The classic 1932 musical Love Me Tonight was released to DVD last November, yet only one other DVD site has even bothered to review it. If this title, with the same transfer and the same set of extras had been released with the words "Criterion Collection" printed on its spine, reviewers would be falling over themselves to hail its release. It's one of the best and most important DVDs of last year, and it's a real shame its coming was lost in the E-ticket DVD holiday madness. Ultimately, though, this Paramount production is the best musical of the early-talkie era and, with Warner's 42nd Street and RKO's Flying Down to Rio the most influential.
The film is set in Paris and stars Maurice Chevalier as carefree tailor Maurice Courtelin, carefree that is until titled playboy Vicomte Gilbert de Vareze (Charlie Ruggles) skips town leaving poor Maurice with 63,000 francs worth of unpaid-for suits. Determined to get his money, Maurice walks right into the palatial estate of Gilbert's uncle, the Duke d'Artelines (C. Aubrey Smith). The Duke's mansion is filled with ancient, bridge-playing relatives and servants, the only young people living there being his man-hungry niece, the Countess Valentine (Myrna Loy), and the more wistfully romantic (and recently widowed) Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald). The Count de Savignac (Charles Butterworth) has designs on the princess, but this twit is obviously no match for Maurice, whom everyone mistakes for a visiting Baron, and who is determined to teach the princess "style, charm, and love."
Love Me Tonight is a real charmer itself, on many levels. Of course, there's the great Rodgers & Hart score (which includes "Isn't It Romantic?"), the opulent sets, a terrific cast, and a very funny script which not only has several great gags but, for the time, an unusual awareness of its own ridiculousness. However, the picture's great asset is the aggressively cinematic direction of Rouben Mamoulian. At a time when talkies were just beginning to move away from the static staginess that early sound technology imposed, Mamoulian takes the possibilities of cinema and stretches it to genuinely startling extremes. The picture's everything including-the-kitchen-sink approach reminds one of Abel Gance's Napoleon or Welles' Citizen Kane. Mamoulian uses slow motion, fast-motion, multiple exposures, Griffith-like inter-cutting, and always to good effect. Perhaps most jolting, the film actually has zoom lens shots, a good three decades before their use became commonplace.
Video & Audio
Given the film's age and the years of neglect Universal had once given its early Paramount titles, Kino's full frame presentation of Love Me Tonight is quite good, with solid blacks and a sharp image. It looks like some sort of composite negative was used, judging by the sudden (though very brief) shift in quality from reel to reel, particularly at the 34:21 and 1:09:35 marks. There is a question about the film's running time. Most sources report the picture was first released at 104 minutes while, for reissue, the original negative was cut to 98 minutes. The running time of the DVD clocks in at just under 89 minutes. The sound is okay, though given the technology's limitations, Chevalier's thick accent, and the clever lyrics (e.g., "You would sell your wife or daughter, for just one Latin Quarter"), the DVD would have benefited from optional English subtitles.
Kino has packed Love Me Tonight with a Criterion-level set of extras. First is a detailed, entertaining and informative audio commentary track with Miles Kreuger, a friend of the late director and possibly the world authority on early musicals. Next are two, two-minute excerpts from Hollywood on Parade a series of one-reel musical shorts: Maurice Chevalier Sings "Louise" and Jeanette MacDonald Sings "Love Me Tonight". Both seem to date from about the time Love Me Tonight was released.
Next is what appears to be an original (not reissue) Trailer, also in good condition. That is followed by a well-chosen and remarkably clear , which reveals that some musical numbers were filmed to playback, while others were shot "live," with the orchestra just off-camera. Next is a highly informative set of Production Documents which contain items like the picture's budget report (total cost: $995,000, a lot of money at a time then most films cost less than $250,000), shooting schedule, and cue sheets. Also included are enlightening Screenplay Excerpts of Deleted Scenes and Censorship Notes.
Fans of Love Me Tonight's stars, of Rodgers & Hart and early talkie musicals need no prodding to seek out this title. Its great old songs are finding new audiences, and even film fans who normally don't like musicals will enjoy Love Me Tonight for its enormous wit. Modern audiences delighted by the cinematic razzmatazz of Moulin Rouge! (2001) but who expect this to be technologically antiquated will be happily surprised to learn that director Mamoulian was using many of the same devices almost 70 years before.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.