1932’s Love Me Tonight is one of the best comedy musicals of the 1930s, a light-as-air confection designed to show that the talkies, only four years into the new era of sound, can be as nimble as the silent movies, which could shoot anywhere there was light – background noise, whether from traffic, thousands of extras or the weather, not an issue.
Director Rouben Mamoulian lays out this stall with his opening sequence, a “Paris wakes” dawn sequence which shifts from a workman pickaxing the cobbles on a street, to a man snoring asleep against the wall, a woman sweeping her step, a shutter creaking, a baby crying, a woodworker filing, children marching to school, the sounds taking on a rhythmic quality, the camera surprisingly nimble (for something the size of a family fridge) as Mamoulian whirls through space and through the edits.
He follows up with a similarly bravura grand zoom, in through one of the windows overlooking the street and into the room where Maurice Chevalier’s tailor Maurice is getting ready for work. He’s armed with a Rodgers and Hart song, That’s the Song of Paree, which whisks us from Maurice’s home to his tailor’s shop – more fluid camerawork – Chevalier winking and mugging and flirting as he goes like the boulevardier he was.
The plot is probably a bit more complicated than it needs to be – too many intermediaries (see Fred and Ginger for how simply this can be done) – but involves Maurice the tailor being owed a vast amount of money by a viscount (Charlie Ruggles) who is known as the “best dressed man in France”. A feather in Maurice’s cap, now that he’s got the gig to dress this toff, or so he thinks. What Maurice has not understood is that this viscount never pays his bills.
When he does work it out, an indignant Maurice heads off to the family seat, and plays along when he is mistaken for a baron, the better to get his hands on the money he’s owed and to get close to a woman he’s spied on the way there, Princess Jeanette, played by Jeanette MacDonald.
This was the third pairing of MacDonald and Chevalier. He with his popular, relaxed, music hall style – often straight to camera – that’s all personality and exaggerated Frrrrannche accent, her with her semi-operatic more declamatory way of singing. They’re not actually that well suited – the flirt and the prude – and MacDonald would have to wait for Nelson Eddy before she would meet her sexless match.
But the songs are good – Isn’t It Romantic, Lover (which MacDonald sings to her horse) and Love Me Tonight among them – and the co-stars are excellent. Ruggles as the shiftless viscount, C Aubrey Smith as his lion-headed upstanding father, the Duke (Smith even gets a song to bark), Myrna Loy as the princess’s sister (I think), man-mad and funny. Charles Butterworth as the epicene aristo convinced that Maurice is just a commoner. And Elizabeth Patterson, Ethel Griffies and Blanche Friderici as three aged aunts, who Mamoulian introduces as if they were the witches from Macbeth and who are accompanied by the sound of dogs yapping as they move in a coven about the house.
The whole thing buzzes with action, the camera moving, the sound bright and clear, which was not always the case at the time, and the image deep and crisp and even, thanks to Victor Milner’s superb cinematography. Most of the jokes still work, because they rely on character traits, and the ones that don’t aren’t laboured, and the Rodgers and Hart songs actually advance the action rather than bring it to a halt – something the songwriting duo been keen on perfecting.
Watch it with that “this was 1932” in mind. It’s years ahead of its time. And of its time too. When it was re-released in the more straitlaced 1940s, around eight minutes of risqué material (underclothes, sexually dangerous remarks) was cut, and lost for ever, with Myrna Loy’s character, Countess Valentine, taking quite a hit. It’s a real shame, because this isn’t just a highly entertaining movie with stars at their peak, it’s highly innovative too. Virtuoso stuff.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023