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 guessed, 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.
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.
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 Warner Bros. backstage 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."
This post received the 2010 CiMBA Award for Best Film Review (Comedy or Musical).