that more comedy could be generated by a count posing as a hairdresser. Instead, the film limps along, providing scenes of the protagonists falling in love, while the bumbling Otto attempts to woo the countess with money and security. It just doesn't seem as fresh as The Love Parade.
Part of the downfall of Monte Carlo surely resides in its stars. Buchanan, as Count Rudolph, is "a somewhat less convincing foil for Jeanette MacDonald" in the words of the liner notes, and I couldn't agree more. If the count were a minor character, he would be perfectly cast, but he can't carry the film on his shoulders. Claud Allister is in a similar position. He is fine as Duke Otto, but his character is not given enough to do, so his talent seems wasted. The liner notes also make clear that MacDonald gets to shine all the brighter because of the absence of strong male stars, and on that I also concur. She's not given much to do other than look pretty and be rich and haughty, but she does it well, maintaining sympathy even as she rejects her lover for being a hairdresser.
The Smiling Lieutenant shows definite improvement in the story department. The main plot is humorous, and the gentle send-ups of marriage, love, and royalty are amusing. There seem to be fewer songs this time out, but music is a constant backdrop, as Lubitsch mixes traditional musical tunes with the waltzes of Vienna. With music relegated primarily to the background, the plot is carried mostly in dialogue and visuals, both of which sparkle. Numerous puns and double entendres abound, delivered exquisitely by the cast. Lubistch is also unafraid of letting his visuals do the talking, with several scenes that carry the plot forward featuring no spoken lines at all.
Despite relying more heavily on his visual sense, Lubitsch gathered a top-notch cast to create his bubbly comedy. Maurice Chevalier is in fine form, bringing a breezy but sincere tone to the poor Lieutenant Niki. Claudette Colbert is magnetic as Niki's dark-haired lover, and she holds her own wonderfully against Chevalier. In the thankless role of the prim Princess Anna, Miriam Hopkins manages to be charmingly stuffy.
One Hour With You plays more like French farce than typical musical, and the trend away from plot-driving songs started in The Smiling Lieutenant continues here. Songs are accents, providing "moments" that Lubitsch can combine with his farce to give the audience breathing room. We can almost see the form of the musical growing too tight for the increasingly sophisticated ideas Lubitsch would like to explore. Here, he lampoons the fiction of the happy couple, as layers of suspicion and fact slowly (and comically) destroy a relationship. Each character simultaneously wants to appear free from blame while also pointing the finger at other less-faithful characters, and the film becomes a race to uncover the truth. The truth might just be that a little infidelity can make a relationship stronger.
Just as in The Love Parade, Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier play off each other brilliantly. They are, however, almost outshined by a fantastic supporting cast. Genevieve Tobin as Mitzi combines innocence and flirtatiousness into a convincing package, making Chevalier's inability to resist her absolutely convincing. Charlie Ruggles, as Adolph, plays the love-sick puppy with ease, eliciting sympathy without being particularly likeable. Although not as interesting as The Smiling Lieutenant or The Love Parade, One Hour With You is a lighthearted film, and well worth watching.
When the Eclipse series was announced, the press release made it clear that viewers should not expect the typical Criterion treatment, with fully restored prints and borderline perfect audio. Perhaps my expectations were lowered too much, because all four of these movies look better than I would have expected. The black-and-white video is far from flawless, with occasional flicker, grain, and out-of-focus scenes, but darned if it wasn't better than many films I've seen from that era. Considering their age, it would be difficult to expect more. The audio is likewise marred with various problems, distortion and hiss chief among them. The higher frequency sounds, like soprano vocals, are often indecipherable, but overall the dialogue and music come through clearly despite the limitations of the sources.
These films have none of the traditional Criterion extras, no commentaries or documentaries. However, each film has a fairly extensive essay in its case. Although only a page long, each essay describes production details and the place of the film in Lubitsch's life and cinema's history. Although they are the only extras, they are well-written and informative, and give just enough info to satisfy the casual fan while providing a starting point for further research for those who want to know more.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Musicals—especially those from the early sound era—are not to everyone's taste. Those who are averse to black-and-white films, non-naturalistic acting, or imperfect audiovisual quality will want to avoid these films.
These four films from Ernst Lubitsch present an important part of the development of the musical as a powerhouse cinematic genre. They also effectively document cinema before the era of self-censorship that began with the enforcement of the Hays Code. While early sound films might not be for everyone, these films are more than historical curiosities, and should be enjoyed as witty comedies rather than museum pieces. The audiovisual aspects of the release are not great, but considering the age of the sources, forgivable. The lack of extras would be a problem, but the low asking price ($50 retail for four films) makes this release easy to recommend on its technical merits.
With jazz piano:
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