Underrated Movie #139: Love Me Tonight

Love Me Tonight
Year: 1932
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Writers: Samuel Hoffenstein, Waldemar Young and George Marion, Jr, based on a play by Leopold Marchand and Paul Armont, with delightful songs by Rodgers and Hart
Stars: Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Charlie Ruggles, Charles Butterworth, Myrna Loy, C. Aubrey Smith

The Story: A poor but happy-go-lucky Paris tailor decides that he must track down a deadbeat client at a grand country estate. While there, the tailor falls in love with his client’s royal sister.

How it Came to be Underrated: MacDonald and Chevalier were wildly popular for a short time, but their light-operetta style started to seem very old-fashioned and their fame faded quickly, which is ironic, since the movie seems so startlingly modern today.

Why It’s Great:
  1. If you were to poll the general public about the greatest musicals of all time, this wouldn’t crack the Top 50, simply because many haven’t heard of it, but a good number of film historians would put this all the way up near number one, making this one of the most underrated movies ever. No other musical has done such a great job capturing the infectious joy of song. Chevalier the tailor cheerily bounces through Paris singing, “Isn’t It Romantic.” Soon, a passing taxi driver starts singing the same tune… The tune then passes to his fare, who passes it to an army troupe, who march through the countryside singing it, where it finally makes its way to the ear of a lonely princess looking wistfully out her window... Inevitably, of course, this bond of song will bring these two together. It’s one of the joyous sequences ever shot.
  2. Experimental filmmakers at the time were having some success making feature-length montages of city life called “City Symphonies” Mamoulian takes this concept and makes it literal: In the opening shot, a long workman with a pickaxe emerges onto the streets of Paris in the morning and begins a rhythmic clanking, then he’s joined by shopowners sweeping the streets, maids beating carpets, cobblers nailing on heels, cascading car horns, babies wailing, laundry whipping in the wind, etc. Each sound is transformed from a nuisance into something beautiful as they all blend together. Every moment in this movie is a pure unadulterated delight.
  3. Why did musicals becomes so artificial after this? Once musical production units split off from the rest of the studio system, they prided themselves on attracting the best dancers and choreographers from Broadway, who expected indoor work, elaborate lighting, and a proscenium arch. Mamoulian will have none of that. Rather than cut away to “musical sequences” this whole movie hums to life.
  4. The movie is wonderfully naughty. Mamoulian was one of those directors that enjoyed the lawless pre-code days so much that he never was never quite able to reach the same heights under the puritan strictures of the Hays Code. He was most often compared to Lubitsch, who did a better job adjusting his level of subtlety to fit the new system that came in from 1934 on.
  5. But as indebted as he is to Lubitsch, Mamoulian also looks ahead to the mapcap post-modern absurdity of Frank Tashlin: Chevalier slows down the film stock when it suits him. Angry sculptures of ancestors sing about how disappointed they are by their descendants. There are no rules here, and it’s thrilling.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Besides this and Queen Christina, Mamoulian’s other pre-code triumphs Applause, and Jekyll and Hyde. One of his best post-code movies was The Mark of Zorro.

How Available Is It?: There’s an excellent Kino DVD with an in-depth commentary by Mamoulian protege Miles Kreuger.

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Underrated Movie #80: Queen Christina

Title: Queen Christina
Year: 1933
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Writers: H. M. Harwood, Salka Viertel, Margaret P. Levino, and S. N. Behrman
Stars: Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Ian Keith, Lewis Stone, Elizabeth Young

The Story: The kick-ass 17th century Swedish queen reads books, dresses like a man, and refuses to get married, laughing at those who try to impose gender roles on her. You’d almost think she was a lesbian if she didn’t have so much uninhibited sex with men. She’s allowed to get away with all of it until she tries to shut down the military-industrial complex, resulting in a whisper campaign that brings her regency to a crisis.
How it Came to be Underrated: Mamoulian combined the sensuousness of Ophuls with the brazen good-naturedness of Hawks, but only in recent years have moves like this, Applause and Love Me Tonight been treated like the masterpieces they are.

Why It’s Great:
  1. This movie is very much a product of that magical period from 1929-1933, after the arrival of sound but before the strict enforcement of the production code, when Hollywood movies enjoyed a brief flowering of sexual sophistication. Most “pre-code” movies used that freedom to tell tales that were lurid and dark, but this one used its frankness to celebrate sexual liberation in a way that was positive, political, and progressive. It’s pretty gobsmacking to watch it today.
  2. I love Ninotchka and Grand Hotel, but I would say that this is my favorite Garbo performance. She gets to laugh and cry, deliver speeches and still enjoy great silent moments, such as when she caresses every object in a room because “In the future, in my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room.”
  3. Movie about monarchs almost always fall into the “power corrupts” paradigm, so it’s shocking to see an unironic portrayal of a truly heroic political figure in this context. This movie is brazen in many ways, but nothing is more shocking today than its idealism.
  4. The queen meets the love of her life while cross-dressing of course, and, unlike your average “Twelfth Night” or “Merchant of Venice” production, we actually believe she might pull it off, because of her naturally deep voice combined with the excellent costuming. Garbo also refuses to inject coquettishness, even when a prostitute offers herself up to her! This is such a shocking, delightful movie!
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: As far as great pre-code bio-pics of cold weather queens go, this makes for an extreme contrast with Von Sternberg’s even more lush (and far more lurid) The Scarlet Empress. Consider them a sort of “Goofus and Gallant” pairing: one queen becomes the personification of wisdom, the other descends into total wickedness. (But both have a lot of fun along the way)

How Available Is It?: I has a nice looking DVD with no features.

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