Monday, August 18, 2008

Three Lubitsch Musicals

I've seen three of five Ernst Lubitsch musicals starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald with Monte Carlo (1930) and The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) yet to screen. I may have to give those two a pass. Two of the films so far have been charming (and one not so charming), but none of them have been particularly great and I don't know how much more of MacDonald's singing I can take. Not screening is Rouben Mamoulian's brilliant Love Me Tonight (1932), also starring Chevalier and MacDonald, in which a tune sung by Maurice/Chevalier, a tailor in a working class neighborhood in Paris, is carried from one character to another like the Olympic torch until it reaches Princess Jeanette/MacDonald's fairy tale castle.

The Love Parade (1929) is the not so charming one. Count Alfred Renard/Chevalier marries Queen Louise of Sylvania/MacDonald only to find that he doesn't much like living in his wife's shadow. To teach her a lesson, he throws a hissy fit and threatens not to attend the opening of the country's opera, which would cause a scandal. He embarasses her by showing up late, and then reduces her to tears by staring at one of the dancers through a pair of binoculars. According to the film, for them to have a happy marriage, Louise would have to submit completely to Alfred and hand over any say in matters of state, which she doesn't much excel at anyway. In one scene, her advisers are telling her to borrow money from America when Alfred barges in and explains how everything in the budget can be payed for by exploiting natural resources, having mastered macro economics in a matter of days. The hero is a jerk, it's not funny and the songs stink.

One Hour With You (1932) was Lubitsch's fourth film with Chevalier and MacDonald, and his second time filming Lothar Schmidt's play "Only a Dream," so it's hardly surprising his heart wasn't in it. (It's telling that Lubitsch shares the same title credit with his assistant, George Cukor, suggesting that the latter directed some scenes.) The screenplay by Sam Raphelson is no more inventive that it absolutely needs to be: Dr. Andre Bertier/Chevalier and his wife Colette/MacDonald are happily married (which, in the world of the film, simply means they still enjoy screwing after three years of marriage) until the latter's best friend, Mitzi/Genevieve Tobin, returns from Lauzanne and tries to seduce the former. It's indicative of the shallowness of the script that Andre is only tempted to sleep with Mitzi, who looks perpetually drunk, because she's a willing woman. The film's most eccentric stylistic traits--the strecthes of rhyming dialogue leading into the musical numbers and Andre's assides to the camera--no doubt come from Schmidt's play, and aren't matched Lubitsch's sounds and images, which are strictly functional. Parts of the film are tinted, with blue corresponding to moonlight and yellow representing interior lights; daytime scenes aren't tinted, even when the characters are inside. This is enjoyable enough, I suppose, but not especially memorable.

The last film in the cycle, The Merry Widow (1934) is a pleasant enough diversion. The film opens in the imaginary country of Marshovia where Count Danilo/Chevalier has beded the entire female populace except the widow Sonia/MacDonald, who refuses even to lift her black veil. Deciding she's had enough of Marshovia, Sonia splits for Paris. The richest woman in Marshovia, Sonia pays fifty-two percent of the country's taxes. Fearing that an economic crisis would lead to a revolution, King Achmet/George Barbier sends Danilo to Paris to seduce her. But before checking in with the embassy to get the details of his mission, Danilo heads to a cabaret where he's far from a stranger and meets Sonia who tells him her name is Fifi. The plot piles on the standard romantic comedy crisises, although Lubitsch seems more interested in sustaining individual sequences than advancing the plot. (Two particular highlights are King Achmet discovering his wife, Dolores/Una Merkel, in bed with Danilo, and Danilo and "Fifi"'s first meeting in the cabaret.) Made the same year as Mark Sandrich's The Gay Divorcée starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, it's the only Chevalier-MacDonald film in which the stars are required to do any dancing. There's one striking sequence in which Lubitsch contrasts the solitary waltzing of the two leads with an embassy ball packed with twirling dancers. At 99 minutes, it does go on a bit too long, but it's enjoyable nonetheless.

Two Sirk Melodramas

Douglas Sirk's Sleep, My Love (1948) is one of those movies in which everybody thinks the woman is hysterical, but it turns out that there really are people plotting against her. Here, Alison Courtland/Claudette Colbert is being terrorized by a psychiatrist with horn-rimmed glasses that no one else has seen. One is reminded of Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938), but where that film had a clear intent, I'm not sure what the purpose of Sirk's film is. Was he trying to warn viewers against trusting their spouses? It's skillfully made without being exceptional on any level.

A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), in contrast, has a very simple purpose. Not unlike Clint Eastwood's recent Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) about Japanese soldiers fighting in World War II, it wants us to empathize with a single German soldier and his girlfriend. Given their ideological agenda, these films--and Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall (2004)--can't deal with the rise of facism, only its decline. Sirk's film begins and ends on the Russian Front in 1944 with the Germans in retreat and taking heavy losses. While on leave from the front, Ernst Graeber/John Gavin falls in love with and marries a nice girl, Elizabeth Kruse/Liselotte Pulver, whose father (never seen) is in a concentration camp. Despite being a bit sentimental, this works far better as storytelling than either Eastwood or Hischbeigel's films, and Sirk's widescreen compositions are often stunning, especially in the opening and closing scenes which are set mainly outdoors and in the countryside. However, as much as one appreciates the film's non-stereotypical treatment of the Germans, one regrets the way it shies away from the atrocities of the Holocaust.

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