They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? 2008 Edition - #451
Isn't it romantic,
Music in the night, a dream that can be heard?
The first "talkie" - the first sync sound motion picture with spoken dialogue - was also the first musical, Warner's The Jazz Singer from 1927. And in the first years that followed the release of that landmark, the history of sound cinema and the history of the musical picture are as one.
Most of us, I think, have an idea of what old musicals look like, based on the Warner Bros. and MGM models from the early 1930s typified by The Broadway Melody and 42nd Street: a whole lot of talking, a song or maybe two in the early going, and then a whole cluster of numbers at the end, and every piece of music is couched in the context of being an on-stage performance. The style, of course, is the style of the first five years of sound cinema: the camera doesn't move, and the actors have a noted tendency to lean into plants and wall hangings when they talk.
Like everything that everybody knows, that's mostly a pack of lies. Late in 1929, the same year that the mostly dreadful Broadway Melody became the first all-talking musical - and a primary candidate for the title of Worst Best Picture Winner of All Time - two other, less-heralded but far better musicals were also released in America, both by Paramount: Applause, the film debut of theater director Rouben Mamoulian, a typical backstage musical drama filmed with a stylistic freedom that would be mostly absent from American films for another two years; and The Love Parade, the first sound film directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Though much more conventional than Mamoulian's film in terms of how it was shot (on an obvious stage, with obvious sound problems), the first of Lubitsch's four musicals with Paramount holds a much greater role in the development of the genre than Applause, or even The Broadway Melody: it is believed to be the first film produced anywhere in the world in which people burst into song right in the middle of talking. Since Lubitsch cut his teeth on stories inspired by Viennese operettas, it should be little surprise that he'd oversee the introduction of that style into the world of cinema.
Step forward now three years: in 1932, it's not entirely fair to say that sound cinema is still an infant: though American directors still have a general fear of the technology, certain filmmakers in Europe - René Clair in France is an obvious example, as well as Fritz Lang in Germany - have done a swell job of expanding the possibilities of the medium. Certain American films have pushed the aural envelope a bit - All Quiet on the Western Front springs to mind - but even five years later, a great many projects still begin and end with "look at them TALKING!" It is at this moment in film history that we find the offspring of Lubitsch and Mamoulian: take Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald, who together or separately were the stars of all four of Lubitsch's musicals, plus a plot that is pure Ruritanian farce, and add Mamoulian's shockingly mature command of the camera, and the result is Hollywood's first musical masterpiece, Love Me Tonight.
It takes all of one scene to prove that we're in special hands: the film opens with a montage of people starting their day in a charmingly backlot-esque version of Paris, beating carpets, sweeping the porch, riding bicycles, opening shutters, and as each component is added, its corresponding sound contributes to an increasing dense soundscape that begins to form music. That's not inherently revolutionary, for Lubitsch had already done something similar with train wheels in 1930's Monte Carlo, but what I do not believe had ever been done before was to have that soundscape provide the entire musical backdrop to a song, without any orchestral instruments providing accompaniment. It's happened since, so many times that it's pointless to start listing them, but in 1932 that must have been some revolutionary stuff, and it still works tremendously well.
Into this lovely musical Paris walks Maurice Courtelin (Chevalier), a tailor, greeting all of the tradespeople on his way to work in a scene that absolutely had to have been the inspiration for the opening of Disney's Beauty and the Beast. The scenario is sketched out quickly (for really, how important is the scenario, except as a pretext?): Maurice is struggling to establish his new shop, but once the Viscount de Varèze (Charles Ruggles) picks up his order for two-dozen suits, the tailor's reputation and bank account will be secure. Except that the viscount is flat broke and on thin ice with his uncle, the Duke d'Artelines (C. Aubrey Smith), and when Maurice comes to the family's chateau to collect his bill, the viscount is obliged to pass him off as Baron Courtelin, rousing the suspicion of the duke's widowed niece, Princess Jeanette (MacDonald), and her hopeless suitor, the Count de Savignac (Charles Butterworth). As the basis for farce goes, that's not half bad, and as a comedy it's a fleet enough film: Chevalier has a charmingly hammy comic timing that serves him well (to those who only think of him as the sweet old lech from Gigi, you've seen barely a portion of his talent), and the film is enlivened by a young Myrna Loy as the horny Countess Valentine and a trio of old women (Elizabeth Patterson, Ethel Griffies, and Blanche Frederici) who serve as a chatty chorus.
Purely as a comic film, the cast's skill and Mamoulian's good sense of pacing keep everything breezy and fun, but that's not enough to make the film timeless. For that we can thank, in part, the director's boundless imagination for inventive staging. In his fourth film, Mamoulian continued his efforts to push the limits of conventional narrative filmmaking until they just about broke (I've never seen his 1931 City Streets, but in the same year he oversaw the first sound adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, perhaps the most visually exciting American film I've seen from the birth of sound until the mid-'30s), which here consists of things like his aggressive use of dissolves - the example that first comes to mind is of Maurice descending a long staircase, dissolving almost seamlessly into him stepping of the final step - second-person camera POV (a trick he perfected in Dr. Jekyll), and his perfect timing with a moving camera, anticipating Renoir's ultimate refinement of that art in Grand Illusion by a full five years. Given how close the project is to Lubitsch's Paramount musicals of the same period, it's impossible not to compare the two filmmakers: while Lubitsch was strict and disciplined, using precise frames and carefully constructed scenes, Love Me Tonight wanders from one crazy idea to the next with abandon, drunk on cinema itself, slumping against the viewer, stinking of nitrate.
It's also a phenomenal musical qua music, thanks to the great Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, whose contributions range from classics like "Mimi" ("you funny little good for nothing Mimi") to the plot-specific and extremely funny "The Son of a Gun Is Nothing But a Tailor". Mamoulian stages each song in a unique but consistent way, often using editing in a manner that has to be seen rather than described; suffice it to say that the relationship of music and cinema so often suggest by the French critics of the '20s is in full flower here.
The sequence that best encapsulates everything that makes Love Me Tonight an all-time masterpiece - the songs, the direction, the performance, the farce - comes early, and it's one of the finest moments in all of musical film. Delighted by his apparently successful audience with the viscount, Maurice starts to sing a sarcastic little romantic number to his other client, Emile (Bert Roach): "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." As Emile leaves, humming, a composer in a nearby taxi overhears the tune, and gets excited enough that he starts to brainstorm lyrics on the train. Some soldiers are on that train, and as they march through the country later, they begin singing; a band of gypsies overhears, and passes the tune along on violin, and eventually, it reaches the chateau where Jeanette is staying, and she begins to sing along with the new, much more romantic lyrics that replaced Maurice's: "Isn't it romantic? / He will hear my call and bend his royal knee. / Isn't it romantic? / He'll be strong and tall and yet a slave to me."
Everything about this sequence is extraordinary, not least that it avoids the easiest pitfall for such bits: the song has to be genuinely catchy for us to believe that everybody would actually hum it so mindlessly, and "Isn't It Romantic?" probably counts as the single most popular song that Rodgers and Hart ever wrote (though the "standard" lyrics make no appearance at all in Love Me Tonight, where the song debuted). The part that's really transcendent, though, is that it gives us everything about the love story right there: Maurice and Jeanette don't know each other, and they're separated by half of France, but they still sing a duet with each other across space and time; and it takes the beautiful MacDonald to iron out the cynical wit of the sardonic Chevalier. That, right there, is the whole stuff of romantic comedy, done in just about the most fluid, beautiful style that early sound cinema has to offer.