The Love Parade (1929): Ernst Lubitsch’s First Talkie

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Looking over it now, The Love Parade just might be one of the finest pre-1930s musicals, capitalizing on the rising trend thanks to the success of The Jazz Singer and Broadway Melody. Whereas many of its contemporaries are mainly interesting as historical relics, this Lubitsch comedy still has some inspiration to offer, riding on its own merits alone.

The acclaimed German director’s first sound project shows no signs of a needed learning curve all but translating his command of the medium into the sound era with ease. Yes, the set-ups appear choppy due to the editing of sequences.  True, the action is often static because the camera was yet to be truly mobile. But this is also part of Lubitsch’s deceptive skill in incisively drawing our eye to whatever will give us the clearest visual cue to the jokes that he’s staging.

It’s rarely a cluttered experience though Chevalier adds to it by breaking the fourth wall, even intermittently speaking in French and English. In fact, a separate cut of the picture was made in the French-language. Also, much of the sound design was synced afterward. Both are realities of the changing times and what talkies meant for the evolution of a global industry.

But what is most striking of all is, again, Lubitsch’s impeccable handle of the visually comic because that’s something that translates from the silent days exquisitely and far from using dialogue as a mere crutch or idle chatter, in its very best applications, it’s used to punctuate the scenes with a gag.

The same goes for noises and sounds. Far from oversaturating our ears, Lubitsch almost uses them strategically giving each more import whether a whistle, a song, or erupting cannon fire. There’s a cadence in the use of noise to underscore scenes, and it feels succinct and genuinely artful.

It’s true that it’s difficult to go backward, but sometimes you wonder if filmmakers should.  Allow me to explain. The likes of Lubitsch and Hitchcock had substantial success in the modern era of filmmaking and yet they never lost their early sensibilities. It goes allow with this innate principle suggesting moviemaking was a visual medium above all else. Of course, for Hitch that meant he was the master of staging thrillers. Lubitsch will always be remembered as the king of sophisticated comedies of manners. The Love Parade is little different.

Sylvania is a country with marriage on the mind. It seems like everyone from subjects to royal courtesans are constantly obsessing over who is to be married and when. Most important of all is their Queen Louise (Jeanette MacDonald) who has yet to tie the knot. It’s very much an unfortunate circumstance for the honor of the kingdom.

However, their savior just might come in the form of Count Alfred Renard who resides as the military attache in the Sylvanian embassy in France. But he also happens to be quite the lady’s man. It is true that the somehow deeply-rooted stereotype of Frenchmen as witty, suave romantics must at least, cinematically, start with Maurice Chevalier, before making its way through Charles Boyer and later generations.

He and the Queen gladly trade repartee in the winking song “Anything to Please the Queen” and the comic conundrum proceeds from there. He is sent before her to be reprimanded for his indiscretions, and she finds she rather likes him.

Their first dinner together carries the rapt attention of many invested onlookers from all walks of life and any number of perches, from ladies in waiting to cabinet members, and then lowly servants played uproariously by Lupino Lane and the ill-fated Lillian Roth.

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However, an onslaught of bad luck comes in full force on the wedding day including whistling, mirrors, and the piece de resistance: a cross-eyed man. Chevalier shudders at the thought until his worst nightmares come true in the form of a palace guard (Ben Turpin). The vows are spoken with a twist as the minister confirms, “I pronounce you wife and man.”

It’s summed up succinctly by one of the portly advisers (Eugene Pallette) as such, “Man is man and woman is woman. No man can be a wife.”

Perhaps it seems a silly bit of conflict and yet even now, it feels cutting-edge for the day because men still feel emasculated for such a thing. We are still so used to being the breadwinners and in positions of power almost a century later. Yes, it’s played for a certain comic effect, but the fact is MacDonald has the position of true influence as ruler of the kingdom, while Chevalier is brought up to her station in life by the title bestowed upon him when he becomes her husband.

