Sunday, February 3, 2008


The Girl: All right. Give me a letter of introduction to Lubitsch.
Sullivan: I might be able to do that, too. Who's Lubitsch?

Who is Lubitsch, indeed!

The well-known Sullivan's Travels exchange between Veronica Lake's wannabe actress and Joel McCrea's disenchanted film director was a friendly dig at pioneering director and producer Ernst Lubitsch. The man behind Sullivan's, Preston Sturges, knew Lubitsch, and like all of Hollywood, tipped his hat to the German transplant, who was so facile with a film camera that admirers had to invent terminology to honor him: the Lubitsch touch.

Though Lubitsch honed his skills in the silent era, his greatest success and true innovation came with the advent of sound. Starting in 1929, the director began a relationship with Paramount and helmed his first talkie under their banner. Four of his first five sound films were musicals, and those four have now been brought to DVD by Criterion as the eighth entry in their no-frills Eclipse line. Lubitsch Musicals is a splendid collection, displaying the sparkle and charm of early motion pictures while also showing the remarkable filmmaker's deftness with storytelling. There is never an ounce of fat in a Lubitsch comedy; rather, image and sound work together in a well-choreographed dance that entertains without ever alerting the audience to its economy. If a film is merely a collection of individual frames placed end to end, Ernst Lubitsch knew the best way to get from one point to the other, arranging those frames with confidence and an innate understanding of what made a story work.

The lead feature in Lubitsch Musicals has the double distinction of being not only the director's first sound picture, but the first proper movie musical, as well. Prior to The Love Parade, Hollywood movies had songs, but either they completely stopped the show, a la Al Jolson vehicles, or they were just collections of performances billed as showcases and revues. The Love Parade took a regular screenplay and inserted songs into the narrative in order to advance the story in a special way, and an entire genre was born.

French crooner Maurice Chevalier plays Count Alfred Renard, a philandering military attaché from the fictional country of Sylvania. Renard (which is French for "fox") has been taking full advantage of his assignment in Paris by taking full advantage of the Parisian ladies. After crossing the line with the Sylvanian ambassador's wife, Renard is sent back to his own country, where he must meet with his Queen in order to try to secure his position and avoid punishment.

It just so happens that Queen Louise (Jeanette MacDonald in her first film role) is without a husband, a prickly subject amongst her political counsel. The candidates for the job are either unacceptable to her or unaccepting of the limited duties that come with it. Reading the account of Renard's French escapades, the Queen finds herself flush with, shall we say, emotion, and so she decides to romance the Count and make him her husband. Not her king, mind you, but the "prince consort," a term that was likely chosen for its many suggestive meanings. In fact, since The Love Parade predates any interfering censorship boards, this early film is full of ribald innuendos. One of the most memorable scenes is a piece of vaudevillian shtick about a Frenchman and a farmer's daughter.

Beyond its naughty dialogue, though, Lubitsch's film, written by Ernest Vajda and Guy Bolton from a play by Leon Xanrof and Jules Chancel, is also rather subversive in other ways. Once the Count and the Queen are married, Renard essentially loses all purpose outside of the bedroom. Though we are made aware that the Queen makes good use of him from sunset to sunrise, he is otherwise meant to stay at home, a kept man of the monarchy. In one delicious scene, an exasperated Maurice Chevalier loses his cool when his wife suggests that he would be placated by shopping for some new uniforms. Clothes as a bribe! Who'd have thunk it?

In its way, The Love Parade is a precursor to all of the Tracy and Hepburn rom-coms where spouses square off on either side of the gender divide. While modern standards may take some offense to the idea that an assertive woman will be neutralized, the great thing about the Tracy/Hepburn pairings were that you always got the sense that they were moving toward some middle ground rather than really saying the woman or the man must react one way. I get the same feeling from The Love Parade. Jeanette MacDonald's capitulation at the end is playful, and though she is perfectly willing to let her man be a man, that doesn't mean she's abdicating her crown. Likewise, when she insinuates that she will be his nocturnal plaything, he is not let out of being hers, but rather, they will play together.

