Lubitsch Musicals Review

It may seem surprising now, at a time when the average person would likely struggle to name a single one of his films and probably have no recognition of his name at all, but Ernst Lubitsch was a big deal in the 1930’s. Hitchcock big. Spielberg big. Lubitsch was the rare director who could sell a film with his name above the title in the opening credits. His style of light, sophisticated comedies aimed at the delicate sensibilities of adults was considered a known and proven commodity. The “Lubitsch Touch,” so often referred to, yet easily misapplied as a dolloplike intangible instead of the more accurate and consuming overall featheriness that comprises each moment of the director’s best work, has become an overused shorthand for his genius. To have his entire directorial acumen, nearly unrivaled in the history of the romantic comedy genre, reduced to a “Touch” seems a little shortsighted.

By most accounts, the truth was that Lubitsch had a knack for picking stories and writers (Brackett & Wilder and Samson Raphaelson are pretty gaudy by anyone’s standard) and an acute mastering of film narrative honed by efficiently expository silents. Lubitsch’s films are often lean and pared down to perfectly-timed shots that economically advance the story while eliciting an involuntary grin from the viewer. His longest sound films, like Heaven Can Wait and Ninotchka, were more driven by their Lubitsch idiosyncrasies, and arguably to their detriment, than the trademark refined fluffiness seen in the superior (and shorter) Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living. Even earlier, though, the German-born director was essential in establishing the blueprint for the soon-to-be wildly popular musical comedy genre. Lubitsch jumped headfirst not just into sound films after chalking up an impressive run of silents in both Germany and Hollywood, but into the narrative-advancing musical (with a little sex in it).

By sex I mean breakfast, of course, and by breakfast I mean a wink, and by a wink I mean sex. Watch The Smiling Lieutenant and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Lubitsch was clearly having fun in these four films made for Paramount and collected by the Criterion Collection for their Eclipse sublabel Lubitsch Musicals set. The Smiling Lieutenant is probably the finest of the bunch for various reasons, including, but not limited to, a scene where Claudette Colbert instructs Miriam Hopkins about the power of undergarments. Indeed, undergarments are a luxury of pre-Code flexibility taken advantage of in spades by Lubitsch. Jeanette MacDonald strips down to flimsy negligees and a royal bath with pleasing frequency in the three films she appears in here. And, obviously, you won’t find a better pair of legs in the whole of Sylvania.

It’s in The Love Parade, the 1929 film that marked Lubitsch’s first experiment in sound and the painless birth of the Hollywood musical, where MacDonald magically transforms from Philadelphia shrill-voice to vamping queen of Sylvania, all while Maurice Chevalier does his best glazed ham impression. MacDonald or Chevalier appears in each film found in the Eclipse set, but they only share the screen in two. The Love Parade sees the pair as a queen and a count. He’s a womaniser and she’s looking for a husband. This winning formula will be repeated more than once, extending to Lubitsch’s 1934 MGM film The Merry Widow and Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight. Regardless, the genesis is here and, despite falling short of those two later films, Lubitsch creates a remarkable series of charming scenes bridged (but not accentuated) by easygoing musical numbers.

In a bravado move, Chevalier opens The Love Parade by immediately breaking the fourth wall and looking into the camera to speak to the audience. “She’s terribly jealous.” Lubitsch then goes playful on us and we see Chevalier’s conquest shoot herself after the husband discovers her misdeed. No blood, no mess. It’s a comedy for crying out loud. Murders and suicides are unacceptable! As we see, this is fairly common for Chevalier’s Count Renard. Just another revolver to throw into the drawer and it’s on to MacDonald’s Queen Louise. Her attempts to tame the Count are dismissed with the weak-willed acquiescence seemingly commonplace for Lubitsch’s musical women. Females of 1929 were apparently open to the idea of begging and subordination regardless of royal status. Gender politics meant little more than a woman knowing her place, a still-distressing conceit even taking into consideration the difference in mores and audience expectations.

This same devaluing of the female will pops up again in Monte Carlo, also with MacDonald, but this time joined by Jack Buchanan, the English stage performer probably best known for his turn in Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon. Buchanan is a glaringly weak counterpart to the blooming MacDonald and he’s certainly no match for the childlike brio found in Chevalier’s signature performances. As a result, Monte Carlo suffers in comparison, but it still stands nicely enough on its own despite nudge-nudge effeminate male leads all around. What Buchanan lacks in masculinity he makes up for in aristocratic displacement. Playing a count who attempts to weasel his way into the heart of MacDonald’s poverty-stricken countess by impersonating a hairdresser, Buchanan’s Rudolph is a frivolous romantic of questionable sense. You expect the ruse to lead to something else, but it never really does.

