Ernst Lubitsch enjoyed one of the brightest directorial careers of the 1920s and '30s, so much so that "the Lubitsch touch" became a household phrase--an ineffable meringue of visual wit and flawless timing, ribald humor and emotional delicacy, and a genius for planting all manner of naughty notions in his viewers' minds without doing or showing anything censorable. So much charm, style, and inventiveness, yet video distributors have largely neglected his films, especially the ones that helped establish Paramount Pictures as the most cosmopolitan studio in Hollywood. How much more gratifying, then, that the folks at Criterion who first made Trouble in Paradise
(1932) available on DVD have bundled Lubitsch's four early-sound musicals in their admirable Eclipse series. This wonderful quartet of still-saucy and beguiling comedies provides bounteous entertainment while also defining a period in film history--and constituting a monument to a director who knew there should be more to "the talkies" than mere talking.
And more to screen musicals than mere "all-singing, all-dancing," which is what lured ticket-buyers at the dawn of movie sound. Instead of the clomping chorus lines and stagebound song-selling of The Broadway Melody and its ilk, Lubitsch created the film operetta, in which song numbers grew out of the characters' behavior and took place in "natural" spaces, and the rhythms and patterns of "normal" dialogue were themselves often musical in stylization. But that's only part of it. Lubitsch also composed a kind of visual music, building motifs through the rhythmic recurrence of staircases, doorways, windows--frames within frames. And then he syncopated it all through the editing, cutting for visual rhymes as well as comic surprise.
His first sound film, The Love Parade (1929), was a sensation with critics, audiences, and Hollywood itself, earning Academy Award nominations for picture, director, and actor Maurice Chevalier. Chevalier plays a nobleman recalled to his mythical Mittel-European land of Sylvania after his extracurricular activities in Paris while serving as a diplomatic envoy lead to scandal. The rake is soon joined in a marriage of convenience with Sylvania's queen, played by newcomer Jeanette MacDonald. Banish all thoughts of those treacly MGM musicals with Nelson Eddy that came half a decade later; this Jeanette MacDonald has spirit and sex appeal to burn, and Queen Louise's imperious manner toward a husband ill-made for the role of prince consort sets off a droll battle of the sexes. At a running time of 112 minutes there are some longueurs, but the stars are in splendid form, and they get yeoman backup from the sparkling Lillian Roth and astonishingly limber music-hall comic Lupino Lane as a couple of servants. Lubitsch, already established in silent films as the master of innuendo with closed boudoir doors, continues his censor-defying tricks with sound: among other things, allowing the punchline of a ribald joke to be heard, but not Chevalier's lead-up to it, seen in elaborate pantomime through a distant window. (Note: Victor Schertzinger's song "Dream Lover," introduced in this movie, would do evocative duty--mostly uncredited--on the soundtracks of numerous Paramount films of the '30s and '40s.)
Monte Carlo, unlike Sylvania, is a real place, but that's beside the point; all the films in this set unreel in a Europe of the Berlin-born Lubitsch's own imagining, adroitly realized by the Paramount art department under Hans Dreier. Monte Carlo also happens to be the title of Lubitsch's second musical (1930), which teams the director again with Jeanette MacDonald but not Chevalier (busy on other Paramount projects). She's a scatterbrained countess who's stepped out of her wedding gown to avoid marrying a silly-ass duke (Claude Allister) and hopped the first train handy--especially handy, given that she's in her lingerie. The Chevalier part is taken by Scottish-born musical comedy star Jack Buchanan, playing a count who decides to romance her in the guise of a hairdresser. As scripted by Ernest Vajda, this is very much not a romance of equals--the man always has the upper hand and the last laugh--yet the strapping MacDonald looks as if she could thrash the reedy Buchanan within an inch of his life. The film's greatest claim to fame is its bravura, still-exhilarating "Beyond the Blue Horizon" sequence, in which MacDonald sings that song out the window of her train compartment and everything in the known world, from the chug-chugging engine to the fringe quivering on the windowshade to entire sunny fields populated with farmworkers, joins in ecstatic support of the melody. A landmark sequence; and yet the movie's most magical instance of the Lubitsch touch is a quiet moment with the countess striding in profile through a Monte Carlo park one evening, a man stepping up to flirt with her, a cutaway to his friend as an offscreen slap is heard, and back to a shot of the countess still in profile, still striding, unperturbed, her rhythm unbroken. Sublime.
The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) is an especially welcome element of the set, given that it was for many years thought to have been lost. It also marks a salutary advance over the previous films, as Lubitsch's first collaboration with writer Samson Raphaelson; Raphaelson became the director's most invaluable creative partner, the two working in such harmony that Raphaelson proposed some of the most "Lubitschean" visual ideas in their films and Lubitsch came up with some of the funniest lines. Raphaelson may also have been instrumental in nudging the director toward a more egalitarian sexual politics--something to be applauded not out of political correctness but because comedy between equally matched parties tends to be much richer and funnier than comedy at the expense of one person (or gender), as in Monte Carlo. The Smiling Lieutenant builds toward the unlikely but very satisfying collusion of the two women in playboy-officer Maurice Chevalier's life, played by Claudette Colbert at her most exquisite (in normally verboten left profile!) and Miriam Hopkins, who would go on to shine for Lubitsch in Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living (1933). (As an early promissory note on those great performances, savor her self-introduction as the daughter of the King of Flausenthurm: "I may be a princess, but I'm also a girl!")
Nineteen-thirty-two was a busy year for Lubitsch. Besides the antiwar film The Man I Killed, an episode in the omnibus film If I Had a Million, and his masterpiece Trouble in Paradise, he made the fourth film in the Eclipse set, One Hour With You. On this, his final Paramount musical, he cut himself some slack. First, it's a remake of his first truly Lubitschean film in Hollywood, the 1924 silent comedy of infidelity The Marriage Circle; for another thing, the initial plan was that George Cukor should direct following Lubitsch's detailed instructions. That didn't fly, and soon Lubitsch took over, completed the picture, and denied Cukor any credit (credit Cukor still felt he deserved decades later). However fraught the production may have been, One Hour With You emerged as a delightful musical comedy, with Chevalier and MacDonald together again as André and Colette, a high-society Parisian couple with a perfect marriage--till Colette's girlhood pal Mitzi (Genevieve Tobin) sets out to seduce André. The film boasts the catchiest song score of the bunch--especially when Chevalier is confiding his temptations directly to the audience, which happens frequently. Like The Love Parade and The Smiling Lieutenant, One Hour With You was nominated for the Academy Award as best picture of its year.
Each film in Lubitsch Musicals has been impeccably transferred to DVD. The prints are crisp and luminous (apart from some shots of MacDonald on the train in Monte Carlo), and in the case of the three earliest titles, something quite rare: the DVDs preserve the early-sound frame ratio of 1.20:1. Yes, it's momentarily startling to encounter this tall format--most of all in the hilariously iconic representation of "Paris" that opens The Love Parade--but distraction soon gives way to deep satisfaction at seeing the original design and composition of Lubitsch's shots. As usual with Eclipse offerings, there are no extras on the DVDs, but the liner notes are models of lucidity, critically and historically. --Richard T. Jameson