Jacques and Lulu revel in the fact that they can get married without the complications of class in “Let’s Be Common,” backed by some stellar physical acrobatics verging on vaudeville-style slapstick. And still, marital discord exerts itself behind the palace doors. Renard is unhappy with his pointless life. Meanwhile, downstairs the male and female servants quarrel over whether or not “The Queen is Always Right.”

Is it a spoiler to admit that some concession is arrived at in the end, for the sake of love? I don’t think so, and Chevalier and MacDonald shine in the first of several pairings together. What we are left with is that unprecedented blending of sauciness and sophistication afforded to Lubitsch, particularly at this time in history, without the harsh enforcement of production codes for a few more years. What is more, the films arguably only became richer over time from The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) to Rouben Marmoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932) and finally The Merry Widow (1934).

3.5/5 Stars

Maytime (1937): Starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy

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The arrival of a local May Fair celebration brings back a flurry of bittersweet memories for elderly Miss Morrison (a made-up Jeanette MacDonald). She fondly recalls some past romantic dreams that we have yet to discover, which color how she sees the young lovers before her, caught in a quarrel.

There is the young woman who has aspirations for a career in the big city and the faithful boyfriend she looks to leave behind. The spat between them looks to be the end of it, but in her tranquil way, Miss Morrison finally opens up about her earlier years, setting up the flashback composing much of the picture.

Once she was living the dream as a pupil to a well-respected member of the French cultural elite Nicolai Nazaroff (John Barrymore) who was, in one sense, an exacting individual but also a highly knowledgeable mentor for her. His shrewdness quickly trains her up in the ways of the art world and soon enough an opera is being written specifically for her. Marcia is on her way to stirring success.

In truth, she’s heavily indebted to her voice teacher, grateful for everything he has done for her, and so when he proposes marriage, she excepts not out of romantic love but due to a certain amount of gratitude and platonic affection.

In another life, it’s easy to imagine that Maytime might have been a precursor to Gone with The Wind (1939). Actually, the production was meant to be shot in color initially though this was later overhauled in deference to black and white.

Still, the costuming and lavish sets carried over, and we do still have the contemporary star power of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, who did so much for the modern popularity of opera, channeling it through the medium of film. To put it another way,  what Astaire and Rogers did for dance, these two did for operettas.

Previously, I never gave much respect to MacDonald, but somehow the winsomely attractive appeal she exudes is more evident now, even as she wows with her vocal talents. However, part of this newfound geniality is also due to Eddy who makes a stirring impression from the get-go in a rousing role that bowls you over not only in song but with the outright fervor he takes to every moment on screen. It’s infectiously disarming.

I indubitably do our stars a major disservice because I’m no musical protege or deep opera aficionado. Regardless, they certainly have a pair of pipes. My word! Together there is something deeply affecting coursing through them (purportedly both onscreen and off). But now’s the time to mention Paul Allison (Eddy) who doesn’t show up until well into the picture.

The first time she sets eyes on him, following a restless jaunt to clear her mind, his passionate charisma sweeps her up along with everyone else in the local tavern she finds herself frequenting. Of course, she has her career ahead of her with rehearsals and the like, and he’s only a lowly singer, but he also happens to be a very persistent gentleman.

He inquires about her coming to lunch with him — a connection made between two Americans in a foreign land — and she reluctantly agrees, partially to assuage him. But that’s not the end of it. He finagles any way he can to possibly be close to her, and it earns him another outing.

Together they share in a May Day carnival conjuring up images of not only the Naughty Nineties but the Rococo confections of Fragonard. There’s certainly something lovely in the air, full of gaiety and amusement, underscoring the time spent between the two singers. They top off a glorious day with a lovely rendition of that beloved standard “Santa Lucia.”

It becomes increasingly obvious that Barrymore has a bit of a thankless part. He’s part tyrant, part taskmaster, and yet strangely affectionate and thoughtful at times. It’s at the crossroads of such a life as his where you find such individuals who prove complex characters indeed.

