BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES, WITH MUSIC

By • May 17th, 2008 •

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Co-written by Mark Talling.

This is a collection of four musicals, directed by Ernst Lubitsch. We watched these DVDs over several nights, and since both of us have some things to say about them, there will be a little give and take here. Mark’s comments will be boldface; fortunately he doesn’t have as much to say. This series is significant, mostly because it represents a part of Lubitsch’s career that is eclipsed by his other achievements. Lubitsch was already famous in Europe (although he started as actor with Max Reinhardt’s famed Deutsches Theater, he quickly moved into cinema) and in the United States for the silent movies he had made. When the movies began talking, Lubitsch was in a good position to lay the foundation for a new form, the musical comedy movie. He already had the comic touch, a love for European operetta, and a tendency to set stories about everyday human foibles in mythical, magical locations, so that the lessons wouldn’t sting so badly.

Allow me to say a few words here… These are important movies not only because they laid the foundations of the musical, but because they explore sexual politics (not to mention class relations). Hence, a male point of review is required, non? We were both asked to look this set over. So I hope you do not mind my occasional interruptions. The revolution that sound brought to the movies was on in earnest in 1929. The Broadway Melody, the first all-talkie movie, had been a huge hit for MGM and won an Oscar for Best Picture. Lubitsch wanted to do the same for his new studio, Paramount.

In THE LOVE PARADE, Count Alfred Reynard (Maurice Chevalier) is relieved of his duties as a political attaché to Paris. It seems that he gets along rather too well with French women, and their husbands don’t like it. He returns home to the (fictional) land of Sylvania, at a moment of crisis. The aristocracy is in despair of ever finding their Queen, Louise (Jeanette MacDonald), a suitable husband. You know what comes next; Count Alfred appears before the Queen to receive his official reprimand for his bad behavior abroad, and instead they fall in love. A great big blowout wedding is planned, and voila! The country has a new Prince Consort.

But is the Count ready to be the man behind the woman who wears the crown? Of course not. Louise, involved with matters of state, arranges “fun” days for her husband—rounds of tennis and bridge. He’s bored, and acts like a discontented housewife. (He says good morning to her and claims that all the important things he needs to do that day have now been completed.) The putative claim of Chevalier’s character, and of the film, is that this position is untenable because a MAN cannot be treated like a plaything. But the movie makes it clear that it’s ridiculous to expect either side of this lively, wily duo to be contentedly subservient—and extends this message to men and women in general. MacDonald’s Louise may prefer to have a husband to being a spinster, but don’t doubt that all of her royal (and therefore theatrical) training will prevent her from taking a back seat, no matter how much she wants to hang onto her man.

In addition to making a slight statement concerning sexual politics, this fluffy little fantasy also points up the similarities between politics and show business. You’ll be the smash hit of the wedding, says the manservant to the Count. You’re still the biggest draw in the kingdom, says the aide to the Queen, as she plans her evening at the opera. They discuss how many klieg lights will mark her entrance. Unfortunately, she is outfoxed when Alfred makes a late entrance to the concert hall, thereby upstaging her.
It’s all pretty bland, in spite of the knockabout comic turns of the novelty servant couple (played by former child star Lillian Roth and Ida Lupino’s uncle Lucky Lupino), who sing about how great it is to be common–as opposed to royal–lovers, while beating each other up (Roth’s character has the edge here). The sticky sweet vibrato tones of MacDonald’s soprano trilling—a style popular at the time, but now out of fashion—are rather tiresome. Chevalier, playing a self-deprecating, modest Lothario is too ‘aw shucks’ for words. The static camera work—plenty of well thought out cuts, but nothing moves–makes the occasional usage of a dollied camera jump out at you.

That gives one time to notice that the costumes must have been a designer’s fantasy, a mixture between twenties deco/nouveau and the style of the mythical land of Sylvania, which seems to be an amalgam of earlier eras. And to wonder how many of the grand sets were real creations of plaster and plywood, and how many were mattes. (The same comment about sets could be applied to all four of the films in this series, although they are not all set in Sylvania.) However, once the characters actually start playing their discontent, the movie becomes pretty lively. The comic cruelty that Alfred practices at the opera, when he shows up to preen before the adoring public, and also to announce to his Queen that he’s leaving her, is hilarious. Jeanette MacDonald as a weepy woman desperate to hold onto her last chance at matrimony is both funnier, and more touching, than the actress’s rendering of the confident, happy Queen in the earlier scenes.

