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Love Me Tonight

Love Me Tonight

With the language of motion pictures now so indelibly fixed in our collective consciousness, it's hard to imagine that early filmmakers actually had to sit down and construct that language. D.W. Griffith may have pioneered such all-important filmmaking techniques as close-ups, tracking shots, and cross-cutting. But, outside of stationary theatrical productions, there was simply no guideline for telling a story on film through the use of music. That's why Rouben Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight (1932) is considered a pivotal moment in movie history. With this picture, Mamoulian, as much as any other director, shaped the language of movie musicals. In fact, many critics would argue that its dazzling opening sequence has never been equaled for sheer resourcefulness.

The narrative, unlike Mamoulian's technique, is simple enough. A jovial Parisian tailor named Maurice (Maurice Chevalier) is forced to approach one of his customers, the Vicomte de Vareze (Charles Ruggles), for payment of a bill. When Maurice visits the Count's estate, the Count is embarrassed to admit that he can't pay him. In an attempt to make it up to Maurice, the Count introduces the tailor to his royal friends as a Baron. Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald), who took no notice of Maurice when he was a commoner, now finds herself falling for him, and romance ensues. Myrna Loy is also on hand as a nymphomaniac Countess who delivers an armful of memorable zingers before everything reaches the expected happy ending.

The opening sequence that people are still so enamored of consists of two lengthy songs, and several snatches of dialogue, that introduce a vast array of characters while simultaneously conveying the environment they inhabit. Mamoulian's camera journeys from the rooftops of Paris (actually a remarkable facsimile built on Paramount's backlot) to a crew of workers paving a street, then on to some shoemakers whose hammers join the symphony of construction sounds. We then see ­ and hear ­ bums sleeping in the street, a woman shaking out some bed sheets, and cars with horns that honk out another counterpoint to the building rhythm. Finally, we come to rest on Maurice, who's getting dressed for the day. But this virtuoso piece of filmmaking is only just getting started!

Maurice will begin singing "The Song of Paree" while leaving his apartment, and several other characters will get introduced. Eventually, Maurice will have reason to croon Isn't it Romantic, and the song itself will travel across the city, taking on different arrangements courtesy of, among others, a platoon of marching soldiers and a gypsy violinist. Before it's over, MacDonald, Charles Butterworth, and Loy will also be introduced. This elegant sequence puts today's slash-and-burn style of storytelling to absolute shame. It's what people mean when they reference "the magic of movies"- you can only accomplish this kind of thing on film.

Actually, it's a bit surprising that Mamoulian was so audacious. He made his name in the musical theater, first with an opera that was produced in Rochester, New York, then with several successful Broadway shows. But of all the theater directors who eventually ventured into movies, Mamoulian was the first to realize cinema's music-related possibilities.

Mamoulian's other groundbreaking move on Love Me Tonight was to finish the script after Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart completed their songs. In this way, he was able to see to it that the tunes moved the plot along, rather than simply appearing out of nowhere, as if pasted into a storyline that could have just as easily existed without them. It worked like gangbusters, and became one of the central techniques of great Hollywood musicals. In later years, Mamoulian would bring his talents back to the stage, where he would direct such legendary musicals as Porgy and Bess and Oklahoma!.

Though such diverse experts as Kurt Weill and Vincente Minnelli would call Love Me Tonight the greatest musical ever made, its production wasn't completely smooth. Mamoulian never really got along with MacDonald, who found the director to be dry and humorless. And most of the crew agreed with her. One electrician even dropped a lamp dangerously close to Mamoulian's head, and a sound man purposely allowed some audio mishaps (like a sneeze) to be recorded on the soundtrack.

Mamoulian finally approached MacDonald for help, and she told him, "Rouben, we are supposed to be making a comedy, a gay picture full of laughter. But it's almost impossible in the funereal atmosphere you're creating." Mamoulian listened, and soon thereafter saw to it that a more relaxed working environment was in place. It certainly shows in the finished product.

Produced and directed by: Rouben Mamoulian
Screenplay: Samuel Hoffenstein, Waldemar Young, and George Marion, Jr.
Songs: Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
Photography: Victor Milner
Editing: Rouben Mamoulian and William Shea
Art Director: Hans Dreier
Sound: M.M. Paggi
Cast: Maurice Chevalier (Maurice Courtelin), Jeanette MacDonald (Princess Jeanette), Charles Ruggles (Vicomte de Vareze), Charles Butterworth (Count de Savignac), C. Aubrey Smith (The Duke), Myrna Loy (Countess Valentine).
BW-89m.

by Paul Tatara

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