One of the very few directors of the Golden Age who got his name above the title, Ernst Lubitsch is renowned for his sophistication, elegance, and especially in his pre-Code work, playful bawdiness. All of these elements come into play in these early pieces, which also happen to be brilliant first flowerings of an idiom that would become a paradigm of American film: the musical. If your knowledge of Lubitsch is limited to his later sparkling comedies like To Be or Not To Be or The Shop Around the Corner (which, interestingly, was musicalized in 1949 as the film In the Good Old Summertime and then again years later for Broadway as what many think is Bock and Harnick's finest work, She Loves Me), you may be in for a bit of a shock with these four films, but a pleasant shock nonetheless.
It may surprise some to discover that Lubitsch was at the forefront of those developing the film musical. His sophisticated dialogue and frequently subversive plot elements don't seem to be the stuff that fluffy musical comedies are made of, and yet these disparate elements combine surprisingly spryly in these early talkies made between 1929-1932. While all four of the films really resemble operettas more than musicals due to their quasi-light classical musical styles and romanticized European settings, they have a particularly modern sensibility that belies their relative ages and makes them seem more au courant than a lot of the tripe being peddled by studios currently.
The Love Parade, made in 1929, was Lubitsch's first talkie, and while it is sometimes stilted and in some ways the most dated of the four features in this set (especially with regard to its sentiments vis a vis the proper roles of men and women), it has its share of great Lubitschian moments, most of course spun around that eternal war between the sexes. The film follows the exploits of a lothario diplomat Count portrayed by a charming Maurice Chevalier who returns, after some disastrous affairs in Paris, to his homeland of Sylvania, where he quickly falls in love with his Queen, played by Jeanette MacDonald in her first film role. The Love Parade is full of those throwaway witticisms for which Lubitsch is justly famous. When the Queen's ministers bemoan the fact that they can't find a husband for her since a husband would have nothing to do, they pause for a moment, consult among themselves, and then Lubitsch regular Eugene Pallette steps forward and amends (with no leer, but with his meaning perfectly clear), "Well, of course, he'd have something to do," as MacDonald looks up with a hilariously knowing coquettish, yet slyly innocent, gaze. Once the marriage is a done deal, the film moves into a fairly standard, though nimbly handled, device of Chevalier becoming increasingly disillusioned as he realizes that the Queen is the one wearing the crown (if not the pants) of the family. After some sparring and a few plot machinations, there's little doubt that a happy ending is fated.
The Love Parade's score, by early film stalwart Victor Schertzinger, is a Sigmund Romberg clone with soaring melodies for MacDonald (who perhaps because of early recording deficiencies sounds a bit strident at times and is difficult to decipher, especially in her stratospheric sections) and clever patter songs for Chevalier. Do I dare say that perhaps none other than Stephen Sondheim may have seen this film at one time and gotten his inspiration for "Someone is Waiting" from his musical Company from the sweet duet that Chevalier and MacDonald sing where he starts each phrase with a particular quality that he loves of various women and she finishes it by providing the names of those women?
While the film is hampered somewhat by the technical challenges of early talkies (let alone musicals), with largely static midrange shots, Lubitsch does manage to sneak in a couple of quick dollies and even some overhead shots to liven up the visual presentation. But the film is most truly Lubitschian in the sparkling interplay between MacDonald and Chevalier (despite Chevalier's broadness, which he frequently plays directly to the "audience," breaking the filmic fourth wall), with its inherent sweetness never really tarnished by the frequent double entendres and slightly racy occasional subject matter.
Overall Grade: 3.0
1930's Monte Carlo is apt, like The Love Parade, to raise the ire of ardent feminists who may find offense in the film's thesis that a strong-minded, independent woman must be "tamed" to find true happiness. That caveat aside, Monte Carlo boasts a better score than the first film (including the standard "Beyond the Blue Horizon"), a better performance by MacDonald and a somewhat less cartoonish leading man in British music hall legend Jack Buchanan. The film also shows some really amazing advances in film technique for this still nascent medium, with the aforementioned "Horizon" number a superb case in point. Instead of a relatively static presentation of MacDonald singing in her train compartment, Lubitsch realizes the filmic potential for a song about the great "out there" and wonderfully opens up the segment by intercutting beautiful traveling shots of the countryside. It's important to note the thought behind this sort of approach--while the still developing technology didn't allow for much creativity in filming the actual singers performing their material, there was nothing to stop a genius like Lubitsch from cutting away from the singer to expand the visuals, and it's just that kind of literal "outside the box" thinking that sets Lubitsch apart from some of the more mundane musical directors of the early talkie era. The fact is he does himself one better in the "Horizon" reprise capping the film, where he adds the sounds of the locomotive in synch with the song itself.
Where the film comes up a bit short is in the substandard plot, a very slight affair involving MacDonald as a runaway bride to be, escaping the foppish Claude Allister, who responds with a hilarious, if completely politically incorrect, song about beating MacDonald into submission should he find her again. She ends up in Monte Carlo, of course, where she becomes involved with Buchanan, first as foils and ultimately as lovers. There's a forced quality to a lot of the dialogue and plot machinations, including a somewhat bizarre focus on hair (which begs the question--how does MacDonald go from waist-long tresses to a bob and back). What the film lacks in subtlety and that typical Lubitsch wit, however, it makes up for in its confident visuals and MacDonald's engaging performance. Lending able support is ZaSu Pitts as her long suffering maid.
