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LUBITSCH MUSICALS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Claudette Colbert, Miriam Hopkins, Zasu Pitts
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Audio: English
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, full-frame
Studio: Criterion
Features: None
Length: 368 minutes
Release Date: February 12, 2008

Don’t you get tired of saying NO all day long?

Films ***

Early musicals from the dawn of the sound era were frequently unmemorable.  While briefly popular, mostly for showing off the new sound technology of the day, in reality these early musicals featured primitive sound recording, rigid staging, unimaginative camerawork, and extraneous songs which did nothing to advance the plot.  Many of these early musicals have been forgotten today and justifiably so.  Not until the arrival of Busby Berkeley (with his innovative choreography) and Fred Astaire (with his graceful dancing moves) would the movie musical truly emerge as a viable film genre.  This is not to say, however, that all early musicals were laughably bad.  Some, particularly the films of Ernst Lubitsch, were quite good and remain entertaining even today. 

The talented German director Lubitsch, in the 1920’s, had established himself as one of Hollywood’s top directors, best known for his witty comedies.  With the advent of sound cinema, Lubitsch eagerly met the challenges of the new technology by integrating his touch for comedy with the gaiety and fun of the Viennese operettas he had enjoyed in Europe before emigrating to America.  As a result, Lubitsch’s musicals would pioneer the fledgling genre - they offered songs that actually advanced the story, fluid camerawork, and ticklishly delightful variations on that ages-old dilemma, the battle of the sexes.

Jeanette MacDonald, then a newcomer to cinema, would be Lubitsch’s muse in his musicals.  Best remembered today for her RKO musicals with Nelson Eddy, MacDonald in her Paramount films for Lubitsch was partnered opposite French warbler Maurice Chevalier, that ever-flamboyant Lothario wooed away from the Folies Bergère for the Hollywood spotlight.

These Paramount films can be seen in the Eclipse Series 8 box set from Criterion, which offers four Lubitsch musicals starring Jeanette MacDonald, Maurice Chevalier, or both of them together.  Viewers will immediately notice that this films are surprisingly uninhibited in their sexual attitudes.  Suggestive overtones and double entendres abound.  Maurice Chevalier can be counted upon to woo the ladies with unabashed relish while chanteuse Jeanette MacDonald, in a recurring theme throughout these films, regularly frolics about daintily-clad in lingerie, even when singing.  While none of this merits anything beyond a PG rating today, it must have been quite titillating in its day.  It is a shame that the Hays censor board would soon do away with such imagery in all Hollywood films only a couple of years later.

But happily, these pre-Code films have survived the passage of time and can be enjoyed as much for their witty music as for their coy humor, courtesy of the famous Lubitsch Touch!  Read on below for quick synopses of these delightful Lubitsch musical comedies!

1) The Love Parade (1929, 109 min.)

Anything to please the Queen!

Lubitsch's first movie musical, The Love Parade, was also his first foray into the “talkies.”  Musicals prior to The Love Parade had generally treated the new genre like revues or follies with their processions of incidental song performances.  The Love Parade was the first film musical to actually integrate its songs into the story.  The static camera of previous musicals was also now untethered from its rigid stance and allowed to roam more freely.  Such innovative techniques, along with Lubitsch’s confident direction and the presence of emerging stars Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier, made The Love Parade a solid hit for Paramount.

In this musical, Jeanette MacDonald is Louise, the lovely but unmarried Queen of Sylvania.  Maurice Chevalier is the Sylvanian embassy’s military attaché, Count Alfred Renard, who has recently been sent packing home from Paris after engaging in one too many indiscreet liaisons.  But who can blame him, for what else is a dashing young soldier to do in Paris, especially when surrounded by so many lovely ladies?

Alfred is called for an audience before the Queen to account for his philandering ways and to face a severe reprimand and potential sentencing.  But, Queen Louise is still a woman and just as susceptible to Alfred’s seductive charms as any other woman.  Before long, this cad of a Count is the Queen’s new Prince Consort!  What a life.  Yet, how long before Alfred tires of an emasculating existence as a royal boy-toy at the Queen’s every beck-and-call?  The Love Parade soon becomes a battle of the sexes, as Queen and Prince Consort struggle to determine who really wears the pants in this royal relationship!

Among the film’s highlights are “Let’s be Common,” a vaudeville song-and-dance with pratfalls and physical humor galore.  And watch for a cameo appearance by one of the great silent screen comedians, the cross-eyed Ben Turpin!

2) Monte Carlo (1930, 90 min.)

Let me rise to paradise!

