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,Monte Carlo

Monte Carlo

Before she was the Operetta Queen (and so-called "Iron Butterfly") of MGM and the frequent screen partner of Nelson Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald was known in pre-Code days as the Lingerie Queen of the Talkies for her propensity to appear in skimpy camisoles and negligees. She did this mostly under the direction of Ernst Lubitsch, who brought out a sexy, playful side of the soprano before MGM buttoned her up into their series of rather more chaste musicals. Lubitsch and MacDonald worked together on four films (five if you count his uncredited contribution of retakes on The Vagabond King, 1930) and were friends from the very beginning of her career until his death in 1947.

After the success of their first musical together, The Love Parade (1929), which was also her screen debut and his first sound film, Paramount hoped to capitalize on the winning formula with this follow-up. Monte Carlo lacked the presence of Maurice Chevalier, with whom MacDonald had such winning chemistry in the earlier picture. (Lubitsch would correct this error by pairing them again in One Hour with You, 1932, and The Merry Widow, 1934.) Nevertheless, Monte Carlo was a hit with audiences and earned favorable reviews from critics, like the New York Times' Mordaunt Hall, who praised the picture for its "wit with a Parisian flair, keen imagination, tuneful melodies, and clever performances."

MacDonald plays the beautiful but penniless Countess Vera von Conti, who flees her pending marriage of convenience to a prince, boarding a train bound for the eponymous gambling capital and playground of the rich clad in nothing but a chinchilla coat over silk undergarments. In Monte Carlo she catches the eye of Count Rudolph Fallieres, whom she mistakes for a hairdresser and hires for both his sartorial skills and the good luck he brings her at the gambling tables. The requisite misunderstandings and amorous cat-and-mouse games ensue before a night at the opera--an adaptation of Booth Tarkington's similarly plotted Monsieur Beaucaire--reveals his true identity and brings the lovers together.

Produced at a cost of more than $700,000, the picture was praised for continuing the innovations of The Love Parade, particularly the earlier film's breakthrough in integrating story and songs. Every song either defines character or advances the plot. Lubitsch was greatly aided in this by lyricist Leo Robin, with whom Lubitsch would work on four more movies. The director valued the lyricist above all others for maintaining the integrity of the characters even as they were singing "instead of suddenly becoming a performer and walking out of the picture."

The most celebrated example of integration of song and action is the duet for soprano and locomotive with a peasant chorus back-up. As MacDonald speeds toward the Riviera, the train's whistle sets off an introduction to the song "Beyond the Blue Horizon," taken up rhythmically by the engine, wheels, piston, and smokestack. She begins to sing along and soon finds her tune echoed by field hands as she passes. The song, with music by Richard Whiting and W. Franke Harling, became one of MacDonald's signature tunes and reportedly a favorite of President John F. Kennedy. During World War II, she would often sing it to entertain the troops, changing the line "beyond the blue horizon lies the rising sun" to "lies the shining sun" because the Rising Sun was a symbol of America's wartime adversary, Japan.

The one down side to the picture noted by many reviewers is the casting of British musical star Jack Buchanan as MacDonald's love interest. Contrary to the charisma U.S. audiences found in Chevalier at the time, Buchanan today seems rather prissy in the role--a bit more of the stereotypical hairdresser than the dashing count. "I was frequently challenged to prove my manhood in my own country, particularly as a trembling youth," Buchanan once noted. Although he continued to have a highly successful stage and film career in his native England, Monte Carlo proved to be his last American film until the musical The Bandwagon (1953). He enjoyed working with MacDonald on this picture and hoped to find a stage property they could do together. "I felt a very arresting part could be built for her, as her range of talent was so considerable," he later said, but it never came about.

MacDonald almost didn't make this picture. David O. Selznick, then assistant production head for Paramount, believed that with only one movie under her belt, she was not enough of a name to carry this one, but Lubitsch insisted. The director had a fondness for his star that eventually went beyond professional respect. Halfway through production, he threw an afternoon garden party at his Santa Monica beach house attended by a host of celebrities. At one point, the recently divorced Lubitsch cornered MacDonald privately and with great intensity asked her to marry him. Thinking he was joking, she laughed and breezed past him to return to the party. According to some reports, Lubitsch avenged this humiliation by criticizing her mercilessly on set the next day. Confronting him about this harassment, she was told he was only being hard on her because Buchanan was so nervous and insecure and this was the best way to get a good performance out of him. MacDonald didn't buy this explanation, but from that point on, their relationship moved back to a healthier place and the two became close friends. When he died of a heart attack in 1947, just three days after spending Thanksgiving at the home she shared with her husband Gene Raymond, MacDonald sang a slow and moving version of "Beyond the Blue Horizon" at his funeral.

Apparently MacDonald didn't share the enthusiasm many film buffs felt for her early groundbreaking musicals. During a screening of Monte Carlo many years later at the Museum of Modern Art, she laughed openly at all the wrong places, so irritating the audience that an usher was sent to quiet her.

Producer: Ernst Lubitsch
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Ernest Vajda (adaptation); Vincent Lawrence (additional dialogue); Booth Tarkington (novel "Monsieur Beaucaire"); Hans Müller (play, "The Blue Coast"), Evelyn Greenleaf Sutherland (play, "Monsieur Beaucaire")
Cinematography: Victor Milner
Art Direction:
Music: W. Franke Harling; Karl Hajos, Herman Hand, Sigmund Krumgold, John Leipold (all uncredited)
Film Editing: Merrill G. White
Cast: Jack Buchanan (Count Rudolph Falliere/Rudy the Hairdresser), Jeanette MacDonald (Countess Helene Mara), Claud Allister (Prince Otto von Liebenheim), Zasu Pitts (Bertha), Tyler Brooke (Armand), John Roche (Paul, the 'Real' Hairdresser), Lionel Belmore (Duke Gustav von Liebenheim), Albert Conti (Prince Otto's Companion/M.C), Helen Garden (Lady Mary in Stage Opera), Donald Novis (Monsieur Beaucaire in Stage)
BW-90m.
by Rob Nixon
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