And it is also a pleasure to see some of the contract players of yore, whom golden age film viewers must have watched the way theater-goers watch members of a rep company. So, he played Hamlet last week, who’s he today? I went to IMDB and looked up several of the actors who looked familiar to me from afternoons and evenings of Million Dollar Movie. They had credits as long as your arm, extending back to the dawn of film—remember, film history wasn’t three decades old when this one was made. Fog-horn voiced Eugene Pallette, here one of the court officials? I remember him well from his stints in movies, particularly as the beleaguered father in MY MAN GODFREY.

This is the most musical movie of the set, although most of the songs are operetta-esque; the great exception being “Anything for the Queen,” in which Alfred, called on the carpet by Louise, actually makes a pass at her. And she is absolutely charmed. This is also Chevalier’s best turn, and MacDonald matches him every step of the way. His Alfred is one part Peck’s Bad Boy and one part wily playboy. I think Louise underestimates him–a lot. This power couple’s antics won’t end when the credits roll.

The second movie in the series, MONTE CARLO, is the only one in this collection with a male star other than Chevalier. British and Broadway theater star Jack Buchanan plays Count Rudolph Farriere, although for much of the film Jeanette MacDonald’s character, Countess Helene Mara, believes that he is a common hairdresser. The liner notes in the Criterion jewel box say that Buchanan is “willowy and coy,” versus the “robustly sarcastic” Chevalier, and I suppose that is one way to describe his giggly presence. The story here begins on Helene’s wedding day—rather her intended wedding day. On the verge of marrying Prince Otto von Lebenheim (Claude Allister), she comes to her senses and escapes with her maid Bertha (ZaSu Pitts—you always wanted to see something with her in it, didn’t you?) on a train to Monte Carlo, there to gamble and rebuild her much diminished fortune. She meets Count Farriere, whom she mistakes for a beautician, and, smitten, he does nothing to dispel this misconception. The rest of the movie delights in the foibles that occur when two people fall in love, and one is painfully aware of class differences, while the other holds the trump card—knowing that there aren’t any. Again, MacDonald is at her best when she is most debased, tearfully tramping all over her own station when she believes she has lost her man forever.

Sets and costumes are gorgeously “deco-y” again, although since this is largely set in Monte Carlo rather than a make-believe kingdom, the glittery gowns and swell evening wear is au courant (for 1930). There’s even less choreography in this musical than there was in the first, and none of the songs are particularly memorable, except for the opening number, which takes place at the wedding. It starts out gloriously, with the sun shining and the chorus singing praises to the happy couple, until a thunderstorm hits and the groom discovers that the bride has taken a powder. He and the chorus then sing some of the movie’s best lyrics (written by Leo Robin)—the Prince claims that when thwarted he is a nasty tempered brute, and the chorus dutifully repeats, “He’s an nas. . . He’s an nas. . . He’s a nasty tempered brute.”

And regarding Claude Allister’s Duke Otto von Liebenheim. Well, he is an, uuh, nas, but also, in spite of his small role, the brightest spot in the movie. The man is the definition of supercilious. In his formal wear, he looks like a super-elongated caricature of Fred Astaire topped by an exaggerated cartoon of a horsey face, drawn by someone like George Cruikshank or Thomas Nash.

Monte Carlo has a lot going for it: two great songs: “On the Blue Horizon” and “Trimmin’ the Women”, a really comic conceit that explores class and servitude (in a way that no American director would), and a really romantic storyline. The idea of playing at being both Helene’s hairdresser and financial savior as a way to win her heart shows imagination on Farriere’s part and we want him to win her. Finally, Jeanette MacDonald’s Helene is wonderfully comic. There’s a great bit when, fearing that she’s falling for Rudy, she locks herself in, locks the key into a chest, locks the key for the chest into a drawer, and hides that key under her pillow – and then has to open the door in the morning for her maid. Only Jean Arthur could have done it better.

Film number three, THE SMILING LIEUTENANT, makes Chevalier one corner of a love triangle, with Miriam Hopkins and Claudette Colbert supplying the other two points. The Austrian Lieutenant Niki (Chevalier) falls in love with Franzi (Colbert) the violin- playing leader of an all-girl beer garden band. His feelings are reciprocated. However, while on duty Niki catches the eye of Princess Ana (Hopkins), a shy, repressed royal visiting from the (made up) country of Flausenthurm. The political relations of Austria and Flasenthurm make it necessary for Niki to marry Ana. Much of the comedy comes out of the machinations that Chevalier’s character goes through as he attempts to placate (but not violate!) his exceedingly innocent wife and hapless father-in-law King Adolf XV (the grumpily avuncular George Barbier), while continuing to see Franzi on the side. I guess the fact that this movie was made pre-Hays code, and pre-Lifetime Network, made it possible for the filmmakers to represent Niki’s two-timing activities without approbation. Best scene by far is the one where the girls finally confront each other; it’s unpredictable, silly, and fun.