Overall Grade: 2.5
The Smiling Lieutenant, from 1931, shows the first real full flowering of what would later be termed "the Lubitsch touch." The film is full of the nonchalant, yet hilarious, dialogue that would become a trademark of Lubitsch's later films. In an early scene with Chevalier (once again not loathe to break the fourth wall, at least in the opening and closing numbers) and co-star Charlie Ruggles they attend a concert given by violinist Claudette Colbert. Ruggles, though married, has developed a crush on Colbert and has coaxed Chevalier along for safety's sake. It quickly becomes apparent that Chevalier has his own goal in mind with regard to Colbert. He tells Ruggles that Colbert resembles Ruggles' wife. Ruggles is amazed. "Imagine your wife 15 years younger, 20 pounds lighter and with her nose operated on, and you have the same woman," opines Chevalier in his charming Gallic accent.
The "smile" in this film is one from Chevalier intended for Colbert, but mistakenly thought to be an inappropriate gesture to visiting princess Miriam Hopkins. What might be easily explained away instead becomes the basis for an enjoyable love triangle farce, with Chevalier's openly hedonistic Lieutenant at its apex. Interestingly, the film presents both Colbert and Hopkins as equally likable, so that Chevalier's predicament in trying to keep both women happy seems actually fairly realistic, despite the usual operetta trappings. However, there's a slightly distasteful quality to Chevalier's prevarications as he attempts to have his cake and eat it too, so to speak, and therein lies the strange dichotomy of having a triangle where neither woman is presented as better or worse than the other; it's Chevalier's character Nicky himself who comes off (at least some of the time) as the villain of the piece. The operetta conventions themselves are also kidded in one of the final numbers, "Jazz Up Your Lingerie," where prim and proper Hopkins is given some loosening up lessons by Colbert.
By the time Chevalier finds himself engaged to Hopkins without ever having proposed, the comedy is about as perfect as in any later Lubitsch offering. There are indeed so many witticisms flying left and right through this film that it's difficult to single out particular gems. Hopkins' father, the King of frequently misspelled Flausenthurm (a running gag), calls his brother, the Emperor of Austria, to announce that Hopkins wants to marry Chevalier. "Hey, Emp, what's up?" he asks. Later, when a royal emissary arrives to warn Chevalier that because of his commoner status he is not allowed to propose to the Princess (something Chevalier had no intention of doing anyway since he's involved with Colbert), the convolutions of the message are reminiscent of Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First" routine, and just as hilarious. The entire film is full of such wonderful moments and makes The Smiling Lieutenant the comedic highlight of this set, aided no doubt by the relative paucity of musical interludes and Lubitsch's own hand on the screenplay.
Overall Grade: 4.0
1932's One Hour With You reunites Chevalier and MacDonald, this time as a married couple. The plot revolves around MacDonald's best friend, played by Genevieve Tobin, who, despite being married herself, has cast her frequently roving eye on Chevalier. Tobin's huband, portrayed by Roland Young, is out for a divorce and actually encourages her shenanigans to help his ultimate goal. MacDonald of course is blithely unaware of Tobin's desires and soon believes that Chevalier is actually chasing another Parisian mademoiselle. Soon Charlie Ruggles appears as an ardent admirer of MacDonald's and the ensuing misunderstandings escalate to the point where no one is quite sure of who's chasing whom.
While One Hour With You never rises to the giddy heights of The Smiling Lieutenant, it's breezy enough with some clever moments interspersed with a slightly more modern musical palette (one not particularly suited to MacDonald's florid soprano). Once again Chevalier regularly addresses the audience in various asides, and is joined by MacDonald in this device in the film's final moment. There are several great bits scattered throughout the film (notably MacDonald's final scene with Ruggles, with Chevalier egging Ruggles on to admit a nonexistent affair with MacDonald), but there's a certain unevenness in this film, especially considering the fact that it had the potential to be another knockout, that relegates it to second-tier Lubitsch.
Overall Grade: 3.0
Don't expect reference quality video in these unrestored early films. All four of the films show occasional (and at times more than occasional) damage, with scratches, abrasion and a missing frame or two, resulting in some jump-cuts in both image and soundtrack. The Love Parade has noticeable flicker and Monte Carlo has some oddly out of focus moments early in the film that make me wonder if some scenes were missing from their best print and were blown up from a 16mm version. The Smiling Lieutenant is the relative sharpest of the bunch, with One Hour With You coming in a close second. The films are all eminently watchable as long as their ages are kept in mind. It's interesting to note that three of the films were made in a day when 1.33:1 was considered widescreen. Therefore, Monte Carlo is 1.20:1, Love Parade and Lieutenant are 1.21:1, with only Hour approximating modern full frame images at 1.36:1.
All of the monaural soundtracks are in fine shape, though the recording technologies of the day sound awfully boxy to modern ears. As is mentioned above, MacDonald's high soprano work especially is quite hard to decipher.
As is the case with most of the Eclipse Series, no real extras are offered, though there are some in-depth liner notes on each of the films contained on the inserts.
With the exception of The Smiling Lieutenant, these films may well not be masterpieces, but they are of such great historical value, both in terms of Lubitsch's oeuvre and film in general, that they should be seen by anyone with even a passing interest in the development of the American film musical. Due to some of the lackluster elements in some of the films discussed above, these just miss my cutoff threshold for DVD Talk Collector Series, and are as highly recommended as they come.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet