Euphoria #3

MUSIC IS A VIRUS FROM OUTER SPACE

This is the third installment of our highly scientific experiment to identify and catalogue those little bits of film which produce detectable satori-like states in the viewer. (Publication delayed by problems with MeTube.)

Regular reader, and blogger extraordinaire, David Ehrenstein, writes:

“I’d love to see “Isn’t It Romantic?” from “Love Me Tonight,” and “Pass That Peace Pipe” from “Good News” (1947)”

I’ve never seen GOOD NEWS but it’s now on my list to see, it sounds amazing. If anybody has a copy spare, let me know. Can never have too much bliss.

But LOVE ME TONIGHT has long been a favourite. I got into Rouben Mamoulian’s work by way of his wild DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE of 1932 and then of course I wanted all his films to be as crazy and experimental. Only LOVE ME TONIGHT achieves that (in fact, it’s even CRAZIER) although the rest are generally very good films, and a few are hailed as classics.

This scene shows a complete synthesis of all the elements of film-making, with song and narrative leading the way and everything else in support. It’s hard to imagine this film beginning on the page since so much of it can only be appreciated in its final form on the screen. I guess somebody must have trusted Mamoulian’s vision, and the screenwriters, songwriters and director must have shared a total understanding of what they were about. That rarely happens nowadays.

Here we see a song spreading through Paris and out into the countryside like a virus, or like one of Richard Dawkins’ idea-organisms which he calls memes.  Some of the verses are priceless, as when a songwriter sings about what a nice tune it is, and how he’d like to write it down and give it lyrics, and he then sings the musical notes it’s composed of. The way the song spreads across the nation is quickly hilarious, and all the variations are both amusing and musically delightful.

To dip a toe into the dubious waters of hyperbole, I once heard Tarantino say of a scene in John Woo’s THE KILLER, “You could watch twenty years of American movies and not see something so imaginative!” That’s kind of what I feel about this scene (and nearly all the other scenes in this movie) — you could string Tarantino and Woo’s entire back catalogues together, and throw in Rodriguez for good measure, and not even hope to come up with anything that could hold a candle to this. And that’s not even a knock (I will get around to knocking those guys sometime): there are very few filmmakers who could ever come close to this for wit and innovation, and probably none who could sustain it for more than a few films.

Cheeky!

Of course, Maurice Chevalier is an unusual entertainer and some find him hard to take. A glance at his newsreel appearance, apologising for his wartime antics (entertaining the troops is OK, but German troops?) is enough to make one see how his nudge-nudge manner can slip over into something sinister and oleaginous. But there’s something else there: an improbable charm and a colossal, irrepressable musical-comedy talent.

I was surprised and pleased to discover recently, showing this film, and some Lubitsch, to students, that they seemed to quickly warm to him and enjoy his slightly grotesque, tongue-in-cheek, ebullient cheek (Which reminds me, I’ve been meaning to blog all about the role of CHEEK in cinema). He’s a small bundle of lumpy French manhood crammed to bulging with bonhomie and badinage and there certainly ought to be a place for this in our hearts and on our iPods. I have “Girls Girls Girls” from THE MERRY WIDOW on my MP3 Player and it only takes one verse to put a spring in my step as I am suffused with M. Chevalier’s appalling gallic miasma. Let’s spread the word and make 2008 the Year of the Boulevardier!

5 Responses to “Euphoria #3”

  1. There was a lot of creative freedom in Hollywood in the 30’s. Sound had come in with a vengeance and the Powers That Were hadn’t yet constructed a matrix for it. So directors with ideas — like Lubitsch, Mamoulian and Cukor (particularly in “Sylvia Scarlett”) — treied all sorts of things. What’s great about “Isn’t It Romantic?” is the fact that the song begins as a bit of cheery self-promotion by Chevalier (he’s encouraging the baker who has just bought his wedding outfit to talk him up) and then is taken up by series of different people — a taxi drive, a composer who is his fare, a troop of soldiers who overhear the composer and turn it into a marching song, a gypsy youth who hears the soldiers and turns it into a Romany refrain, and finally Jeanette MacDonald singing plaintively from her balcony. What’s truly rich is the fact that the love MacDonald is hoping for was Chevalier — the very person who began the song.

    MacDonald is traditionally recalled for her films with Nelson Eddy. But she’s at her best with Chevalier. Not simply because he isn’t a block of wood, but because he brings out all her bubbly sexuality.

  2. yes, every time I screen the film for students I expect resistance to Chevalier, but they just go with the flow: he’s another strange element in a film from another age which is doing all these weird experimental things. So it’s fine that it should have an EXPERIMENTAL LEADING MAN. MacDonald provokes more resistance, due to her style of singing and character, but they go from tolerating her as a piece of period kitsch to rooting for her as a character, helped by that Russian montage climax where she stops a train by sheer feminine authority.
    Also worth a mention: Myrna Loy during her sexy phase, a great one-joke character.
    “Could you go for a doctor?”
    “Sure, bring him in!”
    &
    “Don’t you ever think of anything besides men?”
    “Yes. Schoolboys.”

  3. […] old ladies at Audran’s boarding house reminded me of the three spinsters in Mamoulian’s LOVE ME TONIGHT. Rather than weaving a tapestry like the Fates, they play with Tarot cards. The unemployed actor […]

  4. totally agree about the delights of this film. LMT is so gloriously inventive cinematically, and full of deliciously sexy badinage. I have used the opening ‘song of the city’ sequence in sessions on cinematic urbanism…Another of my fave lines, from later on..
    ‘you’re not wasting away, you’re just wasted..” JM in her shimmy – yum.
    great site.
    v best
    Simon

  5. Thanks!

    The Kino DVD has some fascinating notes on the script and censorship process — even though the movie is pre-code, its content was heavily negotiated, so all that innuendo had to be fought for. The doctor had several more lines that didn’t make the cut, as I recall.

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