Monsieur in Tights

I’ve had my Eclipse box set of early sound Lubitsch for years without watching the films, though I always knew I would. I’d seen them all save MONTE CARLO, but only on rather fuzzy VHS off-air recordings sent across the Atlantic to me by an accountant in Baltimore (I know the right people). On DVD they’re transformed, so that what can feel like dated technique — the films were made before the microphone boom was standard kit, so they tend to favour static frames for dialogue — now seems merely like a specific stylistic approach, of its time no doubt (because everything is), but as eloquent as any other approach.

ONE HOUR WITH YOU was begun by George Cukor, working from a script prepared by producer Lubitsch will regular collaborator Samson Raphaelson, but then Lubitsch suffered the commercial failure of THE MAN I KILLED/BROKEN MELODY, and so he went running for cover and rather cruelly kicked Cuckor off the film and supervised reshoots himself. The result, a more lightweight reworking of his silent hit THE MARRIAGE CIRCLE, is indistinguishable from a full-fledged Lubitsch work.

It also gets a boost from its stars — Lubitsch had made THE LOVE PARADE with Chevalier and MacDonald previously, then made one film with MacDonald but not Chevalier and one with Chevalier and not MacDonald. When all three are reunited here, you get quite a lot of comic energy sparkling away in those locked-off frames. Also Genevieve Tobin and particularly the amazing, miraculous Roland Young, here rather surprisingly satanic as a husband who’s not so much jealous as broiling in hatred. quite KEEN for his wife to betray him so he can divorce her.

And Charles Ruggles (top), subject of my favourite joke in the film.

(Although there’s a bit where MacDonald and Tobin are whispering about Chevalier and he’s looking hilariously perturbed. It’s one of Lubitsch’s smutty false alarms — what ARE they saying? Then they become audible. “Can he really?” “Oh yes.” “He can’t, really?” “He can!” Chevalier looking VERY alarmed as this goes on. Finally, Jeanette appeals to him: “Darling. Look like an owl.” The only frustrating thing is we never get to see Maurice look like an owl. We certainly believe him capable of it. In fact, it seems to be bubbling up in him constantly, this ability to look like an owl. But he never yields to it.)

The Ruggles joke — he’s introduced late in the story, just when a schnook is required. He phones MacDonald as she’s dressing for a party (the obligatory undies scene). He’s already dressed, as Romeo. But then he learns it’s not a costume party. He calls for his valet. Why did the fool tell him it was a costume party?

“Ah monsieur, I did so want to see you in tights.”

We never see this valet again, nor is he mentioned, so we never learn more of his strange obsession. But he seems to exemplify something about the film. Lubitsch, as “the greatest writer in cinema history,” as Billy Wilder called him (though Lubitsch never took a writing credit in Hollywood), wanted to make all his characters distinctive, to impart to even the smallest bit player a measure of personality. Well, in a soufflé like this, why bother making them realistic, when what we principally need is charm and funniness? Why not make them all a bit mad?

In this idea, I propose, is the origins of screwball.

8 Responses to “Monsieur in Tights”

  1. Francois Ozon’s “Frantz” — a remake of “Broken Lullaby / The Man I Killed” is excellent.

  2. I’m gearing up to run the original. If I survive that, then maybe Make Way For Tomorrow…

  3. “the films were made before the microphone boom was standard kit, so they tend to favour static frames for dialogue” This is completely new to me and very interesting – could anyone provide, or link to, a more detailed explanation?

  4. See Singin’ in the Rain for a lightly fictionalised account of this period. Or compare the filming of Animal Crackers with the Marx Bros’ next film, Monkey Business, made with the benefit of the boom.

    Both William Wellman and Dorothy Arzner claimed credit for suggesting a microphone on a stick as the answer.

  5. When I saw Singin’ in the Rain, I assumed they were ignoring the fact that – as I had been led to understand – most dialogue in the early sound period was ADR’ed later anyway. Is that not true?

  6. bensondonald Says:

    Legend has it that Andy Devine thought his career was over when his high gravelly voice blew out sound equipment. But then he got work as a non-speaking extra whose girth facilitated carrying a microphone on his person. Evidently he’d casually walk near speaking actors and keep a mike near them. In time the technology improved and he was allowed to speak again.

  7. bensondonald Says:

    Speaking of servants: Miss Tobin’s maid is, if I recall correctly, the not-quite-a-character variety of servant most of the way through. At the end, when Tobin is moving out, she’s leaning out the window next to Young and they’re enjoying the moment together. Implied affair (counterpoint to his outrage over her adulteries) or just a member of the household who disliked Tobin as much as the master?

    Another favorite servant moment: In MERRY WIDOW, Jeanette MacDonald has a musical comedy chorus of pretty maids fluttering about her; they’re just there. When MacDonald mentions Chevalier’s character, they ALL know where he lives. MacDonald reacts — shock that Chevalier is THAT active, or shock that these nearly abstract figures have outside existences complete with sex?

  8. Heh — I think the former. And with Tobin’s maid, an affair seems possible. With Lubitsch, it’s usually safest to assume the sexy interpretation.

    Ned, you have it exactly wrong. Really early soundies from 27-30 had no facility for ADR. Even editing the soundtrack was almost impossible, so scenes were usually shot with multiple cameras trapped in soundproof booths — multiple picture tracks edited to a single, untouched sountrack. Resulting in a rather slow, static, stagey feel.

    Hitchcock’s Blackmail was an exception because it was shot first as a silent, with a few scenes reshot with sound and others dubbed with simple sound effects. They probably had to add sound a reel at a time without stopping. Anny Ondra is dubbed in that one, but she was dubbed LIVE, with Joan Barry sitting just off camera with a mic lipsyncing Ondra’s dialogue.

    Other movies, like Mamoulian’s Applause, managed to include considerable camera movement, but without live sound: they’d add a soundtrack of atmosphere, then go back to static shots for the dialogue.

    The little-seen French masterpiece La Petite Lise has many experiments, taking it to the next level in a scene where the camera follows a couple from behind, and all their dialogue is a separately-recorded track. But this was pretty well unique, I think.

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