Monday, June 21, 2010

Love Me Tonight (1932)

Country: US
Director: Rouben Mamoulian

It's quiz time. Naming only one film and its director, answer all the following questions:

1. Name a director who used fast-motion, slow-motion, zooms, and split screens in a musical film. [Hint: The answer is not Richard Lester.]

2. Name a film in which all the following can be found: deep-focus photography, rooms with ceilings, extremely low and high camera placement, elaborately choreographed tracking and crane shots, and repeated shots in which the camera moves into and out of the windows of a palatial home. [Hint: The answer is not Citizen Kane.]

3. Name a film in which a well-known singing and dancing actor performs a musical number with his oversized shadow projected onto the wall behind him. [Hint: The answer is not Swing Time.]

4. Name the director of an early sound film set in France which integrated songs, sung dialogue, rhyming dialogue, natural and ambient sounds, ordinary speech, and overlapping sound. [Hint: The answer is not René Clair.]

5. Name a director who used a distinctively light, whimsical, and subtly erotic touch in a film starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. [Hint: The answer is not Ernst Lubitsch.]

As you've probably already surmised, the answer to all of the above questions is Love Me Tonight and its director, Rouben Mamoulian. The plot of the movie may be just a lighter-than-air bauble based on the mistaken identity/impersonation trope so common to the musical genre, but the cleverness with which that device is developed and the imaginative ways it is used for visual, verbal, and musical invention provide an hour and a half of non-stop enjoyment and awe. In the France that exists only in movies, a Parisian tailor named Maurice (Maurice Chevalier) follows an aristocratic client, the Viscount Gilbert (Charles Ruggles), who owes him a considerable amount of money, to the family château to collect on the debt. There he falls in love with Gilbert's cousin, an aloof widowed princess (it is strongly hinted that her marriage to a much older man was never consummated) named Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald) and for reasons too complicated to explain concisely, pretends to be an aristocrat himself as he redirects his pursuit of the money owed him to the pursuit of Jeanette.

Maurice Chevalier sizes up Jeanette MacDonald's bust

The film opens with two mind-boggling sequences which set the tone of startling originality that is maintained for the duration of the movie. The first thing we see are stock shots of early morning Paris with no sounds but the chiming of a lone church bell. Then we see a montage of Parisians beginning their day, with street sounds added one by one until the soundtrack becomes a percussive symphony of ambient sound, the rhythm of two cobblers hammering nails into the soles of boots emulating a heartbeat. Finally, on top of this intricate continuo of sound effects music is laid, and the camera moves through the open window of Maurice's room. As he dresses, he speaks the first line of dialogue in the film—"Lovely morning song of Paris, you are much too loud for me"—and immediately launches into the movie's first song, "That's the Song of Paree."

A bit later Mamoulian uses the song "Isn't It Romantic?" to unify a dazzling six and a half minute long sequence that gradually shifts the scene from Maurice's tailor shop in the morning to the country château in the evening. Chevalier begins singing the song to a customer, and the song then passes seamlessly from one person to another until it reaches Jeanette: from Maurice to the customer, to a taxi driver the customer encounters outside the shop, to a composer the driver picks up as a fare, to a group of soldiers on the train the composer transfers to, to a gypsy boy the soldiers pass while marching through the countryside, who then carries it back to the gypsy camp outside the château, and finally to Jeanette, who has come onto the terrace outside her room to take in the night air. To say that the sequence has to be seen to be fully appreciated is an understatement.

Bojangles of Montmartre?

In addition to its astounding cinematic creativity, Love Me Tonight has much else to recommend it. Chevalier has never been more charming, and it's easy to see why for a few years in the early 1930s he was such a big star in this kind of movie. Jeanette MacDonald is also at her peak—naïve but spirited, deadpan funny, and very sexy, a far cry from the image she later cultivated after moving from Paramount to MGM. As well as the ever-reliable Charlie Ruggles, the cast includes Myrna Loy as Jeanette's sex-mad young cousin and C. Aubrey Smith as the pompous family patriarch. Most unusual of all, the family includes three elderly aunts (one of whom is played by the delightful Elizabeth Patterson) who are presented at first like the three witches in Macbeth, mixing a potion and chanting a spell to summon up a Prince Charming for the sex-starved Jeanette (with the unexpected result of provoking Maurice's infatuation with her), and later like the three Fates, embroidering a needlework tapestry that directs the movie to a happy conclusion.

