Eclipse Series 8:Lubitsch Musicals



With the advent of sound, anything seemed possible in Hollywood in the late 1920s. Studios were eager to exploit the evolving medium’s new capabilities, and what better way to dazzle audiences’ ears and eyes than with full-out musicals? The first attempts at this new genre were “revues,” bare-bones, Tin Pan Alley narratives in which preexisting songs, haphazardly strung together, were often performed onstage and straight into the camera, such as in The Broadway Melody and Gold Diggers of Broadway (both 1929). The technique was presentational and primitive; to survive, the musical needed a more harmonious melding of form and content.

Enter Ernst Lubitsch, a German-Jewish director wooed to Hollywood in 1922 after a brilliant early career in Berlin. Lubitsch had grown into a major studio player, known for continental romantic comedies and period pieces, yet his 1929 Eternal Love had flopped, like other films that hadn’t yet made the switch to sound. Now contracted with Paramount (having left Warner Bros.), Lubitsch had the chance to reinvent himself in the sound cinema, and he did so by taking on a whole new form. Though today he is most fondly remembered for his later romantic comedies, typifying Hollywood filmmaking in its heyday, it should be known that Lubitsch was also a pioneer of the modern movie musical.

Theater was in Lubitsch’s blood: he spent his early career as a performer in Max Reinhardt’s fabled company, and always had a particular fondness for the lilting comic romance of the Viennese operetta, in which music carries narrative along as naturally as dialogue. Lubitsch adapted this style to the screen for his first sound film, The Love Parade (1929), which was also the first narrative musical. One of his several Ruritanian comedies (set in fictional kingdoms), The Love Parade depicts the battle of the sexes with lacerating, loose tongues, as would become his trademark. These were the days before the Hays moral code was enforced, however, so in this and his other early sound musicals, Lubitsch could be even more wicked.

Sound cinema necessitated new kinds of movie stars, whose appeal lay in the timbre of their voices as much as in the flamboyance of their gesticulations, and for The Love Parade Lubitsch chose Maurice Chevalier for the lead role of Renard, a bemused lothario count from the fictional country of Sylvania. Signed by Paramount in 1928, after years of singing at the Folies Bergère and becoming the toast of Paris, Chevalier was an instant sensation with The Love Parade, not only for his exotic foreignness but also for an exquisite comic timing that perfectly matched Lubitsch’s delicate balance of earnestness and satire. Cast opposite him in the film, as the sexually vivacious Queen Louise, was a twenty-six-year-old newcomer from Philadelphia named Jeanette MacDonald.

Of Lubitsch’s first five sound films, four were musicals, and they were all enormously successful. The form was new enough that audiences didn’t notice the staid technique (the fixed microphones of those days necessitated a simple three-camera setup). They simply relished the glamorous stars, aristocratic European settings, and seamless use of songs, a welcome escape during a great depression.



Though The Love Parade had been a triumph, critically and financially—and received six nominations at the third Academy Awards ceremony, including for best picture, director, and actor—it was too early in the life of the talkie for Ernst Lubitsch to rest on his laurels. Paramount needed to keep the momentum going, so after a brief pit stop to contribute to the all-star revue Paramount on Parade (1930), Lubitsch moved on to Monte Carlo (1930), which, despite its seeming quaintness today, pushed the musical in new directions.

With Maurice Chevalier elsewhere (taking advantage of his newfound American stardom to headline The Big Pond and The Playboy of Paris, both 1930), Lubitsch cast British and Broadway theater actor Jack Buchanan as the film’s protagonist, Count Rudolph Farriere. Willowy and coy where Chevalier was robustly sarcastic, Buchanan makes for a somewhat less convincing foil for Jeanette MacDonald. Yet without Chevalier casting his long shadow, MacDonald has more of a chance to shine as the sublimely sexy diva Countess Helene. Introduced after leaving the dandyish Duke Otto (Claude Allister) at the altar, the runaway bride flits off to the Riviera and into a series of power and love games with her devilishly duplicitous new hairdresser (in reality, the count). As the carefree Helene first rides the rails to Monte Carlo, Lubitsch accompanies her song “Beyond the Blue Horizon” (an eventual radio hit) with a delightful, rhythmic montage. Momentarily rising above the mostly point-and-shoot aesthetic of the period’s musicals, this sequence dazzled critics with its demonstration of the genre’s possibilities: “As the train speeds on its way,” wrote Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times, “the sound of the wheels, the whistle, and other noises serve as a partial accompaniment to the melody . . . a true touch of genius.”

And there was verbal wit as well. An amalgamation of Hans Müller’s obscure German play The Blue Coast and an episode from Booth Tarkington’s novel Monsieur Beaucaire, Monte Carlo first paired Lubitsch with Leo Robin, the perfect lyricist to match his sensibilities. Robin’s inventive wordplay is best displayed in the opening, when a chorus of guards and ladies-in-waiting sing of the prissy Duke Otto, “He’s a nas . . . he’s a nas . . . he’s a nasty-tempered brute!”—a bit of vulgarity that can only be conveyed through speech.

Such suggestiveness was the order of the day in this “pre-Hays” haze: like Lubitsch’s other musicals, Monte Carlo is pungent with sexual overtones. And while, like The Love Parade, its ideas about the taming of strong, independent women can seem a bit dated, it’s all very playful, and the film ultimately attains an effervescence that points toward what critics would come to call “the Lubitsch touch”—a perhaps overused term for the director’s ability to tread delicately no matter the subject, with a cheery disposition and an economy of words and images. Just as Lubitsch had in his silents striven for pictures so concise that they didn’t need intertitles, as a sound filmmaker he was still whittling narrative down to its very essence.



