Eclipse Series 8: Lubitsch Musicals

That director Ernst Lubitsch seriously dabbled in musicals should come as no surprise. He had extensive experience directing and acting in the Berlin film and theater communities, and his skills at choreographing action would seem to lend themselves to the musical form. Criterion’s eighth entry in its Eclipse series, Lubitsch Musicals, tracks a well-known but little seen period of Lubitsch’s career, from 1929 to 1932, when he made the transition to sound by directing a number of highly successful films that combined his love of Viennese operettas with his great talent for ribald romantic comedies.

They are broadly consistent with his other movies and his well-known directorial flourishes are on full display. The acting is fastidiously blocked. The camera set-ups are graceful and unobtrusive. The opening to Monte Carlo (1930), where two characters cross a palace courtyard under a line of upheld umbrellas, is a typical example of his large-scale comic charm. As critic Kenneth White is quoted as saying in Herman G. Weinberg’s The Lubitsch Touch, “In his comedies, his camera flies from playful attention to detail up to the individuals whose manners they expose, and back again”.

However the set is unique in detailing how the director makes several important contributions to musicals by applying his trademark techniques to this new form. From the opening of the first movie, The Love Parade (1929), this set puts the lie to the idea that musical numbers were initially nothing more than stage interludes, as in movies like Gold Diggers of 1933, and that it was only later that they were integrated into the story with sophistication.

Love Parade opens with womanizing ambassador Count Alfred Renard (Maurice Chevalier) being recalled to his home country due to scandal. He sings goodbye to the city (and its women) by standing on his balcony and belting “Paris, Stay the Same”. Then his valet sings likewise to the servant girls and then their dog barks the last verse to the Parisian mutts. The premise and two major characters have been established with humor and panache.

The most accomplished, and most remarked upon, musical number, then and now, is at the beginning of Monte Carlo (1930), when Countess Helene Mara (Jeanette MacDonald), fleeing her preppie fop fiancé on a train to the titular city, sings “Beyond the Blue Horizon” and the different elements of train travel are incorporated into the scene including peasant women in the countryside that serve as the chorus. The liner notes quote Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times saying, “As the train speeds on its way, the sound of the wheels, the whistle, and other noises serve as a partial accompaniment to the melody…a true touch of genius.”

Granted, Lubitsch never conceives the numbers with the consistency or emotional complexity of Vincent Minnelli, but we see that from the beginning of sound that directors were trying to figure out how to integrate music and story more meaningfully into the language of film. This incorporation of music may have come from Lubitsch’s primary interest in story. As the films progress, he seems less interested in the music as primary entertainment, instead focusing on the staging of the romantic comedy. The musical numbers are fewer and more immediately motivated by story. In One Hour With You (1932) the music is primarily used as a way for Dr. Andre Bertier (Chevalier) to address the audience as a comical aside on his inner feelings.

Lubitsch was primarily influenced by Viennese operettas and the songs are often concise and slight rather than grand and momentous. This influence is most notable and amusing in Monte Carlo when the story is commented upon and allowed to resolved itself when the characters attend an operetta with the same plot. “It’s a silly story, only possible with music. Imagine a lady falling in love with her hairdresser!”

From Love Parade

All of the movies take place in the gently satiric upper class Europe that Lubitsch was known for in his comedies, an ideal setting for the escapist musical, and a setting that would be subsequently transposed to New York for the musicals and screwball comedies of the ’30s. Their focus is usually on tiny imaginary Germanic and Slavic countries like Sylvania and Flausenthurm. They’re all the same: provincial yet dignified, full of militaristic pomp and a certain brocaded sophistication, 18th century idealized European nationalism. “It’s only in the last 700 years that they got anywhere,” huffs one character about Flausenthurm. Of course in the ’30s what reality that existed in this fantasy had been destroyed by Word War I and was being rapidly subsumed by modernity.

Maurice Chevalier is the star of the three of the four films in some of his most popular and ideal early film roles. A running joke throughout the set has his over-the-top French persona playing a romantic hero from virtually every region of Europe except France. His overly affected style–rolling eyes, forced cuteness–can get tiring, but in the frequently subversive and suggestive sexuality of Lubitsch’s pre-Code movies he finds a more complicated and amusing outlet for his coyness. He once wrote of the director, “I understood him in one twinkle. I knew what he was after.” His best performance is in the oddest film, One Hour With You, a free-wheeling ode to equal opportunity marital infidelity, performing the numbers “Oh, That Mitzi!” and “What Would You Do?”

Chevalier’s little boy charm, however, can hide a streak of cruel indifference and selfishness which, coupled with the often misogynistic underpinnings of the stories, can make for some ugly moments. The Love Parade, despite being a critical and popular success, is the worst offender, with Chevalier as the playboy ambassador who is recalled to his country, marries the queen (Jeannette MacDonald), then spends the thrown together second and third acts chafing under her power until he plays a cruel trick on her to teach her a “lesson” about the limits of female power.

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) has a similar story, this time with a Viennese soldier and Princess Anna of Flausenthurm (Miriam Hopkins). However Chevalier, according to the supplemental notes, was frustrated with playing the same character at the time of filming. He is a more diminished presence. Instead, the emotional center turns on the relationship between the princess and Chevalier’s mistress Franzi (Claudette Colbert), climaxing with the musical number “Jazz Up Your Lingerie”, where their friendship is cemented when Colbert teaches the frumpy princess how to sex it up for her man.

The decidedly pre-Hays Code sexual innuendos of these films capture a side of the musical rarely seen in classical Hollywood films, of guilt-free dalliances and blatantly carnal wordplay in the style of Cole Porter. Here Berlin burlesque meets Jazz Age Americana.

Though the heroines are often punished for trying to control men, they are not denied their sexuality, and before the resolution are allowed to celebrate independence, particularly in Monte Carlo. Marriage is viewed with a certain amount of cynicism and winked at as a superficial plot resolution. At the end of One Hour With You, the lead couple shrugs off their indiscretions since they were mutual and they still love each other anyway. As William Paul in his critical study Ernst Lubitsch’s American Comedy puts it, “The musicals that deal with courtship clearly move their characters towards a not always willing acquiescence in the status quo.”

Though their overt sexuality would be muzzled by the institution of the Code in 1934, these movies anticipated and provoked the vogue for Busby Berkeley and Fred and Ginger musicals that followed. In these later films luxury escapism would be combined with social conservatism; the European influence is expunged in favor of the populist American nationalism produced by the Depression. Paul, discussing Lubitsch’s final musical with MacDonald and Chevalier, The Merry Widow (produced by M-G-M and not included in this set) says, “With the rejection of an aggressively Gallic personality like Chevalier, there was also a rejection of the entire world of European naughtiness that Lubitsch’s American films generally invoked.”

Lubitsch’s “European naughtiness” would not be entirely rejected; his biggest successes in screwball comedy were still to come. But the European influence he brought to what would be thought of as a classically American art form have thankfully been preserved, not as a prologue to more well-known history but as stand-alone pieces of their own.

RATING 8 / 10