The Empty Bride

“An eerie image,” I observed of this shot in Lubitsch’s MONTE CARLO (1930).

“Yeah, an empty bride,” said Fiona.

Bring on the empty brides!

This is one of Lubitsch’s early operetta films and it has a lot to commend it. The empty bride is discovered by extruded turtle/shaved deerhound Claud Allister, who’s expecting to marry Jeanette MacDonald, not a wraith. We then cut to Jeanette catching a train in just a coat and her undies. When the ticket collector expresses surprise, she says “I’ve just come from a wedding,” by way of explanation. To my delight, the ticket man is former silent comic Billy Bevan, Uncle Arn from CLUNY BROWN (my favourite Lubitsch).

It takes a while for an explanation to emerge. Jeanette was on the verge of marrying Allister for his money, except that the dress didn’t fit, which suddenly gave her pause, and caused her to run away (for the third time, in fact) while she had the chance. (Lubitsch’s films with JM nearly always begin with her in undies.)

This is really good writing — the image of the abandoned dress — the image of the fugitive in scanties — the jokes with the discombobulated ticket man — finally, once we’re properly interested, but so entertained we hardly require an explanation, the explanation. Which element came first?

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11 Responses to “The Empty Bride”

  1. This is why Billy Wilder had sign in his work room that read “What would Lubitsch do?”

  2. Yes, this is exactly the sort of thing Lubitsch — and Wilder, when they worked together — would spend weeks working out.

  3. bensondonald Says:

    Amusing how MacDonald went from trilling sexpot at Paramount to musical paragon at MGM. THE MERRY WIDOW was an MGM, but that was with Lubitsch and Chevalier.

    One wonders how much of that was MGM’s overall respectability and how much was a conscious decision to make Nelson Eddy the affable, joking half of the team. He’s a vocal Gene Kelly, making operetta arias OK with an American-boy presence and a sense of humor. MacDonald is usually a cool virgin he has to warm up.

    With Chevalier she was sexy, but their voices provided the contrast: He the jaunty cabaret singer who plays with a song, she the nightingale who hits the big romantic notes. Where she’d sing ballads of longing and repressed desire, he’d complain that “Nobody’s Using It Now”.

    The sexual politics in THE LOVE PARADE don’t always age well, but there’s a great scene late in the film where she thinks he’s coming to bed and practically hops along beside him like an overeager puppy. No erotic tension or naughtiness; just pure gee-whiz enthusiasm. I’m not sure you ever saw ANY heroine take quite that attitude.

  4. And earlier, when she’s told a prince consort has nothing to do, her astonished horror (“has she been misinformed?” writes James Harvey) is hilarious. Yes, one would never know how blithely lusty she was, looking at the later movies.

  5. chris schneider Says:

    Well, she *is* equated with a female dog in Richard Thorpe’s THE SUN COMES UP (1949). “I know you’re unhappy,” says Esther Somers as the black maid, “But Lassie’s unhappy too!”

  6. Jeanette is at her best trembling with romantic/erotic longing, as for a example at the very close of this — my very favorite musical number in the history of the cinema.

  7. A film made possible by Lubitsch, but not one he would have made, as James Harvey notes — because for all its wit and mockery, Love Me Tonight is sincerely romantic. Lubitsch is pretty much ironic full-time, though affectionately so.

  8. bensondonald Says:

    According to Wikipedia bios, MacDonald and Eddy were offscreen lovers — and sometimes toxic ex-lovers — throughout their lives. Supposedly the dealbreaker was Eddy expecting MacDonald to retire and raise the kids. Interesting if true; they get along well but don’t look like a couple itching to get back to the trailer.

  9. It’s often said that real-life couples lack screen chemistry — a certain tension is missing, which is certainly true here.

    Lubitsch was besotted with MacDonald, it wasn’t reciprocated, but they were best of friends until his death.

  10. bensondonald Says:

    On couples chemistry: In a duel interview with Judi Dench and Michael Williams, they agreed that familiarity made their comic timing work even without eye contact. Then Williams cheerfully added they’d upstage each other with a familiar lack of courtesy.

  11. Nobody in the world of theatre felt that real-life couples lack anything — quite the opposite. But the closeup world of cinema has a whole different chemistry, it’s suggested, so that actors who hate each other may produce better results than comfortable partners.

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