Saucy dialogue and flimsy nighties in spades
February 22, 2008
Critic Andrew Sarris defined the “Lubitsch touch” as the “counterpoint between sadness and gaiety,” to which one might add witty dialogue alongside insinuating pantomime and a view that audiences should be treated as mature enough to get subtle jokes. Director Ernst Lubitsch arrived in Hollywood in 1922 after a successful career in Germany, and in 1929 made one of the first great sound musicals, The Love Parade, with Maurice Chevalier (a star of Parisian music halls) and Jeanette MacDonald, whose background in operettas perfectly complemented Lubitsch’s fascination with the genre.
The finest Chevalier-MacDonald comedy is Rouben Mamoulian’s 1932 romp Love Me Tonight, released on DVD by Kino in 2003, but The Love Parade and three other titles in Lubitsch Musicals (from Eclipse, a subsidiary of the Criterion label) remain a treat. They were filmed before the censors clamped down on dialogue of the sort spoken here, or flimsy nighties of the sort MacDonald wears, or plots that treat infidelity and caddishness with the European offhandedness Lubitsch favoured. The plots are set in artificial kingdoms where people break into song as easily as they speak and where servants echo their employers’ love affairs and spats. Sample lyrics from a Love Parade ditty sung by Lupino Lane (aide to the military attaché played by Chevalier) and Lillian Roth (handmaiden to MacDonald’s monarch): “Squeeze me once, squeeze me twice/ Most improper, but oh it’s nice/ Let’s be common and do it again.”
In Monte Carlo (1930), MacDonald leaves a wealthy duke at the altar and takes up with disguised count Jack Buchanan in a part Chevalier would have played if he hadn’t been otherwise occupied. One influential scene uses the sound of train wheels and whistles as the rhythm for MacDonald’s song Beyond the Blue Horizon. In The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), Chevalier gravitates between free spirit Claudette Colbert and wealthy, reserved Miriam Hopkins. Both Colbert and Hopkins demanded that Lubitsch photograph only the more photogenic right side of their faces; Hopkins won. Chevalier and MacDonald reunited in One Hour With You (1932), which was to have been directed by George Cukor but was handed to Lubitsch two weeks into shooting. Cukor’s contract required him to remain on set, which he recalled in 1971 as “goddamned agony for me.”