Finally Criterion/Eclipse's Lubisch Musicals Box Set has a release date (February 2008). No extras, but four early sound musicals from Paramount (Lubitsch's last musical, The Merry Widow, was made for MGM and will have to wait for a release from Warner Brothers), all starring Maurice Chevalier and/or Jeanette MacDonald.
Lubitsch was a very important figure in the history of movie musicals -- The Love Parade, in particular, was the most sophisticated and cohesive musical made in the early days of talkies (it came out in 1929 and was Lubitsch's first sound film) -- though he was not necessarily a director who had a lot of sympathy with musicals. As I've written before, since Lubitsch was a very controlled and controlling director who coached all his actors in their exact movements and line readings, he could never bring himself to delegate power to the songwriters or choreographers, which is what you often need to do in a musical. So his musicals have very little dancing and they often downplay the singing, instead using visuals or dialogue for the most important moments. There are few musical numbers in Lubitsch that have the same kind of impact as the "Isn't It Romantic" number in Rouben Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight (the only Chevalier/MacDonald musical not directed by Lubitsch), because Lubitsch could never let a song assume that much importance in his films.
That said, three of these four movies are just plain wonderful -- The Love Parade, One Hour With You (which was partly directed by George Cukor, though it's very hard to tell which scenes he did) and especially The Smiling Lieutenant (one of the funniest films of the '30s), and while Monte Carlo isn't in that class, it does have the young, charming and sexy Jeanette MacDonald and the famous "Beyond the Blue Horizon" number, one of the first movie musical numbers to incorporate exterior shots and realistic sounds.
What Lubitsch's Chevalier/MacDonald musicals did most of all was elevate the quality of comedy writing in movie musicals. A lot of musicals, then and later, were premised on the idea that you could use any old story of any kind as filler in between the musical numbers, whereas Lubitsch (who, again, was probably more interested in the dialogue scenes than the musical ones) insisted on scripts that were sharp, satirical and whimsical, just like his silent comedies had been. And these movies are very tightly structured, full of jokes and character moments that pay off long after they first appear.
The Smiling Lieutenant was also Lubitsch's first comedy with Samson Raphaelson, the writer of The Jazz Singer and other plays; Lubitsch had brought him to Paramount to write a serious anti-war film The Man I Killed (which, come to think of it, it's too bad Criterion isn't including in this box; it's not a musical, but it'll probably never get a DVD release now), but also put him to work on his comedies. Lubitsch and Raphaelson discovered that they worked so well together, and came up with such imaginative and weird jokes together, that Raphaelson went on to write seven more comedies for Lubitsch.
Some scenes from movies that will be in this set:
Most of the opening scene from One Hour With You, with Chevalier talking to the audience and him and MacDonald singing "(What a Little Thing Like) A Wedding Ring (Can Do"):
A scene from The Smiling Lieutenant with Chevalier and Miriam Hopkins (in her first of three brilliant performances for Lubitsch), which kind of spoils the ending, which I suppose requires a spoiler alert. It's done virtually as a silent film, with Oscar Straus's music used as background music, and with a payoff of a gag from earlier in the movie (you'll have to watch the whole movie to see what the checkerboard gag is about). I also like the cartoony low-comedy gag of Chevalier running back to his room and checking to see if there's anything wrong with the liquor, and then deciding that if there's anything wrong with it, he wants more of it. Lubitsch is often thought of as a continental sophisticate but he actually had one of the goofiest senses of humor in Hollywood (or Germany for that matter).
And Jeanette MacDonald's big hit from The Love Parade, "Dream Lover," prefaced by two very Lubitschian gags ("See Sylvania first!" is a parody of an advertising slogan, "See America First!" which encouraged Americans to do their vacationing in the U.S. rather than Europe).
In other good news for February, Criterion also has announced a two-disc set of Pierrot Le Fou (one of the few movies that always seems to get referred to by its original-language title; why don't we call it "Crazy Pierrot" or "Crazy Pete"?).