Monday, January 31, 2005

Les Lubitsches

Since I was writing about the Production Code in a previous post... one movie that provides an interesting glimpse into the way the Code was enforced is Ernst Lubitsch's The Merry Widow, with Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier. This truly great film was made for MGM in 1934, just before the Production Code started to be seriously enforced; and it was released just after Code enforcement began. To get Code approval, Irving Thalberg made many small cuts to the film. The cut version -- with lots of abrupt jump-cuts where lines used to be -- was released on VHS, but fortunately the uncut version was preserved, and it has been shown uncut on Turner Classic Movies and released in its original form on laserdisc (and when there's a DVD, it will presumably be that version). So it gives us a chance to see exactly what had to be cut out in order to get a clean bill of health under the Production Code.

The weird thing is that even in its cut form, the movie is clearly a "Pre-Code" movie; all the references to adultery, prostitution and womanizing are intact, as are extremely risque jokes like Chevalier's handcuffs in the trial scene (a closeup of the handcuffs shows that they are a special present to him from the Queen, with whom he had an affair). The lines that were cut generally didn't change the meaning of a scene or a speech; they just made it a tiny bit more oblique in some cases, and were utterly arbitrary in other cases. Here are some of the changes in the cut version (again, I would not recommend getting the VHS version of the movie, because it is the cut version; wait for a DVD):

- Danilo (Maurice Chevalier) says: "Let's go upstairs, to the private dining room." In the cut version, with a jump cut, this becomes: "Let's go... to the private dining room."

- Danilo greets each of the "Maxim girls" individually. One line is cut: when he asks one of them: "Do you still cry when you love someone?"

- The cut version preserves the whole scene where the King (George Barbier) finds out that his wife (Una Merkel) is having an affair with Danilo. The only thing that's cut are two lines when Merkel asks him whether he thinks his meeting will last "all night." Apparently it's OK for her to be contemplating a rendezvous while he's away, as long as she doesn't intend for it to be "all night."

- Merkel reads a letter from Baron Popoff (Edward Everett Horton), explaining that the kingdom needs to send someone to seduce the Widow (MacDonald) and bring her back home: "I know what to do, but am too old to do it." In the cut version this becomes "I know what to do but am too old."

And so on. Weird, arbitrary, essentially pointless nitpicky cuts. Further indication that the real problem with the Production Code was the sheer pointlessness of much of what had to be done to comply with it.

While I'm on the subject of The Merry Widow, I should say that it's a great example of Ernst Lubitsch's strengths and weaknesses as a director of musicals. The strengths are those of most of Lubitsch's films, especially those written by Samson Raphaelson; great dialogue, great jokes, ingenious new ways of dealing with familiar story points (this is the movie where, without dialogue, we see George Barbier come to the realization that his wife is having an affair: he puts on a sword-belt he finds in his bedroom, and it's too small for him -- clearly the sword-belt of a younger, thinner man), constant delights and surprises. It's a great, great comedy film, and it's a tribute to Lubitsch's strength as an artist, as well as the respect in which he was held in Hollywood, that even though this picture was made for MGM, the style of writing, storytelling and performance is almost indistinguishable from Lubitsch's Paramount films (it helps that Lubitsch imported most of his favorite actors from Paramount, like MacDonald, Barbier, and Horton). See it in a theatre and it has a great impact, because, unlike with most comedies, the audience is genuinely surprised moment to moment; Lubitsch and Raphaelson almost never go for the obvious joke, and they always find something that's twice as clever as what we expected.

But as a musical, the film is very problematic. For one thing, there are hardly any musical numbers in it. Most of the songs from the operetta are dropped or consigned to background music. Those that are retained mostly last about thirty seconds. There are no musical numbers at all in the last twenty-five minutes or so. The only extended musical number is a big dance scene (to Lehar's famous waltz) in the middle of the picture. Apart from that, and a shorter dance between Chevalier and MacDonald a little earlier, almost all the big moments in the picture come from dialogue and visuals in non-singing, non-dancing scenes. In other words, even though it stars two famous musical performers, The Merry Widow is hardly a musical at all, more of a straight comedy where characters break into song occasionally.

Lubitsch's earlier musicals, at Paramount, have more musical content than this, but not much more. My favorite of his Paramount musicals, The Smiling Lieutenant (with Chevalier, Claudette Colbert, and Miriam Hopkins), is also based on an operetta, in this case Oscar Straus's A Waltz Dream -- one of the most entertaining and tuneful of later Viennese operettas (Straus deserves to be better known than the gooey, sentimental Lehar, who wrote one good operetta -- Merry Widow and a lot of dreck). But Lubitsch dumped all the songs from the operetta, using them as background music only, hired Straus to write a few new songs in a more '30s style, cast mostly nonmusical performers, and, again, relied on dialogue scenes, visual scenes, and background music for most of the big moments, and not singing or dancing. The only Lubitsch musical that produced a truly iconic musical number was Monte Carlo, with MacDonald singing "Beyond the Blue Horizon." And even that number is very short.

One gets the sense that Lubitsch, as a control freak, one of the greatest control freaks among the great cinema directors, didn't really want big musical numbers inhibiting his plan for the movie, and couldn't work a long musical number into the plan. Rouben Mamoulian, a stage-trained director who later became one of the great directors of Broadway musicals (Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma, Carousel), was much more receptive to songwriters; when he made Love Me Tonight at Paramount with Lubitsch's usual team, Chevalier and MacDonald, Mamoulian hired Rodgers and Hart, got ideas from them for numbers and scenes, built entire sequences around their songs, and came up with a great musical that has perhaps the finest score ever written for a musical film. Lubitsch had Rodgers and Hart on The Merry Widow, too, but he didn't use any of the new songs they wrote, and Hart's contribution wound up limited to putting very simple new lyrics to some very short snatches of the original Lehar songs.

I don't get the impression that Lubitsch liked the collaborative aspect of the musical, the part where the director gives up some of his power to the songwriter, or the choreographer, or the performer. Lubitsch didn't like giving performers too much freedom; he acted out every scene for every performer, with the result that every actor in a Lubitsch film adopts certain mannerisms of line delivery and body language. He could never have dealt with the idea that for three or four minutes the director should just sit back and let the performer do his or her own thing with a song; the songs in a Lubitsch picture had to be as short and simple as a Lubitsch-Raphaelson joke, and the performer had to keep his or her own schtick out of it. I've always wondered what would have happened if Lubitsch had made a picture with the Marx Brothers, as he once wanted to; would he have been able to let himself give them free rein, or would he have tried to make them do his kind of comedy? We'll never know, I guess.

So, anyway, The Merry Widow and The Smiling Lieutenant are marvelous movies, as fresh today as they were 70 years ago. But as musicals, they're only so-so. The musical requires a certain give-and-take between director and performer. A director who sees everything as part of an overriding vision, and wants everyone and everything to fit the movie he has in his head, is either not appropriate to direct musicals (would you want to see a musical by Robert Bresson?), or else will create great movies that are musicals only technically, as Lubitsch did.

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