He is the lover scorned by the most benevolent woman who ever lived so it seems and still somehow, we cannot bring it within ourselves to hate him. Because he hardly did anything wrong and yet he is getting the short end of the stick. His reactions are understandable if not completely prudent.

It’s a heartbreaking albeit touching sentiment that the film obliges with as we return back to the present. It almost makes you forget the somehow implicit moral of the story: It seems to be saying that, for a woman, the love of a man surpasses any aspirations of career advancement. There’s a dichotomy.

One is good and the other inevitably leads to tragedy. But why get caught up in that? Maytime has some lovely moments of genuine repute. MacDonald and Eddy were a big deal during the 1930s for reasons made obvious herein. Song and romance were rarely this passionately elegant, and they make it continually rapturous, even as it ultimately turns tragic. One could wager that it, in some ways, mirrored life.

3.5/5 Stars

San Francisco (1936)

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There was a time when San Francisco was synonymous with the earthquake. Before Rice-A-Roni, The Golden Gate, Bullitt, or heaven forbid, The Giants. For me, it’s hardly a major spoiler to say this film revolves around this tragic date back in 1906 (a strikingly recent 30 years before the film came out).

What the film does for most of its runtime is stack the bricks of the foundation while developing some kind of connection to the material through the world of that age. Because for destruction to mean anything there must first be context.

Clark Gable is Blackie (a name he also carried in Manhattan Melodrama), a man who runs a club in the dubious Barbary Coast sector of the city. It’s not a ritzy joint by any means but due to his outspoken nature, he’s a beloved pillar of society — especially when the society is a difficult place to live in.

Similar to the earlier film, it’s about people on the opposite side of the railroad tracks at least when their vocational calling is concerned. You see, Blackie can at best be called a saloon keeper moonlighting as a gambler and his best bud from childhood just happens to be a priest — Father Mullins (Spencer Tracy) — who runs the local parish.

An up-and-coming Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) is hired on to sing San Francisco honky-tonk by Blackie because she needs work bad. Despite the prominence of the male actors, this was actually meant to be a vehicle for MacDonald and though she is no doubt vocally powerful, she’s not my favorite, blasphemous as it might be. Clark Gable didn’t like her much in real life for some reason.

Their relationship within the film proves to be a complicated one because she is a preacher’s daughter and her style of singing cannot find its true audience in Blackie’s place. She has the training of an opera singer who is far above the trash that’s she’s expected to peddle. But she is loyal to him and the favor he has shown her. She becomes a fan favorite.

That doesn’t make the tantalizing glow of the opera any less seductive nor her relationship with the man who made her any less difficult. Father Mullin tries to reform his good friend and he sees Mary as the perfect figure to help him in his crusade and yet in the same instance, he wants her to get away from Blackie’s influence. There are some happy times dancing in the park (“Would You”) but ultimately it seems she can find nothing but heartbreak in his presence.

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Meanwhile, Blackie is coaxed into making a run at the position of local supervisor to finally get some reforms including fire regulations. Father Mullins has long been trying to scrimp and save for an organ to have at the church. Without batting an eye Blackie donates one to his old pal. And that’s what makes this character fascinating given his paradoxical qualities.

He’s a tremendous force. He lives by a code and always has. But to him, religion is just a bunch of hocus-pocus making monkeys out of everyone. He’s a relativist. If that’s what you believe it’s alright by him. He won’t hold it against you for being a sap. But in his world, Blackie is number one.

Now that the context is set, the forthcoming impact is inevitable and it’s one of the great setpieces of its day. In fact, it’s a sequence so overwhelming even today and that import is placed on it because we have been so conditioned; it leaves us feeling truly shaken to the core. Yes, it’s a visual feat, to be sure, but there’s an equally crucial understanding to be had. There are consequences to this horrendously devastating disaster. It matters deeply. Not just the damage from the earthquake but the ensuing rash of fires that broke out all over town too.

