“…1929’s “The Love Parade” and 1930’s “Monte Carlo” are both sunk by the same torpedo: a mysterious desire to punish the powerful women at their centers. In both films, wealthy, well-born women, played by Lubitsch mainstay Jeanette MacDonald, boss around their henpecked lovers only to have the tables turned on them. Order is returned to the world with women – even queens and duchesses – made properly subservient to their husbands.
The rank odor of these films’ ideas about matrimony is only partially offset by their narrative exuberance. Maurice Chevalier, who plays the mistreated husband in “Love Parade,” breaks cinematic convention to address the audience directly, a trick he returns to with greater success in 1932’s “One Hour With You.” The French actor was Lubitsch’s ideal comic instrument, though in “Love Parade” he comes off as too smirky and goggle-eyed by half, like a Gallic Al Jolson imitator.
Still, “Love Parade” establishes the fundamental sweet-and-sour pairing of Chevalier sparring with the game-but-stiff MacDonald. Their duets encapsulate their relationship perfectly, with MacDonald’s operatic trills a distant second to Chevalier’s ordinarygentleman croak – with a side of French dressing.
“Monte Carlo” suffers from the casting of British theater actor Jack Buchanan opposite MacDonald. Chevalier was just fine without MacDonald (as proved by “The Smiling Lieutenant,” Lubitsch’s next film), but without Chevalier to balance her, MacDonald overwhelms “Monte Carlo” with her prissy officiousness. Lubitsch’s men were never overwhelmingly masculine Clark Gable types, but Buchanan takes foppishness to new extremes.
In short, “The Love Parade” and “Monte Carlo” are records of what life was like before writer Samson Raphaelson. Mostly unschooled, Lubitsch was a wizardly rewriter, but not much for creating original material. His collaboration with Raphaelson on “The Smiling Lieutenant” (co-written with Ernest Vajda) is the first of his sound films to truly click – where the ingredients of sex and romance and humor and music are baked into a delightful soufflé, without prematurely collapsing. Chevalier is a military man whose maneuvers take place primarily between the sheets. An officer in “the boudoir brigadiers,” as Max Robin’s song has it, Chevalier effortlessly romances Claudette Colbert, the bandleader of a traveling all-ladies’ group, the Viennese Swallows (Lubitsch was enamored of bawdy double entendres). Shortly after, he falls into the orbit of a clueless princess (Miriam Hopkins) who snookers him into marriage. For the first time, the music advances the plot, rather than stopping it dead in its tracks. And with Raphaelson on board, even the dialogue sounds like music: “Someday maybe we’ll play a duet,” offers Colbert; “I love chamber music,” Chevalier parries.
“One Hour With You” has a famously convoluted history, only partially cleared up by the credits, which list the film as directed by Lubitsch with assistance from George Cukor. Actually, Cukor was assigned to direct “One Hour” before Paramount executives (and Lubitsch himself) realized that he was stepping on the comedy. Lubitsch suited up and replaced Cukor on set, and the final result is one of the most Lubitsch-ean of his films, and easily the best of his early musicals. Here, even the dialogue rhymes, and the charm of the initial setup never wears off.
“One Hour” reunites Chevalier and MacDonald as a married couple still enamored of each other – they open the film making out on a park bench. Chevalier’s fidelity is challenged when he meets his wife’s best friend Mitzi (Genevieve Tobin), a flirtatious scamp who refuses to take no for an answer. “I don’t want to mix business with Mitzi,” he complains to his wife, but Chevalier is shoved into compromising situations with her until he can no longer resist.
“One Hour with You” is a surprisingly adult drama, risqué in ways that contemporary films would still be leery of, but it is melodrama with a punch line and a chorus. The sumptuous Art Deco decor echoes the cool suavity of the characters, never caught short for a retort or a snappy song. They are lovers as we would like to be – debonair, charming, passionate, and ultimately faithful, more or less.
Lubitsch makes perfection seem easy: as if it were merely a matter of the right actors saying the right lines on the right sets. “One Hour,” a neglected masterpiece in its own right, ushers Lubitsch into his golden period: The remarkable 15-year stretch includes “Ninotchka,” “The Shop Around the Corner,” “To Be or Not to Be,” and “Heaven Can Wait.” To watch a Lubitsch movie is to be ushered into a perfect world, where the drinks are cold, the clothing is perfect, the decor is timeless, and the women (and men) are gorgeous.”