In addition to gender politics, Lubitsch is also fascinated with the notion of social structures and the required roles of one's position. In a kind of upstairs/downstairs model, both the servants at the castle and the Queen's advisors act as the narrative chorus, particularly in a brilliant scene where they detail the couple's first "date" through conjecture and details peeped through windows. Playing out in parallel to the Count and the Queen are their servants Jacques (Lupino Lane) and Lulu (Lillian Roth), the Frenchman and the farmer's daughter, as it were. They have a more fiery relationship, where all the things that can't be said in polite society are aired. This includes a raised fist and a kick in the butt from Lulu, with Jacques rolling with the punches. Just like their relationship, their musical numbers are also more physical. As comic relief, they dance and perform acrobatics, as well as getting juicier songs from Victor Schertzinger and Clifford Grey. While Chevalier and MacDonald mainly stand and sing to the audience, a downside of early sound and clunky recording equipment, Lane and Roth get to move around a lot more, bringing added life to the picture.

Some of the problems with stationary camerawork are already getting ironed out in Lubitsch's follow-up a year later. Capitalizing on the success of The Love Parade, the director made Monte Carlo, once again written by Ernest Vajda (cobbled together from a couple of sources) and starring Jeanette MacDonald, who was now not only more comfortable being on screen (she made two other movies in between these), but she didn't have the forceful presence of Maurice Chevalier to contend with, giving her the space to really strut her considerable stuff. Replacing him is Jack Buchanan, a Scottish actor who is very good, but doesn't have the smarm or the hair oil of his predecessor from across the pond.

Monte Carlo has a plot and thematic concerns very similar to The Love Parade. MacDonald plays the Countess Helene Mara, a headstrong woman who ran away from her own wedding and tried to set up a new life in Monte Carlo. Short on funds, and losing what little she did have by trying to gamble it into more, she tries to maintain the pretense of her wealthy life and stay one step ahead of the bill collectors. Buchanan plays Count Rudolph Farriere, a rich man of high social standing who is immediately smitten with Helene but can't get her attention. Determined to make her his own, he wheedles her way into her life posing as her hairdresser and soon becomes her servant in all things. When Helene's jilted fiancé (Claude Allister) comes looking for his lost love, it's do-or-die time. It's either back to the financial security she fled, or love in the arms of a servant, whose lower class status dictates he could never be with a Countess. If only she knew the truth...

Right away it's easy to see a more active camera at work in Monte Carlo. The opening scene takes us through a montage of images that leads us into the wedding, revealing first the grandiosity of the affair and then the fact that it's gone off the rails. The Countess has jumped on rails of a different kind, hopping a train to Monte Carlo. MacDonald's first solo number occurs in that train car, and Lubitsch uses the movement and the sound of the machine as part of the rhythm and aural backdrop of the tune. Written by Leo Robin, Richard A. Whiting, and W. Franke Harling, the music in Monte Carlo is far more memorable than the music in The Love Parade, using multiple motifs as storytelling aids in the more familiar fashion that would become a musical staple.

The writers also concoct a wonderful play-within-a-play climax. Though the solution to the marital problems in The Love Parade hinged on a night at the opera, the on-stage goings-on didn't really play into the dramatics on screen in a literal sense; for Monte Carlo, however, the opera that Helene is going to see is "Monsieur Beaucaire" and is based on writings by Booth Tarkington and Evelyn Greenleaf. It's here that Count Rudolph decides to reveal his true identity, as the opera is a social drama that mirrors his own situation, featuring as it does a prince posing as a stylist. What sets apart Lubitsch's ending from so many others, though, is the fact that Rudolph has a very good reason to let his lady off the hook and forgive her for being so stuck-up. Prior to their rendezvous at the theatre, she had chosen to stick with him despite his lower standing, thus proving she really did love him. How cruel of her to let him dangle!

So, even though a little crawl-before-you-can-walk stiffness is still evident in these two early musicals, Ernst Lubitsch's able guidance means they still have considerable charm even when watched in a modern medium. A great double lead for the Lubitsch Musicals box are also two great leaders of a classic movie genre.

In other words, this is one fantastic letter of introduction for Ernst Lubitsch.

Readers please note, there are four movies in Lubitsch Musicals - Eclipse Series 8. The other two, The Smiling Lieutenant and One Hour With You, will be reviewed separately.

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