Why Rudolph or Chevalier’s Count Renard in The Love Parade or his other, similar characters act the way they do in pursuing the royal Lubitsch women is a mysterious and largely unanswerable question. When Buchanan frolics about to win over MacDonald after she’s previously rejected his peasant hairdresser routine, her character-devolving submission plays on the emotional, groveling female stereotype we’ve seen time and again. The only excuse Lubitsch has is that his male characters are hardly any less shallow than their female counterparts. Thus, time and again, we’re basically given a pair of aristocratic dimwits who deserve each other, and Lubitsch remarkably makes his audience fully invested throughout the running time in these unrelateable, fairly unlikeable characters. And instead of judgmentally dismissing the protagonists, we yearn for more.

Of course, it helps when the action is built around the charismatically incorrigible Chevalier. Ultimately, what Monte Carlo lacks is Chevalier and there’s no way around it. If you insert him in Buchanan’s place then it’s a whole different movie, and most likely a far better one. Lubitsch’s follow-up The Smiling Lieutenant made room for Chevalier and the result was an obvious improvement. Limiting the songs to only five, including bookends where Chevalier once again tweaks the fourth wall by singing directly to the camera, Lubitsch and first-time collaborator Samson Raphaelson, who’d go on to be an immeasurable influence on some of the director’s best films, gently crawl away from the musical aspect of the patented romantic comedy. The songs are replaced by narrative expediency, blinking one-liners, and scenes of beautiful silence. It’s somewhat amazing to see the progression Lubitsch makes into sound and how he finds the confidence to refreshingly remove that safety blanket in favour of returning to a more purely cinematic finish.

The wordless exchange between Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins, two women both in love with and loved by Chevalier’s title character, is assuredly stunning. It makes little sense, but it’s remarkable nonetheless. Why Chevalier feels the obligation to abandon Colbert for his bride of misunderstanding Hopkins and then why Colbert simply accepts her rejection by showing Hopkins how to please her new husband are both questions that seem difficult to reconcile. Once again, we have the female Hopkins kowtowing to the male and conforming for him instead of standing her ground. The same superficial male character we’ve seen in the earlier films also gets his way here and emerges victorious in the pivotal battle of the sexes. Happy endings hardly felt so one-sided. Again, to Lubitsch’s credit, they all seem like buffoons, and ones we enjoy watching for an hour-and-a-half. The primitive, dated dynamic of the genders nags, but never fatally. Lubitsch’s musicals and their endings now play as incorrect only so much as you take them seriously. Otherwise, you’ve got gossamer-thin entertainment with a side of sexual intrigue.

Heavy on the sexual intrigue. A good part of the Lubitsch legacy stems from his little subtle vulgarities sprinkled throughout the pre-Code films. Though not included in this set, Design for Living, with Gary Cooper and Fredric March competing separately and together for the affections of shameless tease Miriam Hopkins, is probably the apex of Lubitsch’s bawdiness. Chevalier was slyly brazen in this regard, too. The checkerboard in The Smiling Lieutenant wasn’t just a checkerboard and the kiss between Chevalier and Genevieve Tobin in One Hour with You certainly wasn’t just a kiss. Tobin’s scenes with the French actor in that film are some of the most sexually voracious I can recall from the era. You just don’t see 1930’s movie seduction that aggressive and willfully carnal from a female. If I didn’t know better, I’d think her and Chevalier…ah nevermind.

One Hour with You is little more than a single-pronged sex comedy where Chevalier and MacDonald are already happily married and Tobin tries to wedge her way between the two as MacDonald’s best friend who lusts after Chevalier. The film isn’t entirely successful and seems too thin despite only 78 minutes of running time. Aside from a few brief songs, it's less a musical than a Seusslike rhyming session. Originally to serve as producer only, with young George Cukor directing, Lubitsch stepped in when Cukor was essentially demoted as a result of his inexperience. He then retooled the film from his silent The Marriage Circle and brought back Samson Raphaelson to write the screenplay. If anyone could have made such a turbulent start work it would have been Lubitsch, but it’s not quite there. Too quaint to be interestingly naughty and too one-dimensionally focussed on the easily answerable question of whether Chevalier will sleep with Tobin to be anything else, One Hour with You feels exactly like a silent film premise that hasn’t been fully fleshed out for the sound era.

It’s also sort of feels like we came in in the middle of the picture. The key Lubitsch premise in his other musicals, including The Merry Widow later on, revolves around the man pursuing the woman, their inevitable marriage and his caddish nature she either grows to love or tames, depending on your viewpoint. But things are screwy in One Hour with You. The wedding was three years ago and there’s no royalty involved. Chevalier and MacDonald start out all smiles and happiness. Chevalier implicates the viewer into his little infidelity, but he doesn’t listen when we remind him he spent the entirety of The Love Parade going after MacDonald and he can’t just let her be with Charlie Ruggles. Are you kidding me? Charlie Ruggles? Apparently not. At least we get Jeanette MacDonald in some more slinky lingerie and a short, but great exchange where she answers his “I love you,” with “Tell it to my lawyer.”

It can’t end that way, of course. As in the other three films from the set, the woman backs down and all is forgiven. The moral is something like a night sticking it to her best friend is roughly equal to her kissing his so what were we all upset about again. Chevalier has his affair and keeps the wife. MacDonald is just happy he’s happy. Ah women, so short-sighted and moody. They’ll cool off. They always do.

Maybe it was Lubitsch fatigue, but One Hour with You seems like a weak link and I can’t help but wonder if the director was himself tired of making films, or maybe tired of making Lubitsch films, when he did it. He’d just come from the uncharacteristic war drama Broken Lullaby, which would flop at the box office, and his next two projects were the sublime Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living, with a segment for If I Had a Million sandwiched between them. That pair of features is conspicuously different from the musicals, though both are masterful in retaining the adult humour and wit at which Lubitsch excelled. It was only after leaving Paramount for MGM that the director returned for one last triumphant musical, again pairing his two signature stars Chevalier and MacDonald for 1934’s The Merry Widow. Rights issues obviously prevented Criterion from including the later film in the Eclipse box, but those who’ve seen it can testify that the two-year interim was good for everyone and all the strengths allowed by the newly-administered Hays Code from the earlier musicals are present and accounted for.

The Discs

The video quality for the four films here is varied, but never less than watchable. The Smiling Lieutenant looks highly impressive with comparatively excellent detail and modestly good contrast, while the other three have more grain and are less sharp. The Love Parade and Monte Carlo both have some dirt and vertical lines in the prints, as well as light flickering especially in the earlier film. I'd say, keeping in mind the age of the films and the reasonable price tag indicating minimal restoration work, those with high standards and common sense will not be disappointed. All the films are progressively transferred and all but The Love Parade are on single-layered discs.

Criterion included eccentrically specific aspect ratios on the back of the case, but The Love Parade, Monte Carlo, and The Smiling Lieutenant are all roughly 1.21:1, pillarboxed on the sides, and One Hour with You is listed at 1.36:1 and slightly windowboxed on all four sides (though not as much as what Criterion frequently and nonsensically do on their full frame releases). My screenshots were cropped to remove the black bars from pillarboxing and windowboxing so they're somewhat inexact proportionally.

The audio on these films is far from perfect, but any hiss or crackle never interferes with the clearly heard dialogue. There were a couple of instances where the volume unexpectedly went down, but the levels are generally satisfactory. All are presented in one-channel English mono, with optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired, white in colour.

Like the other entries in Criterion's Eclipse line, their Lubitsch Musicals set contains no extras aside from one-page liner notes on the inside of each sleeve. I still find these write-ups more interesting and informative than some of what gets passed off as supplemental material from other companies. Also consistent with the Eclipse minimalism, the discs are housed in transparent slim cases with a slipcover doing a poor job of holding it all together. A bottom to that slipcover would be appreciated.

Final Thoughts

The four films collected in the Eclipse Lubitsch Musicals box, The Love Parade, Monte Carlo, The Smiling Lieutenant, and One Hour with You, are a lot of fun and a great introduction to the effervescent sophistication found in the work of director Ernst Lubitsch. I don't think any of the four are among his most essential or best films, but together they show an inspired transition into sound and his vital influence on the Hollywood musical. Those otherwise turned off by the genre might also want to give this set a try, as there's nary a big production number or dance routine to be found. And for films close to 80 years old, the transfers look more than fine, with The Smiling Lieutenant borderline stunning.

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Last updated: 04/05/2018 11:16:53

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