...where distraction is the main attraction.

Monday, March 24, 2008

It begins with Lubitsch

Last night (Sunday) I finally opened the Lubitsch Musicals box set from Criterion/Eclipse. It’s been sitting there, impatiently waiting to be sprung from its shrinkwrap.

I am an Ernst Lubitsch fan. As many filmies have noted, he’s The Forgotten Great American Director. Much of this is due to the paucity of available Lubitsch titles on VHS. An entire generation, or two, have not had the opportunity to watch more than one or two of his films, such as Ninotchka or To Be or Not Be, from the ‘40s. As fine as those titles are, Lubitsch’s style and charm is largely straightjacketed by the Hays Code that governed American cinema’s morality after 1934. Before the Code was enforced, Lubitsch was best known for his audaciously adult comedies. Characters slept around, broke hearts, mended hearts, flirted, then slept around again. And they were never punished by the movie morality gods for it. As a result, many of his early romantic comedies are much more mature and thought-provoking than their present day counterparts.

And despite all of the serious plaudits laid out above, these comedies are thoroughly goofy. Not stupid and childish, but more like a tipsy flirt.

LOVE PARADE (1929)

The first narrative American musical. And what a way to begin.

The first moments of the film: The credits are superimposed over someone flipping through a lingerie magazine, full of women in various states of undress. This cuts to a shot bursting with visual delights. In the center of the screen, dancing girls can-can. At the top of the screen blinking lights spell out “PARIS” in the night sky. And in every corner of the screen jut long erect necks of champagne bottles, framing the great French phallus of the Eiffel Tower. God bless, Ernst Lubitsch.

As a film, Love Parade is a fizzy bottle of champagne. Not a glass, but the whole bottle. It’s bubbly and sweet. Everyone moves about as if there’s a bottle open off-screen. And if the viewer just drinks it all in enough, she won’t notice how silly the story really is.

Let’s get this out of the way. Maurice Chevallier is a cad and a ham. The American female lust that chased him must have largely been due to the fact that he is tall and has a thick Gallic accent. He has only one emotion, goofy smile. Not necessarily happy, just goofy smile. This causes his acting to range from irritating to giddy. When I’d read that he had several asides to the camera/audience, I anticipated the worst. But in fact, his asides to the camera are very funny and work very well, like punctuation to a comic sentence. In Parade, he plays an attach√© from Sylvania (Lubitsch loves to create fictional European countries) who gets kicked out of France from bedding too many broads.

Jeanne MacDonald is a treasure. Though her clothes stay on for the entirety of the film, she is maddeningly sexy as a randy Queen who desperately desires a mate. It’s a good thing that Chevallier, ever the male tart, shows up just in time to serve her royal needs.

Their first sequence together is the highlight of the film. He’s been ordered to see the Queen for punishment. And once the Queen looks up from the report of his exploits, she looks like she’s ready to eat this lanky Frenchman alive. The banter that follows between the two of them is intoxicating. Not necessary because of the dialogue, but because of the actors’ performances. Watch their faces. There is so much devilish fun in her eyes. His showy attempts to act coy fail spectacularly. Both appear ready to burst into laughter. The flirting works so well, that the viewer may just forget what the characters have actually said having been seduced by the dance they’ve done.

The supporting characters have a lot of fun as well. Chevallier’s Parisian servant (Lupino Lane) returns with him to Sylvania. (The fact that Chevallier’s character is not French, but does have a French accent, while the servant is French and does not have the accent is quite funny. Though this happened out of technical necessity, the film does address this in a joke that is, of course, of a sexual nature.) Once in Sylvania, Lane falls head over heels (literally) for Lilian Roth’s Lulu, a six-foot busty brunette in a French maid’s uniform…………

………wait, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, so though they engage in a playful shoving match, this is fight he’ll lose.

As far as the actual music goes, there’s a great joke at the end of the first full song. There’s some quality banter to “Anything to Please the Queen”. But other than that the other tunes neither offend nor astound. Characters burst into song because that’s what seems to happen when the little bubbles start to make people giddy.

And yes, the women are luminous and the men are ridiculous. The ending doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but really, to a point, who cares?

MONTE CARLO (1930)

To today’s audiences Maurice Chevallier may appear…how shall I put this?...to have a certain lack of testosterone. But compared to the gentlemen of Monte Carlo, he’s Bruce Willis.

Jack Buchanan is completely miscast as a male lead, especially next to the feminine fountain of Ms. MacDonald. Part of it has to do with his face: a joker’s smile with no lips, protruding cheekbones, and beady eyes. Additionally, it’s in his voice. There’s an unusual emphasis on his S’s that aren’t so much the stereotypical sibilance that some equate with homosexuality. Rather the hiss is elongated and held, so that he sounds like Sterling Holloway’s snake Kaa from The Jungle Book.

Basically, he’s unintentionally unsettling. And he has no chemistry with MacDonald. As a result her mojo is lessened without an acceptable sounding board. Sexy sometimes takes two.

The scenario itself is ridiculous without being comically so. Buchanan poses as her hairdresser to……well, I don’t know….touch her? There’s a surreal song called “Trimmin’ the Women” sung by Buchanan and two other exceedingly feminine men about the joys of touching women while cutting their hair.

On top of the fact that the story doesn’t work, the lack of chemistry, the sparse and forgettable songs, the film is also limp in the humor department. It’s rare to see a film do so much to accomplish so little. 90 minutes of not much.

There are small positives. There’s some fun wordplay during a song at the beginning of the film. There’s also an inventive train/music montage that’s surprisingly artistic and effective. And MacDonald works hard to achieve her groove and her lovely face is expressive as always. Lubitsch plants some little clever visuals here and there, but, for the most part, Monte Carlo is a losing hand.

29 Weeks?!

For twenty-nine weeks that previous post sat lonely at the top of page. But no longer.

In an attempt to resurrect this blog, I have decided to largely focus on film (and occasional music) discussion/thoughts/reviews. The goal is to make these entries snack-sized yet filling. A few sips of scotch rather than a barrel of malt liquor.

This works better for you and for me, since this darned job-thing keeps my writing time limited. And I like scotch.

The site will also remain PG-rated, as far as language goes. This is a challenge for me since I love dialing up colorful metaphors when I have specific passions about film. This approach will be even more difficult since the films I’m currently watching are brazenly adult.

Note: I finally saw No Country for Old Men on Friday night, but I’m not ready to discuss. At first blush it was a lot better than I thought it would be. That may or may not change as it stews.