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"You are sitting on top of the world!" So read the telegram Ernst Lubitsch sent Maurice Chevalier shortly after the release of The Love Parade (1929). He was right--and more, Ernst was the one who put him there.
Just two years earlier, Maurice lived in a different country and had a different job. He had been an exceedingly popular cabaret star in France. The movies didn't have much use for a singing sensation during the silent era, but as Hollywood switched over to all-talkies, various movie moguls went shopping in Europe for bargain talent. There were multiple bids for Chevalier's services, and Paramount won. But after all that, Chevalier's first American film was a lackluster thing now forgotten. Innocents of Paris (1929) was an inauspicious start for a career.
Chevalier didn't just have a thick French accent, it was a rough-n-tumble French accent. One biographer called it the "French equivalent of Cockney." As such, Maurice had gotten it into his head that he was a working class hero type. He didn't yet realize that to untrained American ears, any French accent conveyed worldly sophistication and high class.
But then there was Ernst Lubitsch. He was an outsider, too, a German among Americans, and he knew a thing or two about reinvention. The son of a Jewish tailor, Ernst had first gotten into movies as a slapstick clown in silent shorts. As his popularity grew, he earned the right to direct his own movies--and started to develop a reputation as a first-rate director of massive epics. This is not how he is remembered today, but at the time he was called the Griffith of Germany. Hollywood headhunted him, and in 1922 he came to America, on the leading edge of the exodus of Teutonic talent that would only escalate as the Nazis came to power. Once in Hollywood, Lubitsch started to scale things down, replacing spectacle with subtlety. By the time he was ready to make his first sound picture, Lubitsch had crafted a new reputation as a master of romantic comedy.
Perhaps "romantic" is the wrong word for it. Lubitsch comedies were sex comedies. He'd figured out how to tell the dirtiest of jokes in a seemingly tasteful fashion, such that people who would otherwise pretend to be horrified at such raunch would hail him as a genius. For his first sound film, The Love Parade, Lubitsch was planning a musical based on the play "The Prince Consort," set in a fictional European fantasyland. Lubitsch wanted Chevalier to play the rogue Count Alfred, a diplomat whose relentless skirt-chasing scandalized his homeland to the point they recall him from France. Chevalier objected, saying the stiff uniforms and upper-crust characterization didn't fit his persona.
Chevalier wasn't listening. Whatever this role looked like on paper had no relation to what Lubitsch was putting together. He had no intention of creating a convincing foreign land of European potentates and palace intrigue. He was determined to cast every role against type. And rather than try to conceal the gulf between reality and expectations, his plan was to do everything in his power to emphasize those misfits. He brought in former silent comedians, his old comrades -- folks like Lupino Lane and cross-eyed Ben Turpin. He cast gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette as a cabinet minister--because his pugnacious voice would make every single line he said into a punchline. It took a fair bit of cajoling to convince Chevalier to take the part, and the return on that investment of trust was fantastic: Chevalier was rewarded with an Oscar® nomination for Best Actor--one of six Academy Award nominations received by the film, which was Paramount's highest grossing blockbuster hit to date. Lubitsch was named by Film Daily on the Top 10 film directors -- his fifth time on that list, more than any other moviemaker. Top of the world, indeed.
Lubitsch gives Chevalier an impressive, if unconventional, entrance scene. Chevalier doesn't even get to sing the first song--that honor goes to Lupino Lane, as Chevalier's valet. In fact, Chevalier doesn't sing for some time into the film, and once he does enter the film he is shoved to the margins as other characters--unnamed supporting players who appear only this once--provide what we need to know about him.
