The Big Idea Behind LOVE ME TONIGHT
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Paramount Pictures President Adolph Zukor had just survived a major corporate purge triggered by the studio's declining box office in the early years of the Depression. One financial problem he had to deal with was the inactivity of two of his biggest stars, Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, who were drawing large salaries ($10,000 a week for the former; $5,000 for the latter) with no film assignments planned for either. The team's usual director, Ernst Lubitsch, was in the midst of contract negotiations and playing hard to get. Desperate to put the stars to work, he turned to Rouben Mamoulian, a stage director who had scored at the studio with the innovative sound films Applause (1929) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). Although exhausted from his work on the latter film, Mamoulian couldn't resist Zukor's offer of a free hand in choosing and shooting the picture.
Playwright Leopold Marchand suggested that a piece he had written with Paul Armont, Le Tailleur au Chateau, might provide Mamoulian with the perfect plot for his musical. The director agreed that the tale of a tailor passing as nobility would have just the kind of fairy tale quality he was looking for, a reverse-gender Cinderella story. Mamoulian then chose one of Broadway's top songwriting duos, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, to write the score. In a rare move for a film or stage musical, he had them write the songs first, making sure that each lyric related closely to plot and character. He also had Hart write rhymed dialog for some scenes. Only then did he put the screenwriters to work. The result, Love Me Tonight, was a peerless integration of script and score, perfectly fitting the director's concept of the film as an illustrated musical score.
Mamoulian arranged to borrow Myrna Loy, whom he had dated on occasion, from MGM for the role of Countess Valentine, MacDonald's man-crazy cousin, because he thought she had a knack for high comedy. At the time, she was primarily cast as Asian temptresses, but two years later she would live up to his expectations when she starred as Nora Charles opposite William Powell in the screwball comedy-mystery, The Thin Man (1934).
Initially, Chevalier insisted that Mamoulian give him a chance to work on the script and score, but the director refused. When the actor insisted he could not make a film on which he had no input, Mamoulian told him to go to Zukor and refuse to make the movie. "I'll be most grateful because I don't want to do this picture in the first place." Instead, the star gave in, albeit reluctantly.
Mamoulian spent so much time writing and re-writing the script of Love Me Tonight that the start date was pushed back several times. As a result, Paramount had to pay off theatres that had engaged Chevalier to perform during what would become the shooting period. That helped drive the budget close to $1 million.
by Frank Miller
Maurice Chevalier by Michael Freedland