…”Ernst Lubitsch virtually invented, in his own Teutonic-vaudeville way, the movie musical. Today, the new Criterion Eclipse set of early Lubitsch films for Paramount is not only a four-step lesson in how Hollywood was taught by Lubitsch to make a stiff and unforgiving technological handicap into a feather-light form of audio-visual confection; the four movies — “The Love Parade” (1929), “Monte Carlo” (1930), “The Smiling Lieutenant” (1931), and “One Hour With You” (1932) — are also entrancing gray heavens of impish élan, barely disguised sex talk and the toast-dry comic timing Lubitsch had already made famous back home. The goofy songs are secondary, though adorable for their antique joy, and the performers are front and center: In three out of four, Maurice Chevalier could be unctuously dopey when allowed to stage-leer, but watch him do chagrined and exasperated and you see Lubitsch’s fine-tuning at its most essential. (He is substituted rather adroitly by song-and-dance stalwart Jack Buchanan in “Monte Carlo.”)
Also in three out of four (Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins are required to replace her in “The Smiling Lieutenant”) is Lubitsch discovery Jeanette MacDonald, who’s still famous for the enervatingly pious and stuffy musicals she made in the ’30s with Nelson Eddy, but who is a discovery here, ridiculously sexy and game and saucer-eyed. Her bratty grin might’ve been the filthiest in Golden Age Hollywood. The films are variations on the Ruritanian royalty romance template (“One Hour With You” steers clear of fake peerage aristocracy, but it’s also, naturally, the most assured of the bunch), and all are, with their silk nighties and vaguely veiled innuendo, absolutely pre-Code. These were movies made not for some mythical dull-minded Depression-era innocents, but for sexually active grown-ups brimming with spunk and irony and attuned to Lubitsch’s approach, which could suggest entire unshowable scenarios with a shrug or a smirk or a raised eyebrow.