The Love Parade opens on the valet singing as he sets a table for two--and then yanks the tablecloth out from under the champagne glasses in a magical flourish (there's no point to this gag--just putting the viewer on notice that expectations are likely to be violated without notice). Count Alfred is heard, but not seen, and he's not even heard very well. He and a woman are arguing behind closed doors--and Lubitsch lets the camera linger on that door for some time before Chevalier walks through it to directly address the audience! The woman follows him, venting raw fury. Why? Because while she was getting dressed, she found her garters didn't fit. They weren't her garters. Before Alfred can explain the origins of these bonus garters, her husband storms in. Her infidelity exposed, she grabs a gun and shoots herself dead. Blazing with jealousy and vengeance, her husband takes the gun from her corpse and fires it at Alfred. Who doesn't move. Alfred taps his chest, checking for some kind of bloody wound, then shrugs. The gun wasn't loaded with real bullets -- and the lady's ruse has been exposed. The faux-suicide has been enough to shock her husband into forgiving her. Reconciled, he helps her get dressed to leave. Or, he tries to: her dress clasp is stubborn. She grows impatient with his incompetent fumbling and walks over to Alfred, who clasps it with an effortless grace born of familiarity.
This all takes place in under five minutes. Chevalier has barely moved, hardly spoken, yet we now understand him thoroughly. The sheer volume of intimate characterization, intricate backstory, and impeccable comic timing packed into those five minutes has left the audience whiplashed. But with all that's happened, we almost overlooked the most important thing: Lupino Lane's song. From a contemporary perspective, it doesn't stand out. But this is 1929 -- when movie musicals were haphazard things called "revues." Hollywood had collectively assumed that movie audiences wanted their movies to be realistic, and since people don't just burst into song during their daily lives, the only way to work a song into a movie scene would be to have it be a self-contained and self-conscious performance. Lubitsch figured this reasoning was asinine. Operas mix dialogue and singing all the time, and nobody complains. Who says a movie couldn't tell a coherent story in which the characters sometimes sang their lines?
That The Love Parade arguably marks the birth of the movie musical becomes an even stranger achievement when you consider the technical challenges facing Lubitsch in 1929. You don't even have to be a film pro today to be equipped with editing tools on your phone superior to anything Lubitsch had. Cutting sound recordings in those early days was just this side of impossible. Typically, when a song would be sung onscreen in 1929, the camera stayed focused on the singer, without cutting away, while the performer sang along live to a real orchestra, playing off-screen. In one show-stopping sequence of outrageous ambition, Lubitsch not only cuts during a song, he cuts back and forth between two different couples singing the same song in two different locations. To even do this at all, he had to have the two sets built side-by-side, alongside a single off-camera orchestra, and two separate sound-proofed camera baffles aimed at the two sets. Ernst sat on a stool between the two sets and directed both scenes simultaneously. The soundtrack was recorded intact in a single pass--no cutting of it was required, and the synchronized images could be cut back and forth with technical impunity. Other filmmakers were still dipping tentative toes into the new talkie medium; Lubitsch was already rewriting its rules.
He felt so confident about the new opportunities afforded by working with sound, he was already playing games with the technology. A key scene is not shown to the audience at all, but instead Lubitsch shows us the reactions of eavesdropping busybodies, who narrate it to us. The joke is in the way their descriptions clearly reveal more about what they hope is happening than what they actually witness, but to get that joke the audience needs to have a visual impression of things they cannot see, and an understanding of the psychology of the various narrators. It's a multidimensional approach to storytelling, a conviction that no single frame of the film would ever be just what it appears.
If you're going to make an operetta on film, casting a beloved singer like Maurice Chevalier makes a lot of sense. The problem was, who to cast opposite him? Ernst set to interviewing actresses, and found his pickings unexpectedly slim. "Those who are attractive often have poor voices and those who can act and have good voices are not so pleasing in their appearance," he complained impolitely to the press, "The screen now demands a girl who looks well, can act well, and speak well."
According to some reports, he briefly considered Lillian Roth for the lead, but was dissuaded by her strident Brooklyn drawl and wrote a supporting role for her instead: she plays Lupino Lane's love interest, and she's one of the singers in the two-way duet described above. The anecdote has a strong whiff of the apocryphal to it - Lubitsch was not the kind of director to be put off by someone's classless accent. What is known, though, is that his discovery of Jeanette MacDonald was awkward, delayed, and unlikely. He was discouraged by the crop of talent he'd been shown, and was debating signing Bebe Daniels to the role, when he was shown an old screen test that an unknown aspiring actress had made a year earlier for a different project. At first, the thing was shown to him with the wrong soundtrack, and only after some slapstick-style bungling did the projectionist finally locate the correct voice to go along with the film. There on the screen was a bug-eyed blonde, skinny and unsure of herself, projecting an air of assumed and artificial authority. She was perfect, and her name was Jeanette MacDonald.
