Monday, March 31, 2008

The Lubitsch Touch

The Wall Street Journal headlined an article on this year’s crop of Oscar nominees “Fade to Bleak,” the point being that four of the five movies were grim stories, filled with blood and gore, amplified by modern technology that lets you actually see grizzly scenes of throat-slashing and other explicitly portrayed mayhem. One of the contenders is aptly named There Will Be Blood, so you can’t say you weren’t warned. So much for the movie theater as a place to escape the hard realities of life.

Once upon a time, it was different. In the early thirties, the public’s appetite for escape via movie musicals was insatiable. Some of them were awful, but some were excellent, thanks to performers like Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette McDonald, and, from England, Jack Buchanan. On the stage, The Desert Song, The Student Prince, The New Moon, etc. were still hugely popular, so it is not surprising that the plots for many of these musicals were essentially Hollywood’s versions of European operettas. By today’s standards, they are silly stories, but then, they are no sillier than most of what’s now playing at the local Cineplex. The other night I watched, for as long as I could stand it, a recent flick called Mr. Brooks, starring Kevin Costner and William Hurt. The plot was at least as noncredible as the worst of the operettas, and there was no music to offset the stupidity.

The master of the romantic-comedy genre in the early 30s was Ernst Lubitsch, and the term “the Lubitsch touch” is still applied to the most stylish romantic comedies.

Some of the Lubitsch treasures have recently been released on DVD and are available through Netflix. I recently waded in, and I’m glad I did. Here is what I found.

The Love Parade

The first 10 minutes of this film telegraph the whimsy that is to follow. Maurice Chevalier (whose name appears above the title) is a diplomat attached to the Sylvanian embassy in Paris. (He has been there long enough to have acquired his French accent, along with a string of female companions.) As we enter the scene, we hear an argument behind closed doors. His girlfriend has found a garter, and it isn’t hers. As she and Chevalier argue about the garter, her husband enters and sizes up the situation. Disgraced, she finds a revolver, shoots herself, and falls to the floor. The grief-stricken husband takes the gun from her hand and shoots Chevalier. But Chevalier, reprising a much-practiced scene, has loaded the gun with blanks. The husband, overjoyed to find his wife unharmed, exits with her (but not before she asks Chevalier to zip up her dress).

The Sylvanian ambassador, fed up with Chevalier’s string of scandals, sends him back to Sylvania, ruled by a beautiful but lonely Queen Louise, played by Jeanette McDonald in her first movie role. The rest of the story is thoroughly predictable. Comic relief, such as it is, is provided by British vaudevillian Lupino Lane (Ida Lupino’s uncle) and, in her cutesy period, Lillian Roth. The score, by Victor Schertzinger, features one standard, “Dream Lover.” The production is amazing for 1929, and the audio and video on the DVD are not bad, considering.

My mother was a big fan of Maurice Chevalier, and it is easy to see why. His warm personality and pleasant singing voice must have been dynamite to the audiences of 1929. As a matter of fact, they were all still evident three decades later, in Gigi.

Monte Carlo

The girl is still Jeanette McDonald, but the male lead is now British song and dance man Jack Buchanan. Jeanette is a countess who runs out on her wedding to an old, dim-witted nobleman and flees to Monte Carlo, where she falls under the spell of a hairdresser named Rudolph. But we know that Rudolph is really a count who pretends to be a hairdresser in order to meet the beautiful Jeanette. She is nearly broke (though she is attended by a maid and a retinue of other servants), and a big win at the casino is her only hope. The plot unfolds as in The Love Parade. She spurns him, he spurns her, she comes to her senses, etc. The similarity with the other movie is easily explained: Lubitsch, once he found a winning formula, milked it. In The Love Parade, the climactic scene is a ballet at the royal theater, with Queen Louise and her Prince Consort in the seats of honor. In Monte Carlo, the climactic scene is an opera (a contrived “Monseur Beaucaire”) with the Countess and Rudolph attending. The score for the film (including the opera scene) was written by Richard Whiting, and it contains one standard: “Beyond the Blue Horizon.” My wife reminds me that when this song was played during WW2, the final words, “a rising sun” were replaced by “a setting sun” in a burst of Nipponophobia.

One other song is worth mention: “Always in All Ways.” It is a delightfully catchy tune, well performed by Buchanan and McDonald. And Buchanan, like Chevalier, kept rolling along, delivering a knockout performance 23 years later in one of the best musicals ever screened, The Band Wagon.

One Hour With You

If you want to find out why Maurice Chevalier was the hottest property at Paramount in the early thirties, catch this one. It is a delicious Lubitsch confection, with clever dialogue, a few good songs, and Chevalier at his comedic best, which is saying a lot. The opening is memorable: The chief of the Paris police orders his gendarmes to sweep the City’s parks of its lovers, not because he is against necking, but because the economy suffers when people are on park benches instead of spending money in nightclubs. Chevalier and McDonald are among the park bench smoochers, and they are expelled by a dutiful officer. But they are married, and they are madly in love with each other, as Chevalier tells us in one of his arch to-the-camera asides. What a setup for the bedroom farce that is to follow, when Jeanette’s best friend, the sexy Mitzi, comes to visit! The supporting cast includes Roland Young as Mitzi’s cuckolded husband and Charlie Ruggles as an old friend who has a yen for Jeanette. The writers have given them some very funny lines, and they both deliver the goods.

The music includes two songs you will recognize, if you’re old enough: the title tune and "Day After Day" (we will always be sweethearts). The music is fine, and the cast (including the lovely Genevieve Tobin as Mitzi, the blonde hypotenuse of the triangle) is first-rate. But to me the revelation was Chevalier. I knew he could put over a song, but I never knew he had such a natural talent for comedy. If you have to choose one of the Lubitsch films to watch, this should be it.

The Smiling Lieutenant

Another operetta-based musical starring Maurice Chevalier. This one, made in 1931, before the censors were at work, has a plot that is silly even by operetta standards, but it’s a lot of fun all the same. Niki (Chevalier), a lieutenant in the Austrian army, is in love with Franzi (Claudette Colbert), a violinist and the leader of a girls’ band. While on duty as an honor guard to greet the visiting king and princess of neighboring Flausenthurm, he smiles at Franzi but is thought to be making eyes at Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins) and is soon forced to marry her. Thus the triangle: the smiling Niki, Franzi the violinist, and Anna of Flausenthurm. Complications follow, and Lubitsch keeps you guessing till the end whether Niki will wind up with the blonde Anna or the brunette Franzi. The only musical number worth mentioning is “Jazz Up Your Lingerie,” notable mostly for the pianos backing up Hopkins and Colbert.

The dialogue is good. The king begins his grilling of the lieutenant by demanding that he spell Flausenthurm (he has been irritated by a missing “h” in an Austrian sign), and when Chevalier spells it correctly, the ladies in waiting swoon. (“That boy knows his alphabet.”) As I said, it’s all too silly for words, but once you accept that, it’s not bad. To audiences in the depth of the Great Depression, it must have been a wonderful tonic.

Trouble in Paradise

Trouble in Paradise is a Lubitsch romantic comedy, sans music, and it is revered by movie buffs for its sophistication and pre-Code sexiness. Debonair Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins are jewel thieves, and Kay Francis is the wealthy mark. It’s all played for laughs – not belly laughs, but laughs from naughty situations, double entendres, etc. It is like an extended Cole Porter lyric turned into a movie. Today’s directors should study it, in order to learn that a movie can be very racy without showing naked couples rolling about in the hay. In fact, without the dialogue this could be a G-rated movie. It could also have been a musical, and in fact I wish it were. I don’t know whether Marshall and company could sing, but I think the Lubitsch touch is deftest when set to music.

These movies probably will not appeal to younger audiences. They are by definition “dated,” they are of course in black and white, and the appeal lies in the dialogue, the situations, and, sometimes, the music. Almost all scenes are interiors, typically within palaces. There are no car chases, airplane crashes, or murders. But for anyone, young or old, who is interested in movies as an art form, Lubitsch 101 is a must course.