On a beauteous rainy day, to the tune of thunder clasps and pittery-pattery rain, the Countess Helene Mara (Jeanette MacDonald) has just ditched her wedding gown and run out on her wedding day.  Again.  For the third time.  From the same sappy gentleman.  But, this hapless groom, Count Otto von Liebenheim (Claude Allister) is nothing if not persistent, and he vows to bring Helene back to the altar.  She’ll love him and like it!

Meanwhile, wearing nothing but her lingerie, Helene hops aboard a train to the gambling mecca of Monte Carlo.  She may be penniless now, but a woman’s charm goes a long way, and with so many rich, potential suitors in that chic cosmopolitan, Helene hopes to soon dispense with any concerns regarding her financial well-being...so to speak.

Among Helene’s eventual admirers is the Count Rudolph (Jack Buchanan), who weasels his way into her employ as hairdresser.  His raunchy tune “Trimmin’ the Women” is so chockablock with double-entendres it must be heard to be believed!  Soon, Rudolph replaces Helene’s chauffeur.  And then, her cook.  With some luck, he might even replace the maid, too!  What one will do to please a woman, and in this racy take on the Tarkington novel Monsieur Beaucaire, just about anything may be possible!  But what will Count Rudolph do when Count Otto shows up?  Ah, what goes on in Monte Carlo stays in Monte Carlo!

3) The Smiling Lieutenant (1931, 89 min.)

Toujours l’amour in the army!

Girls who start with breakfast don’t usually stay for supper.  But just try telling that to Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins in this sexy musical comedy!

One might ask, does Claudette Colbert actually sing?  Apparently yes!  And in The Smiling Lieutenant, this 1930’s sex symbol makes a rare musical appearance opposite Maurice Chevalier.  Colbert portrays Franzi, a violinist for an all-girls’ orchestra for whom Chevalier’s Niki, a Viennese lieutenant, has fallen head over heels.  However, when the visiting Princess Anna of Flausenthurm (Miriam Hopkins) catches a wayward smile and wink from Niki meant for Franzi, she mistakenly presumes the soldier has the hots for her instead.  Royal etiquette now demands that the lieutenant account for his impropriety and marry the princess, and what follows is a coy love triangle as the flirtatious lieutenant finds himself caught between two women - his girl Franzi or a royal princess Anna.  What's a simple soldier to do?

This musical of manners and misunderstandings illustrates Lubitsch's gift for comic direction.  Watching a trapped Maurice Chevalier squirm his way through the good graces of two lovely and equally determined women is wickedly good fun!

4) One Hour with You (1932, 78min.)

Unless you’re well-mated, this business of marriage is much over-rated.

In yet another sexy musical comedy, Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier are Colette and the handsome doctor Andre, a happily-married couple whose home serenity is threatened by Colette's sex-crazed, former school friend, Mitzi (Genevieve Tobin).  This homewrecker first encounters Andre in a cab and soon has designs on the good-natured doctor.  She fakes an ailment to elicit a house call and later plays musical chairs at a dinner ball with the doctor.  Mitzi’s determined Machiavellian maneuvers drive Colette to suspect her husband of an illicit liaison with a mysterious woman.  Too bad Colette suspects the wrong woman!

One Hour with You is mostly Chevalier’s film.  He is his usual engagingly merry self, winking at us and acknowledging the audience in frequent asides as though we were accomplices in his amusing crimes of passion.  One Hour with You would also be Lubitsch’s final musical for Paramount.

BONUS TRIVIA:  This film’s original director was George Cukor, who was later replaced by Lubitsch.

Video **

In these films, the black & white cinematography displays a rather grainy emulsion with occasionally washed-out contrast.  The aspect ratios of these films vary from 1.20:1 to 1.36:1.  There are occasional dust specks, debris marks, and scratches but nothing out of the ordinary for films over seventy years old apiece.

Monte Carlo is blurry in a few early spots with at least one instance of a few missing frames in the middle of a song (“Always, in All Ways”).

Audio **

The primitive recording technology of the time has translated into audio that is rather shrill and pitchy at times, more so in the older films.  This may present a distraction during song performances, especially with Maurice Chevalier’s thick French accent, but English subtitles are available for anyone who cannot quite understand the words.

The last two minutes of The Love Parade features exit music over a blank screen, a mostly vanished tradition now from the bygone days of event movies in exquisite movie halls.

Features zero stars

As with other entries in the Eclipse series, the four films included in this box set are presented on separate, bare-bones discs.  There are liner notes for each film and a flimsy paper casing holding all four films together, but that is all.

Summary:

Criterion’s ongoing Eclipse series continues with this eighth installment highlighting the early musical comedies of director Ernst Lubitsch.  These light and fancy-free films, featuring such singing superstars as Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier, are not to be missed for fans of vintage Hollywood musicals.

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