Ernst started calling her "Mac" as a term of endearment. She reciprocated the gesture, and called him "Lu." Then he took to calling her "Donald," and rather than call him "Bitsch," she surrendered. He thought she was too thin, and gave her milkshakes between takes to give her more feminine curves. He wanted her to fill out her negligee better because she was going to spend a lot of time in it.
The first time we see Jeanette she's in her lingerie. By 1920s standards, she's essentially nude. But that's just the start of the scene. As it goes on, she takes off the nightie and hops in a bath -- she spends the rest of her first scene actually nude. The movie's still only warming up--she'll be back in her underwear several more times. This would become the hallmark of her career -- rare would be the movie in which Jeanette MacDonald kept her clothes on.
Here she plays Queen Louise, a wise and patient ruler of a country that cannot rest until she's wed. There's only so long she can be expected to put up with sexual frustration, but finding a mate has been tough. Whoever she marries will be "Prince Consort," a glorified pet, and finding a man willing to take on such an emasculated position is a tall order. It doesn't help that, at least as Lubitsch portrays it, the entire country is one enormous small town, parochial and small-minded, populated by rubes and gossips. But then, who should appear in the Queen's chambers but Count Alfred? He's gorgeous and manly -- not to mention rakish and defiant. He's everything she wants and nothing that she needs. She stares with desire and confusion -- who is this guy, and why is he here? Alfred can't even make a proper accounting of himself--he's apparently there for punishment, but neither he nor the Queen can quite figure out why, or what sort of punishment is called for. The more she stares, the more she wants. Love at first sight (or at least lust at first sight), and utter catastrophe in the making. The rascally qualities she loves in him also make him a terrible choice. Can she hope to domesticate him without destroying him?
For some critics, Love Parade unfolds a typical example of Hollywood's anti-feminist attitudes. Why should this strong woman have to surrender to her husband's domination at the end? That's one way of reading it--but let's not forget that there is a recurring joke of describing Alfred as the Queen's "wife." The things that threaten to drive them apart aren't his sexual urges--there is no "other woman," no love triangle of any kind. The problem is the limited life afforded any "wife," male or female. The larger moral of the picture is: if you love somebody, don't make them your wife.
Lubitsch needed to learn that lesson himself. His wife Leni Sonnet, married since 1922, had been carrying on with his best friend. Everyone close to him knew; no one told. Divorce followed -- Ernst was the victim of the very sophisticated permissiveness he depicted in his films.
Better days were ahead, though, both personally and professionally. The most impressive aspect of all the critical accolades and artistic achievements that attended The Love Parade is that, in the fuller context of Lubitsch's career, it is not even remembered as one of his best films. You can't claim to be at the top of the world if you're still climbing.
Producer: Ernst Lubitsch
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Guy Bolton, Ernest Vajda (writers); Leon Xanrof, Jules Chancel (play "The Prince Consort")
Cinematography: Victor Milner
Art Direction: Hans Dreier
Music: W. Franke Harling, John Leipold, Oscar Potoker, Max Terr (all uncredited)
Film Editing: Merrill G. White
Cast: Maurice Chevalier (Count Alfred Renard), Jeanette MacDonald (Queen Louise), Lupino Lane (Jacques), Lillian Roth (Lulu), Eugene Pallette (Minister of War), E.H. Calvert (Sylvanian Ambassador), Edgar Norton (Master of Ceremonies), Lionel Belmore (Prime Minister).
by David Kalat
Philip Castanza, The Films of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.
Scott Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise.
Michael Freedland, Maurice Chevalier.
James Harvey, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges.
Eleanor Knowles, The Films of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.
Gerald Mast, The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies.