Love Me Tonight – Rouben Mamoulian
For many years, critics and historians tended to see Love Me Tonight as an unsuccessful imitation of the great director Ernst Lubitsch. In recent years, however, this extraordinarily stylish musical has come into prominence and has been recognized as a key film in the liberation of the screen from the limitations of early sound recording. If it does not quite reach the height of sly wit which was the hallmark of “the Lubitsch touch,” it has an audaciousness and a fresh taste for experimentation which give it unique status among screen musicals.
Director Rouben Mamoulian had directed opera in Rochester, New York, and had done distinguished work on the Broadway stage after having been brought to this country in the 1920’s by the Kodak magnate George Eastman. He was ripe for being summoned to Hollywood in 1928 when the film studios were in a panic over how to produce the sound films which the public increasingly demanded. Dealing with words had been the one commodity which Hollywood had treated with disdain during its silent era; suddenly, however, it was being forced to mine the seeming center of dialogue expertise—the legitimate stage. Mamoulian was one of a horde of Broadway types who trekked West, but he was virtually alone in his artistic belief that ,directing for films required an entirely new technique from that of the stage. In the direction of his first film, Applause (1929), he stubbornly insisted on experimenting with techniques which the all-powerful sound engineers pronounced impossible. He was allowed to have his own way by the front office, presumably on the assumption that he would fall on his face and return East. Applause was a sensation, however, and directors all over town began copying Mamoulian’s techniques.
Not content to repeat ‘himself, this gifted man went on to direct many different kinds of films, including the gangster film City Streets (1931) and the first talking version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932). Love Me Tonight was the director’s first musical. He later went on to direct the stage originals of such landmark musical works as Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma!, and Lost in the Stars.
Love Me Tonight concerns Maurice Courtelin (Maurice Chevalier), a Parisian tailor who, in order to collect unpaid bills for himself and his fellow shopkeepers, visits the debtor, the Viscount de Varese (Charles Ruggles), at the chateau of his uncle the Duke (C. Aubrey Smith). Maurice allows himself to be mistaken as the Baron Courtelin upon the urging of the Viscount. His ulterior motive is to get to know the Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald), whom he had met by accident on his way to the chateau. Although the Princess is seemingly unimpressed by Maurice, during the course of a hunt and the Ball following, the two fall in love. The following morning, Maurice is revealed as merely a tailor. The Princess, although initially shocked by the revelation, reconsiders her feelings, and in a dramatic horseback chase of Maurice’s departing train, effects a happy ending.
Such a bald recitation of the plot cannot begin to suggest the charm and spirit of the film, but a closer look at the film’s extraordinary opening sequences might convey a sense of its real worth. In a fifteen-minute sequence, consisting of two extended songs and a minimum of dialogue delivered both in rhyming couplets and in blank verse, an entire universe of characters and their relationships is created in a dazzling display of virtuosity which would be extraordinary in any filmmaking era. In the early days of sound, however, when experimentation was discouraged and stage-bound conventions were the rule, it was absolutely unique.