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

Love in The Afternoon (1957): The Wilder Touch

220px-Love_in_the_afternoon_(1957)_-_movie_poster.jpgBilly Wilder, more than any screenwriter I’ve ever known, has a knack for voiceover narration. What other novices consider a crutch to feed us information, he uses as an asset to set tone, story, and location, while offsetting the image with the spoken word.

Take the beginning of Love in The Afternoon, for instance. The voice is unmistakable. The place too. The tone, typical Wilder. We are given a tour of the Left Bank, The Right Bank, and in the in-between, where men and women can be seen in the throes of “amour,” as it were.

The presence of Maurice Chevalier is unquestionably a nod to Wilder’s hero Ernst Lubitsch who utilized the dashing Frenchmen in many of his most successful operettas. Now, although graduating to a more mature part, he nevertheless maintains a similar persona. He is suave, charming, and still embroiled in romantic trysts, albeit on the outside looking in, literally — as a highly adept private investigator.

Already in the opening sequence, although this might be the closest Wilder ever got to his idol in content, it becomes obvious their definitive styles could not be more diametrically opposed. “The Lubitsch Touch” was very much trying to put a name to an impeccable sense of visualizing comic situations with a kind of shorthand, provided the audience is in on the joke as well. Not that Lubitsch’s work with screenwriter Samson Raphaelson lacked verbal wit or that the younger filmmaker’s oeuvre lacked visual flair. Far from it.

However, Wilder’s style is predominantly devoted to the written word, imbuing the comic situations with a bite and wittiness, which under other circumstances might be stale. The beauty is one approach is not inherently better than the other and as time has been fairly good to both men, it’s needless to pick favorites (though I do love Wilder).

John McGiver, by all accounts, is in his debut, but he’s got the flustered British husband down, fully intent on finishing off his rival who has stolen away his wife from him. He called on the services of Claude Chavasse (Chevalier), and the man’s almost too successful.

Legendary international playboy extraordinaire Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper) almost ends up shot to bits, if not for Chavasse’s own daughter. His pride and joy, Arianne (Audrey Hepburn), is currently attending a music conservatory, and her father has kept her shielded from his sordid work life. This has hardly kept her from sneaking into his files and being enraptured by the romantic trysts and fairytale romances found within his records.

The cream of the crop is Flannagan who is experienced in the ways of the world and romancing — an attractive existence she can only dream of. It tickles her fancy and so she goes to save him. It’s her good deed, to allow his life to continue as is.

One invaluable component of his seduction is the four-piece ensemble “The Gypsies” and their tune “Fascination” becomes a bit of a code word for the certain je ne sais quoi that happens between two people caught up in passion.

Billy Wilder has an equally astute ability in using music to punctuate his comedy through frenzied strings, featured in everything from Love in The Afternoon to Some Like it Hot and One, Two, Three. If those tactics don’t quite pan out, he inserts a handy bit of Americana like Mickey Mantle’s batting average.

The greatest development in this rom-com occurs when Flannagan finds himself enthralled by the peculiar girl who wound up on his balcony and saved his neck. She is so sensitive, a wisp of a girl, so different than the women he has known before. He also knows very little about her but desires to entertain her along with his other conquests.

Not to be outdone, Ariane strives to play a part worthy of his reputation. She takes on the facade of a femme fatale with rows of lovers of her own to rattle off in her dictaphone for his bemusement — completely turning the tables on him. Truthfully, she couldn’t be more in love with him, but she suspects a man of his reputation is not quick to change his womanizing ways.

Before getting to the goods, it seems necessary to mention the elephant in the room. Gary Cooper was about 56 years old when this picture came out, and Audrey Hepburn was 28. Just looking at the numbers makes one cringe a bit, and the most uncomfortable thing is how it shows up onscreen.

I do adore Audrey Hepburn. She’s so innocently sweet with the same demure eloquence and pristine diction exhibited in every one of her pictures. Crawling around in her elegant attire looking for her lost shoe is as endearing as any moment she has. It makes us appreciate her all the more. Because she is so very lovable.  And Gary Cooper is usually fine — everyone knows him as the 20th-century representation of All-American manhood — but together it does feel a bit stiff and uninspired.

