Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Importance of Being Ernst

DVD Beaver takes on the new Lubitsch Musicals set from Criterion/Eclipse.

I haven't seen the set yet but judging from the screenshots, the movies look about as good as they can considering their age. Fortunately The Smiling Lieutenant, the best of the four films and one of my favorite films of all time, looks very good. (It couldn't be reissued under the Hays Code, which probably explains why it's in good condition.)

I would urge you to try this set, even if you're not a fan of Maurice Chevalier, who is in three of the four movies (and in Monte Carlo, where he's replaced by Jack Buchanan, he is very much missed). I know his cartoonish persona, an over-the-top caricature of French stereotypes, gets on people's nerves, but Lubitsch had a way of making it work. In The Love Parade it works because he spends much of the movie being taken down a notch through his status as the Queen's powerless husband. In The Smiling Lieutenant it works because Chevalier's character is not intended to be all that sympathetic; he's a horny jerk who doesn't really deserve either of the wonderful female leads (Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins) and the movie doesn't pretend he does. And in The Merry Widow, which is not on this set because Warners owns it and hasn't released it yet, he's grown enough as an actor that he's actually able to make us like him.

The only one of these movies where Chevalier "goes too far" is One Hour With You, where he talks to the audience a little too often, smirks a little too much, and is allowed to get away with something he probably shouldn't have gotten away with so easily. Not to give too much away, but although One Hour With You is a remake -- often scene-for-scene -- of Lubitsch's The Marriage Circle, it's actually much more sexually suggestive than the earlier film and goes much farther than the original in what it allows the lead character to do. It's a reminder that the "Pre-Code" era wasn't only less inhibited than what came after, it was by and large more uninhibited than what came before. Which might explain the backlash against them, because when movies got so much naughtier so quickly, there was bound to be an equally quick backlash.

The Marriage Circle is actually a better movie than One Hour With You, despite the good songs and Samson Raphaelson dialogue in the remake, because in the original you can care about the characters whereas the remake pumps up the newly surreal, off-kilter humor that Lubitsch had become fond of in the sound era (lines like "Ah, monsieur, I did so want to see you in tights") with the result that the characters become unlikable and the story a little unpleasant at times. That was always the downside of the "Lubitsch touch," that the emphasis on unusual jokes -- and no one, before or since, has ever come up with more unique jokes in a motion picture -- can make the movies seem like they're about jokes rather than people. This is one reason, I think, why Lubitsch was particularly proud of The Shop Around the Corner and some of his other later movies, where he managed to create more three-dimensional characters.

But these early musicals are very special just for the way they balance all the modern and retro elements of Lubitsch's art: cutting-edge joke writing -- especially in The Smiling Lieutenant which was Lubitsch's first comedy with Raphaelson -- mixes with old-style Viennese operetta; modern (for the time) music butts up against operetta music; silent-movie visuals alternate with static sound scenes; old-fashioned morality ("girls who start with breakfast don't usually stay for supper") competes with early '30s sexual license.

Now if only Warners would bring out The Merry Widow, the end of an era in so many ways: Lubitsch's last completed musical (he started one last musical, That Lady In Ermine with Betty Grable, but didn't finish it); his last movie with Chevalier and MacDonald; his last pre-Code movie (it sustained some cuts when the Code came in, but thankfully the original version survived). If you watch her Lubitsch musicals in order, along with Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight, you can see MacDonald -- who had a great screen presence right from the beginning -- get just a little bit better every time until by The Merry Widow she is a full-fledged star, given equal billing with Chevalier and clearly dominating the movie. (Interestingly she was not the first choice for Merry Widow; MGM was thinking of Grace Moore.)

1 comment:

VP81955 said...

This set was recently noted (positively) in an AP DVD review, where the director was referred to as "Ernest Lubitsch." I successfully resisted the urge to primal scream...but it wasn't easy.