I must admit I balk slightly at the film’s finale, however, as we see Blackie fall to his knees and pray to God after all the destruction he has experienced first hand. I want this transformation to be true as much as the next person but I couldn’t help thinking that this is often not how the world works or at least based on the little I know of humanity. Would a man who has no belief in a God all of a sudden drop to his heels and be made prostrate?

If anything he would seem more likely to lash out in anger. How could a loving God let this happen? How could He be silent with so much suffering? Those are the questions that ring out within me. Those are the burning thoughts that need an answer. And usually, I get them but in my own way. Still, what do I know?

Each person processes through grief and tragedy in different ways. I’ll begrudgingly give the film San Francisco its happy Hollywood ending. That might speak truth to somebody. There’s no doubt powerful emotions course through the scene based on all we have already witnessed thus far. I’ll willingly concede that. The emotional resonance in the wake of the visual horrors is unparalleled. It actually does make me feel something. That alone is something to marvel at. Not whether or not those emotions are logical or so-called correct. They very rarely are. I’m realizing now that that is okay.

Although I must admit it’s rather strange that MacDonald belts out a few rallying lines triumphantly as Clark Gable holds onto her and he just walks forward silently. Somehow it lacks camaraderie. It was as if he was implicitly saying, “You can sing but you won’t get me to do it in a million years.” However, don’t let this completely detract from the moment.

3.5/5 Stars

Love Me Tonight (1932)

lovemeto1This is unequivocally the age of sound! That’s what this film proclaims from the rooftops with its symphony of syncopation as the world of Paris awakens from its slumber. Its opening rhythms are pure ingenuity and the glorious unfoldings never cease for the rest of the cheery production.

In its efforts to tip a hat to Lubitsch, Rouben Mamoulian’s film manages to eclipse him or rather make a name for itself completely removed from the previous Maurice Chevalier musicals. In fact, Love Me Tonight feels like the obvious precursor to later classics like An American in Paris and the works of Jacques Demy. Whereas Lubitsch’s films almost always function as a comedy and social commentary, Love Me Tonight is first and foremost a musical and it rides on its melodies even while simultaneously driving forward its plot line.

When our humble but nevertheless jovial tailor winds up chasing after one of his notorious spendthrift customers to his relative’s aristocratic residence, things are in motion. Maurice is certainly out of his element, but his charm wins him many an admirer in the household including the Duke (C. Aubrey Smith) and his man-hungry niece (Myrna Loy). In fact, there are only two people who seem wary of this new arrival, the Duke’s skeptical daughter, Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald) and her feeble suitor.

Everybody else persuades The Baron — as he is called — to stay because his is such a magnetic and disarming personality. Of course, when the real news about him gets out following an incriminating wager for his honor, it dooms his romance. But every story needs a final epiphany of realization and, in this case, Princess Jeanette comes to her senses. She throws the utter absurdity of family rank and status out the window.

True, this is a love story, but while that could be the focal point there are wonderful sequences that fill all the nooks and crannies. Fine gentlemen walking around a tailor’s shop without their pants on or a trio of aunts who come right out of the pages of Hamlet. As a Pre-Code film, it certainly has a few risque moments including a Doctor’s visit and one or two mentions of a nymphomaniac — all played for comedic effect of course.

Meanwhile, tunes like “How are you?” and “Isn’t it Romantic” literally takes the country by storm manifesting themselves in all forms imaginable. “Mimi” is a particularly saucy number that pays homage to our main female heroine and it’s opening refrains boast some wonderful point of view shots of our fated lovers. Love Me Tonight winds up being an operetta of repeatedly and ingeniously inventive rhyme and melody all the way through. It also has brilliant sound design from head to toe.

Maurice Chevalier is as charming as ever, still melding his song with a magnetism that flows right into his role, ironically enough, as a character named Maurice. Although Myrna Loy might have become a bigger name arguably, this is Jeanette MacDonald’s film and she plays her part with the necessary aloofness that nevertheless gives way to amorousness. By the end, we like them both and we can’t help but be won over by their songs. For being lesser known on the generally accepted spectrum of classic musicals, this one is a gem.

4.5/5 Stars