Over at his excellent blog/online archive, Jonathan Rosenbaum offers some typically savvy thoughts on Rouben Mamoulian’s LOVE ME TONIGHT, and its place in the musical genre as a whole. I wish I’d peeked at this before screening the film, with introduction, at Screen Academy Scotland last week. While J-Ro’s analysis suggests dual roles for musicals, as vehicles for specialist song-and-dance performers, and as metaphysical transformations of the workaday world, my discussion of the film with students focussed on the film’s unusual weave of narrative threads.
Thread#1: Maurice (Maurice Chevalier), a tailor, must travel from Paris to a chateau to force a defaulting creditor to pay for the extensive wardrobe he has ordered. This is our hero’s quest, but he starts to forget it as soon as he meets Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald) at the chateau. There are several hints that the neglected storyline is going to be picked up again and resolved, but it never actually is.
Thread#2: Maurice’s wooing of Jeanette. This is accomplished through various comic songs, which suddenly turn more serious when it looks like he’s going to succeed. Maurice realises that a love affair between a tailor and a princess is going to meet with opposition. Jeanette doesn’t, because she doesn’t know he;s a tailor yet.
Along with the two plots (there’s a rich supporting cast of delightful one-joke characters, particularly a man-mad Myrna Loy, but none of them can really be said to have their own sub-plot), there are apparently two themes.
Theme #1: The goal of romantic conquest. It’s laid out in the second song, the incredible Isn’t it Romantic? As Maurice sings about his hopes to marry, he paints a picture of wife as combined domestic drudge and sex toy. The song is picked up by a variety of other characters in an incredible sustained sequence where we follow the song-meme’s journey across country to the chateau, where Jeanette brings it to its conclusion by singing of the handsome prince who will become her chivalrous slave. So the film sets up a conflict, a Lubitschian battle of the sexes in which both man and woman want a relationship, but on their own terms. This theme ceases to be relevant when Maurice wins over Jeanette, and the couple stop sparring and begin to cooperate. Neither one is imposing the kind of dominance over the other that they sang about earlier, although Chevalier is allowed a kind of superiority in the decision-making process (it’s 1932, after all). So this theme grinds to a halt just as the second one suddenly takes over, in a kind of relay.
Theme #2: class. This has been set up in the fight over Maurice’s unpaid bills: the Vicomte has exercised a typically aristocratic arrogance in commissioning things he can’t pay for, and expects to get away with it. Maurice announces that he’ll be “a one-man French revolution” and demand payment in person. But this plotline is abandoned halfway through, and the class theme transfers itself, in a daring mid-air transfer, to the romance. What will happen when Jeanette realises she’s pledged her love to a commoner?
What this all suggests to me is a relaxed and organic approach to story, where the writers (Samuel Hoffenstein, Waldemar Young & George Marion Jnr, along with Rogers and Hart and Mamoulian himself) had a pretty free approach to structure and probably allowed the story to shape itself somewhat as it went along. It’s not neat, but it’s always lively. If the life fades, they inject more. Perhaps the film is so bursting with ideas and energy because of the chaos of so many creative talents given a free hand. It’s one of the hardest films to imagine as a screenplay at all, since although it’s bursting with snappy lines and narrative movement, it also makes full use of cinematic ideas that would be apt to appear flat or even incomprehensible on the page. Slow-motion and accelerated motion, split screen and montage are not just devices here, they’re gags or plot points.
Perhaps the lesson for writers is to absorb the principles of structure and then ignore them, let them gently guide the imagination without straitjacketing it, as so often seems to be the case in modern screenplays.