Our star does his best but he was never a romantic comedy lead in the manner Cary Grant was. There you have part of his problem. Because even the two Lubitsch comedies he appeared in — Design for Living and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife — were hardly the preeminent offerings from either man.

In some cases, one plus one does not always add up sufficiently. Although it’s the greats who often transcend such equations to give us something of exponential worth. Unfortunately, Cooper plus Hepburn is fine but never enters any purely magical, uncharted territory. Like she did with Gregory Peck or maybe even Cary Grant. It’s not simply a matter of the uncomfortable age discrepancies. It has to do with out and out compatibility.

There is another major qualm too. Namely the mammoth length of the narrative seemingly dragging leaden in the middle. Because it relies on the chemistry of our leads more than any other element or supporting character, the subsequent weaknesses become all the more evident.

However, you might remember a few years after starring with Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant had one of his first non-romantic rolls playing matchmaker in Walk, Don’t Run. Maybe it’s a thankless job, but without the piece (seen also from Charles Coburn on occasion) you would not have the glue to hold the movie together. Here Maurice Chevalier swoops in lithely again to bring the story to its closure.

He puts the ball in Cooper’s court, to evoke an American sporting metaphor, giving the man his daughter is in love with the license to play with the dramatic irony. Their relationship is only resolved in the last possible moment. In the nick of time, Frank Flannagan saves his reputation — maybe he’s not a bad sort after all — though the final kiss is still a bit disconcerting. (What I wouldn’t give for Jack Lemmon right about now.)

We can concede Love in The Afternoon comes in for a final landing tying everything together along those two lines, with the Parisian passion shrouded by the Wilder malaise and yet supplied a touch of tearful sentimentality. In the end, Ariane and Frank spend a life sentence together of the best sort. If you’ve been in love you know what it’s like. You don’t need this movie to show you.

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

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

thesmiling1One would never think that one well-placed wink would change the course of an entire life or be the basis for an entire film, but on both accounts it is true. Ernst Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant represents all that is good and right about one of his films. It’s light and airy with a dash of charm and a tune in its heart. It’s light on its feet with humor and somehow maintains its self-respect, much like the man at the center of this one (Maurice Chevalier).

In fact, this pre-code musical comedy is a lot more unassuming than it has any right to be. Lieutenant Nikki von Preyn (Chevalier) falls for the talented violinist named Franzi (Claudette Colbert) and cannot contain his excitement whenever he’s around her. Except one ill-timed smile followed by a suggestive wink lands him in some hot water with the recently arrived royalty who are making a sightseeing trip around the country.

Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins) is appalled by such a public act of indecency, but she also happens to be quite culturally naive. In other words, she hasn’t been outside the palace grounds much. In other words, she’s never known many dashing gentlemen before. Wink. Wink. You get the picture.

Nikki is beside himself but vies to take the most obvious option out. Professing his love for the princess — that’s why he winked. But she outdoes him threatening her father that she would wed an American (GASP!) if she is not engaged to Nikki. So daddy is all but obliged to follow through with the whole thing.

Of course, now we have a love triangle of unrequited love, with the Lieutenant’s smile turned upside down and his beautiful beau grief-stricken. She does the only thing she can, confront her competition and have it out with her. What follows is a slap-filled sob fest and our two heroines become real chummy real quick.

thesmiling2But Lubitsch’s final twist is completely out of left field and a completely comic inversion of what’s supposed to happen — capping off his oeuvre of song, suavity, and sensuality in high fashion.

Chevalier is the quintessential French crooner and his touch of comedy is perfectly measured by both Colbert and Hopkins. Colbert is a typical glamour girl of the 1930s, while Hopkins is also pretty, but with more outlandish tendencies. She also gives a brilliant turn on the piano!

In truth, I have long tried to put a finger on just what the Lubitsch Touch is, but it seems that everyone who has ever said anything about it comes up with a different answer. It began as a PR stunt to sell his brand in Hollywood and from thenceforth it took on a life of its own. As a filmmaker and auteur, there is certainly no one quite like him in substance or style.

If I had to try and draw up my own definition of his Touch it would be something like this: His films convey sensuality in such a way that was palatable to the American audience, while simultaneously making romance something humorous. His sensibilities are such that he can be suggestive and still refined. The true irony here is that he’s in a sense winking at his audience by the end. The joke’s really on us.

4/5 Stars