This movie barely qualifies as a musical—Criterion says it has five complete songs, but fewer registered on this viewer. Colbert was certainly not the singer that MacDonald was, and yet I enjoyed her presentation of the songs more—it felt more modern, more in keeping with the character. Colbert’s face is amazingly “of the period.” All the women in these films have astonishing drawn-on eyebrows and lips, but the shape of Colbert’s large face, painted with those precise, geometric features makes her look like a dramatic Betty Boop. Maybe Maggie Gyllenhaal could pull off that look if anyone were to make her up that way; nowadays, I don’t think anyone would.

The most interesting aspect of THE SMILING LIEUTENANT is the liner notes on the inside of the jewel box. I was intermittently irked by Chevalier’s persona in many of the scenes in this collection. I felt like his happy-go-lucky Tom-Catty charm was ratcheted up too high to be believable. Apparently by the time THE SMILING LIEUTENANT came along, Chevalier was pretty sick of himself. The liner notes say: “. . . the actor was increasingly finding his trademark performance style to be mechanical and insufferable. Already a solemn on-set presence (he was renowned for snapping into his bright-eyed on-screen character when ‘action’ was called), Chevalier was growing more withdrawn. . .”

Nicole is certainly right about how weird and, well, creepy, Chevalier’s persona becomes over the course of these movies. He’s a lecher before he marries and after. When Franzi gracefully withdraws, he forgets her as soon as Ana smokes a cigarette, plays a jazz riff, and shows a little leg. He’s shallow, venal, self-centered, a sociopath. You get to the point where you ask, “What do these women see in this guy, anyway?” No wonder he was getting bearish off camera.

The final film in this series, ONE HOUR WITH YOU reunites Chevalier with Jeanette MacDonald. It’s the least musical of the four films, and the most amoral story. Dr. Andre Bertier (Chevalier) and Collette Bertier are happily married Parisians. Trouble arises when Collette’s best friend from childhood pays a visit (Genevieve Toland as Mitzi) and turns out to have blossomed into a man-eating adulteress, who would love to have the Doctor for her next meal. Dr. Bertier isn’t exactly averse to being seen as a tasty morsel. There’s a dinner party, at which misunderstandings and mistaken pairings ensue, but in the end cheating’s not such a big deal if you love each other, is it?

And that really is the odd thing about these movies. There is a lot of extramarital flirtation and not much guilt if anything comes of it. After all, as Andre says, “if it was you, what would you do?” There simply aren’t any consequences for the straying husband in these movies. If any one suffers, it’s the women. And that’s probably why, as the great depression deepened, this amoral passivity became less the fodder for fantasies. It simply became both unreasonable and unpalatable: a bad combination.

The most annoying aspect of this movie is that Dr. Bertier engages in a lot of direct address to the camera, acting as the narrator of his own life. I didn’t get why, and the songs, limited as they were, were sort of obvious, also. The dramatic action didn’t demand them; they were just there, repeating what the story had already exposed. The best thing about the movie is the performance by Charles Ruggles, who plays Adolph, Dr. Bertier’s best friend, madly and unrequitedly in love with Collette. He’s got the best line, “I tell you, if I didn’t have such a splendid education, I’d yield to the animal in me,” and his odd characterization seems like a guy with Asperger’s syndrome, decades before that syndrome had been defined.

Once again, the liner notes are edifying. Lubitsch was not supposed to direct this movie. He was supposed to supervise the directing of the relative newcomer George Cukor. However, the first thing that Lubitsch did was to throw out the intended script and replace it with a re-do of an earlier script of his own. He and Chevalier were dissatisfied with Cukor’s work during the shoot, and he eventually started directing scenes himself. Before the film was released, he fought—and won—to have Cukor’s name removed.

The liner notes go on to state that audience appetite for this sort of musical—operetta, comedy of manners, European royalty—was waning and that the public would soon hunger for the works of Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, etc. It was now a given that actors could speak and sing on screen, so other aspects of the spectacle were ripe for exploration.

Lubitsch was a major figure in Hollywood throughout the Thirties. He went on to direct Design for Living (1932), Ninotchka (1939), and To Be or Not to Be (1942). But ironically he never revisited the musical comedy, a form he helped create.

This is a good package; but I was certainly more interested in it than charmed by it. There are no extras, except for the liner notes, and given the tidbits of back story that are revealed in those, I think it would have been a thrill to have a photo album, a sketch archive, a biopic, some sort of extras to provide a more lively context for these obviously important-for-their-time films.

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