Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Chevalier, MacDonald and Chemistry

We talk a lot about which stars have on-screen "chemistry" and which ones don't, and none of us are any closer to figuring out what, exactly, produces this chemistry -- we know it when we see it, but it's very hard to define. Watching my VHS copy of The Love Parade, the first sound movie by Ernst Lubitsch, I was reminded again that there are some stars who really have nothing in common, shouldn't go together at all, who somehow wind up having great chemistry on the screen. In this case it's Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, in their first of four teamings (the others were Lubitsch's One Hour With You and The Merry Widow and Rouben Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight).

It's a very strange pairing. You've got the heavily-accented French entertainer matched up with the "Iron Butterfly" from Philadelphia. You've got two singing styles with absolutely nothing in common: he the music-hall singer, she the shrill soprano. You've got his broad grin and her subtle smirk; his warmth and her reserve. They didn't particularly care for each other, according to legend; he thought she was a prude and she thought he was a scoundrel. And yet they just seemed to click better with each other than with anyone else. Chevalier kept trying to make movies with other leading ladies, but he couldn't click with anyone; Claudette Colbert, being French, was a good match for him in Lubitsch's The Smiling Lieutenant, but her limited singing ability meant she couldn't do musicals with him on a regular basis. And MacDonald never had another really successful leading man until she re-packaged herself with Nelson Eddy; you only need to look at how poorly she's paired with Jack Buchanan (in Lubitsch's Monte Carlo) to realize how well she worked with Chevalier.

In their first scene together in The Love Parade, and therefore their first scene together in any movie, Chevalier and MacDonald immediately show that they have what it takes to be a great team. If I had to define "chemistry," the closest I could come to doing so would be to say that chemistry occurs when two stars manage to appear interested when they look at each other; each actor has to convey the impression of really seeing something fascinating and fun in the other. Note that I said they have to look interested, not be interested; there are plenty of actual romantic couples who have no chemistry whatsoever because they regard each other with fishy stares or generic eye-batting.

Chevalier and MacDonald also work around the problem of differing singing styles, as they often did, by talking their way through large portions of the song (in this case, the double-entendre-fest "Anything to Please the Queen"). But the highlight of the scene, and a perfect example of Lubitsch's way of suggesting things wordlessly and letting us fill in the blanks, is the part near the beginning: MacDonald, as the Queen of Sylvania, reads a report on Chevalier, an envoy recalled from Paris for his scandalous behavior. She reads the report, and we don't see it, but we see her face as she reacts to Chevalier's unknown exploits: she's alternately amused, disgusted, and finally turned on. There's no way Lubitsch could have conveyed as much with any actual description of what Chevalier has been up to.

And yes, Paramount recycled the name "Sylvania" for Duck Soup a few years later.

As to The Love Parade itself, I've seen it twice with an audience and it always goes over very well; in fact, I think this may be the most entertaining of the late-'20s talking pictures, the one that best overcomes the limitations of early sound recording and the static camerawork necessitated by the microphones. Lubitsch had always used fairly static camera work, and his movies rarely ventured outside the studio, so he didn't have to adjust his methods that much (whereas some directors were clearly hurt by the new difficulties of doing location shooting or complicated camera moves). And because his movies are so stylized, with characters who are in part parodies of stock characters from other movies, the biggest problem of early talkies -- the stilted acting and line delivery -- actually works to his advantage; the characters are talking over-formally because they're sending up the way people talk in movie and stage musicals.

The other thing about Lubitsch's approach in his first musical is that he takes a standard form of the stage and screen musical -- in this case, the Ruritanian musical, set in a mythical kingdom where no one seems to have any serious problems -- and makes it dirty. The plot and characters of The Love Parade are all standard for a Ruritanian operetta, but they're all obsessed with what Preston Sturges would later call Topic A, and Lubitsch's constant joke is that everyday lowbrow concerns of the flesh have infiltrated the sexless world of '20s operetta. You might have found this story or these characters in another stage or screen musical, but you probably wouldn't have the cabinet ministers whispering to each other about the main job of a husband ("Of course, he has something to do"), or Chevalier implying that he had an affair with Marie Curie.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As an avid fan of JM and NE films, I enjoyed your commentary on MC and JM. Normally, film discussion rehashes the same old thing, with rarely an original thought or critique. One thing I have noticed in the pairing of the latter. Maybe because of the lack of chemistry between them, you can sense a sharp need of real bantering and snideness in the delivery of dialog. Almost like sparing enemies, that try to accommodate the intensions of the lines, but relish the clever manner of expressing their true feelings. Good review.