Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Love Parade (1929, Ernst Lubitsch)

I used to think Love Me Tonight was the greatest thing ever. Maurice Chevalier, seemingly playing himself, as a suave, French playboy unabashed about his improprieties, is thrust into a role a bit out of reach for his social caliber. A haughty Jeanette MacDonald, often staying one pace ahead of the always scene-stealing Chevalier, trading jab for jab until eventually succombing to Chevalier's charms. As any classic Hollywood musical, suspense regarding a romantic resolution is non-existant, you only hate to see it come knowing it ends the magical on-screen chemistry of one of the greatest pairings in Hollywood history.

A pairing orchestrated three years earlier by Ernst Lubitsch in one of the finest musicals, if not films, ever made. One that Love Me Tonight, though charming in its own right, feels a bit tedious for after lifting Lubitsch's blueprint. Lubitsch discovered Jeanette MacDonald from one of Paramount's rejected screen tests and pulled her in to lift heavy against Chevalier. The Love Parade is, unbelievably, MacDonald's first role. She seems born to usher in Hollywood's new sound era and never blinks opposite Chevalier.

A strange performance by Chevalier as well--Lubitsch practically introduces his character breaking the fourth wall (culminating in an all the more rewarding replay of the gag at the film's conclusion). Adultery and sexual promiscuity are thrust onto Chevalier's Count Alfred Renard immediately, and we are forced to view it through a humorous eye because of his address to us. Lubitsch, more than any director knew precisely how to push these buttons and, as such, was able to push the boundaries farther than most. Our hero is breaking apart marriages and carrying on multiple affairs? Well, he is French. And as a Frenchman, he needs not ask for pardon when his outbursts get out of control. The charm of Chevalier allows us to laugh off what is clearly intended for the comedic, while the touch of Lubitsch is what allows the rest to resonate so thoroughly.

Lubitsch never turned his back on complicated relationships. Topics like divorce never stunted Lubitsch (Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, That Uncertain Feeling), whose sophisticated humor stings all the more knowing much of the relational pain presented as comedy came from an intimate knowledge at a personal cost. At its core, it is a story of the eternal differences between man and woman, and it is no coincidence that when Alfred is being the biggest dick, Louise is wearing her most labial garment. Another brilliant trick up Lubitsch's sleeve was his ability to harpoon American social customs and get off free and easy because the characters are nobility in foreign, fictional lands. Lubitsch always knew just how far to separate from reality for the joke, while staying close enough to resonate with public consciousness. After all, this is the same Jewish filmmaker who had the guts to produce a Holocaust comedy in 1942 in which a Nazi character cracks wise, "we do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping."

Though undeniably a vehicle driven by its two stars, The Love Parade drives home that these aristocratic characters aren't beyond us. British music hall comedian Lupino Lane plays Jacques, Alfred's servant who falls for a maid played by Lilian Roth. The couple brilliantly never see eye to eye while planning their marriage and fall into the same relational traps though they vow "Let's Be Common." The perfect doppelganger on the film's periphery.

Still a very early sound film, The Love Parade is all the more remarkable in that the songs were recorded on set, synchroneous with the band off-screen. As a product of economy and this method, many of the musical numbers are performed in extended takes with limited editing, and the sophisticated choreography from the likes of slapstick show-stealer Lupino Lane are all the more impressive.

It is difficult not to be consumed by the film's charisma. Lubitsch's entrance into the era of sound cinema is not only seemless--unlike of work of other silent masters like Frank Borzage, he improved because of it. The Love Parade is only the first in a brilliant string of Lubitsch musicals (Monte Carlo, The Singing Lieutenant, The Merry Widow, etc.) that the genre has never eclipsed. Even the sophisticated comedy that unquestionably influenced greats like Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder seems edgy today. The more one watches movies, the rarer the "Lubitsch touch" seems. -- ****/four stars

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