The infectiously giddy The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) was surprisingly created during a time of extreme emotional duress for its director and star. Ernst Lubitsch was in the middle of divorce proceedings with his wife, Leni, who had been carrying on an affair with his friend and former screenwriter Hanns Kräly. Meanwhile, Maurice Chevalier’s mother had recently died, and the actor was increasingly finding his trademark performance style to be mechanical and insufferable. Already a solemn on-set presence (he was renowned for snapping into his bright-eyed on-screen character when “action” was called), Chevalier was growing more withdrawn, and his working relationship with Lubitsch would continue to deteriorate through mid-decade.

On-set headaches extended to the film’s two female leads, Claudette Colbert (who had starred with Chevalier in The Big Pond) and newcomer Miriam Hopkins, both of whom demanded that only the more flattering, right side of their faces be photographed. Picking his favorite, Lubitsch granted this courtesy only to Hopkins, who would go on to star in two of Lubitsch’s most acclaimed comedies, Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Design for Living (1933). (Nevertheless, Colbert would work with Lubitsch again too, on his 1938 romantic comedy Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, and later would cite him as her favorite director.)

Adapted freely from Hans Müller’s short story “Nux, the Prince Consort”—the same source Oscar Straus used for his 1907 operetta A Waltz Dream—The Smiling Lieutenant dispenses with much of the song-based narrative of The Love Parade and Monte Carlo, pushing Lubitsch ever closer to the straight-forward romantic comedy that would come to define him. Indeed, with only five complete songs in the film, it was the screenplay—his first collaboration with Samson Raphaelson—that stood out. Raphaelson would forge a remarkable career with Lubitsch, writing such classics as The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Heaven Can Wait (1943), and, of course, Trouble in Paradise. In fact, this bubbly comedy of class differences and crass puns, with its conflict between a working-class woman and an aristocratic prude, feels like a warm-up for Trouble in Paradise: torn between the adoration of Colbert’s jazz baby Franzi and Hopkins’s uppity Princess Anna (from the ridiculously nasal-named country of Flausenthurm), Chevalier’s happy-go-lucky Lieutenant Nikolaus finds himself the awkward center of a seemingly irreconcilable love triangle.

After he finished shooting The Smiling Lieutenant at Paramount’s short-lived studio branch in Queens, New York, Lubitsch returned to Hollywood to find a general malaise—the ongoing Depression was now being widely felt within the film industry; theater attendance had dropped precipitously by 1931. And even though The Smiling Lieutenant would be met with acclaim (including a third best picture Oscar nomination for Lubitsch) and would mark his third musical hit in a row (a feat equaled only by the sensational Parisian filmmaker René Clair), Lubitsch began moving away from the formula with his next project, a dark, brooding World War I film with Lionel Barrymore titled The Man I Killed (a.k.a. Broken Lullaby). An expensive flop, the dire drama is mostly recalled as a momentary break before Lubitsch would go on to complete his joyous musical cycle, and become an increasingly powerful Hollywood force.



Ernst Lubitsch’s final musical at Paramount, One Hour with You (1932), was, like his earlier such works, a frothy affair greeted with enthusiasm and award nominations, but its production proved to be one of the most contentious of Lubitsch’s career. The German émigré, whose musicals had revitalized the film industry, was by this time an invaluable presence in Hollywood, and before his contract with Paramount was up in early 1932, the studio wanted to get as much work out of him as possible. Thus, even while shooting the drama The Man I Killed, Lubitsch was assigned to supervise a Maurice Chevalier–Jeanette MacDonald musical, to be directed by relative newcomer George Cukor. After reading the script, however, Lubitsch tossed it out and began work with Samson Raphaelson on a new draft, which he decided to adapt from his 1924 film The Marriage Circle.

The project then became increasingly Lubitsch’s own. When shooting commenced, he was dissatisfied with Cukor’s work, feeling the young director wasn’t blocking scenes for maximum comic effect; Chevalier concurred, saying that Cukor was directing him “too broadly.” Lubitsch began directing scenes himself, until he finally took over the production, much to Cukor’s chagrin. In its first preview screening, the film read, “An Ernst Lubitsch Production” and, below, “Directed by George Cukor.” After Lubitsch pro-tested that he had in fact directed the film and wanted proper credit, Cukor filed suit to maintain his billing. Lubitsch won the directing credit.

The behind-the-scenes conflicts certainly do not manifest on-screen. One Hour with You seems like a natural progression from Lubitsch’s prior musicals, without a trace of clashing artistic sensibilities. Perhaps this is because it was such well-rehearsed material for Lubitsch: The Marriage Circle was a telling choice for remaking, since he was still bitter over his recent divorce. One Hour with You takes an especially lackadaisical attitude toward fidelity, introducing Chevalier’s Andre and MacDonald’s Colette as a happily married couple, only to have their trust and devotion stripped away bit by bit after Colette’s delightfully amoral girlfriend Mitzi (Genevieve Tobin) tries to woo Andre. It’s a mostly cynical, if lighthearted, depiction of wedded life, carried along by Chevalier’s frequent direct address to the camera and a fondness for rhyming dialogue. As for the songs, they’re buoyant but nearly as scant as in The Smiling Lieutenant.

The audience for this brand of musical, with its minimal visual flair and broad high-society farce, was now in decline. By 1932 the novelty of sound was wearing off, and spectacle would soon be the order of the day: 42nd Street, Busby Berkeley, and Fred Astaire were waiting just around the corner. Lubitsch would go on to direct only one more musical, The Merry Widow, for MGM, a success, but one greatly affected by the Hays morality code, put fully into force in 1934. Gone was the sexual insouciance of these early films, awash with the rough, candid pleasures of a new art form finding its footing. In 1935 Lubitsch was named head of production at Paramount Studios; though his tenure would last only one year, the position cemented his power in Hollywood and was a testament to his vital role in bringing film into the sound era.

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