As a pre-Code production, Love Me Tonight is cheerfully risqué, and was apparently even more so in its original release version—about fifteen minutes longer and now lost—with things like see-through night gowns and repartee about visiting the "Virgin Springs." One of the film's biggest assets is its music score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Of all the great American songwriters of the twentieth century, I don't think anyone wrote lovelier melodies than Rodgers or wittier, better crafted lyrics than Hart. Love Me Tonight has two of their best, "Lover" (sung by MacDonald while driving a pony trap) and the lilting "Isn't It Romantic?" my own favorite Rodgers and Hart song. Paramount must have really liked "Isn't It Romantic?" because for years they used it in many other movies, often played in the background by the orchestra at a night club. Rudy Vallee sang it to Claudette Colbert in Preston Sturges's The Palm Beach Story (1942), and Billy Wilder used both it and "Lover" in Sabrina (1954).

The American musical film of the 1930s was dominated by the Astaire-Rogers movies, the working-class Warner Bros. musicals choreographed by Busby Berkeley, the Continental musical confections of Ernst Lubitsch, and in the last year of the decade by The Wizard of Oz. But to my mind the greatest American musical of this period is Love Me Tonight, and the significance of its innovations not just to musicals, but to cinema in general, cannot be overstated. As Arthur Knight put it in The Liveliest Art, compared to the musicals that preceded it, Love Me Tonight "is freer, lighter, more imaginative than ever before. Greater liberties are taken with reality, and . . . trick sound is combined with trick camera to create a world of gay illusion. . . . The experience of making such musicals provided directors with new insights into their craft which carried over into the more serious forms."


Sam Juliano said...

"But to my mind the greatest American musical of this period is Love Me Tonight, and the significance of its innovations not just to musicals, but to cinema in general, cannot be overstated."

To my mind too R.D.! It's in fact one of the greatest film musicals in the entire history of the cinema, and it's one I have championed for many years. Your numerical lead-in there is fabulous and it superlatively frames the dazzling cinematic components of Mamoulian's supreme masterpiece. Similarly, your examination of the film's brilliant Paris opening (which segues into the song "That's the Song of Paree") is a classic itself.

You and I are also on the very same page with the deliriously infectious "Isn't It Romantic?, which is absolutely the best Rodgers and Hart song, and one of the greatest songs in movie musical history, and a peerless of example of what was lost when Hart succumbed to severe drinking problems. That's not to contend, however that Rodgers didn't subsequently pair up with an even greater collaborator, Oscar Hammerstein II, in what is rightfully now considered the greatest musical duo in the history of the musical theatre, as I just again was reminded while attending Lincoln Center's glorious production of SOUTH PACIFIC last month (perhaps the iconic pair's most perfect work, arguably with THE KING AND I.)

I have always thought the person who wrote the music (as opposed to the one who wrote the lyrics) was the greater contributor, and in this sense Rodgers is the man, but your contention here is still a persuasive one as Hart's wit abd charm is a model of its kind. You are also dead-on to discuss the film's pre-code risque essence, and this contributed mightily to remarkable chemistry, and Maurice Chavalier and Jeanette MacDonald were at the absolute top of their game.

Who needs Astaire and Rogers when we have LOVE ME TONIGHT?

Just kidding of course, but I must say you have brightened up my Tuesday morning here with one of the most magnificent and creative essays I've ever read at this site or any other for that matter. It's a telling reminder to all of us how talented the proprietor here is, and how diverse the scope reaches.

I am most obliged, as I'm sure your appreciative readership are. Just think, it's Orson Welles, Richard Lester, Rene Clair, George Stevens and Ernst Lubitsch all deliciously bundled together.

Pure bliss.

Sam Juliano said...

An arrow reaches it's destination to the "Hart":

I've never met you, yet never doubt, dear;
I can't forget you, I've thought you out, dear.
I know your profile and I know the way you kiss,
just the things I miss on a night like this.
If dreams are made of imagination
I'm not afraid of my own creation.
With all my heart, my heart is here for you to take.
Why should I quake? I'm not awake.

Isn't it romantic?
Music in the night, a dream that can be heard.
Isn't it romantic?

Moving shadows write the oldest magic word.
I hear the breezes playing in the trees above
while all the world is saying you were meant for love.
Isn't it romantic
merely to be young on such a night as this?
Isn't it romantic?
Every note that's sung is like a lover's kiss.
Sweet symbols in the moonlight,
do you mean that I will fall in love per chance?
Isn't it romance?

My face is glowing, I'm energetic.
The art of sewing I found poetic.
My needle punctuates the rhythm of romance.
I don't give a stitch if I don't get rich.
A custom tailor who has no custom
is like a sailor, no one will trust 'em.
But there is magic in the music of my shears.
I shed no tears, lend me your ears.

Isn't it romantic?
Soon I will have found some girl that I adore.
Isn't it romantic?
While I sit around my love can scrub the floor.
She'll kiss me every hour or she'll get the sack
and when I take a shower she can scrub my back.
Isn't it romantic?
On a moonlight night she'll cook me onion soup.
Kiddies are romantic
and if we don't fight we soon will have a troupe.
We'll help the population,
it's a duty that we owe to dear old France.
Isn't it romance?