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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Ernst Lubitsch | The Love Parade


where women rule
by Douglas Messerli

Guy Bolton and Ernest Vajda (screenplay, based on a play by Jules Chancel and Leon Xanrof), with music by Victor Schertzinger and lyrics by Clifford Grey, Ernst Lubitsch (director) The Love Parade / 1929

Throughout his significant career, filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch time and again creates situations in his works in which women “shift the tables,” so to speak, on men, revealing their distress at having to serve and a refusal to continue playing passive servants to their loving, often cheating or, at least, wavering spouses. From the insistent revolutions of his Ossi Oswalda films, I Don’t Want to Be a Man, The Doll, and The Oyster Princess of 1918 and 1919 to his later more sophisticated comedies such as Trouble in Paradise (1933), Design for Living (1934) Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) and Ninotchka (19340), women, often quite literarily “wear the pants,” refusing to permit— through trickery, temperamental fits, or, more often, in the later films, simply outwitting their men—their fathers and would-be lovers to control their lives.

     True, in many of these films the heroine often finds that by the end of the film she must give into some of the male demands, but in the process of her previous revolution, it is clear that the males have, at least, partially learned their lessons and “rule,” if rule they must, with a new comprehension of what it means to live in a hierarchical world. Most often men and women both “get even” with one another in Lubitsch’s films, allowing them both, in the process, to learn to find new ways of living together—in some instances such as Design for Living and Trouble in Paradise by exploring more sexually open relationships. In I Don’t Want to Be a Man that transformation even allows, at least temporarily, for the possibility of homosexual encounters and gender shifts.
      Perhaps it should not be surprisingly, accordingly, that even his first talkie and one of the first successful cinematic musical comedies The Love Parade (1929)— despite its absolutely ridiculous Ruritanian plot and its silly operetta-like conventions, performed by its often clumsy and stick-figure leads, Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier—that the paradigm is played out once again.
      Queen Louise of Sylvania (MacDonald) calls for her military attaché in Paris, Count Alfred Renard (Chavalier) to return home after he is caught in an affair with her ambassador’s wife, and is required to punish him. Yet so sexually intrigued is she with the notorious womanizer that she commands him to remain in the castle and have dinner with her alone that very evening. Of course, he is equally attracted to her, but before he can even contemplate the circumstances, he discovers himself married to her and serving as the Prince Consort.

     Since Sylvania evidently is a matriarchically-ruled society, the Prince, as opposed to many a normative heterosexual relationship, has no role his wife’s daily activities, nor has he any power over his wife’s homelife, being left little to do each day besides, after breakfast, playing tennis and cards. Indeed he cannot even be served breakfast until the Queen has first appeared to dine. 
     All of this is foretold quite wittily in the marriage ceremony where the usual allegiance of the wife to obey and eternally love her husband is cleverly reversed. The consequences of that situation and Renard’s attempts to rectify it, possibly even through divorce and public shame of the country’s queen, is the substance of the rest of the work, which ends, obviously, with a nice reversal in which he is allowed to “punish” her by demanding that she stay near him and allowing him a role in the operation both in the her governmental and home duties.
       Fortunately, one might quip, the film “will always have Paris,” where its story begins. Lubitsch, quite brilliantly (at least in the English version; there was also a French-language version of the film) allows most of the early-love making and melodramatic discovery of his affairs to remain in French, making them appear far more naughty than he might have able to express in English. Only the Sylvanians, along with Renard’s comedic French valet, speak English, the latter of whom, Jacques (Lupino Lane), also sets the tone of the whole musical by, as critic Kenneth White commented, “[snapping] the picture off as if it had been flung out by a rubber band,” with the stilly patter of:

                     I’ll lay the dish here
                     Ooh, la la la la!
                     To hold the fish here

                     Ooh, la la la la!
                     The serviettes here
                     And now the cigarettes here
                     And matches, too
                     They musn’t complain.
                     A little candy
                     Ooh, la la la la!
                     A little brandy
                     Ooh, la la la!
                     A bunch of roses
                     To show the way we entertain
                     And a little bottle of champagne.

     Soon after Renard and his evening’s lover enter fighting, she brandishing a gun with which, when her husband enters moments later, she appears to kill herself. The cuckolded husband, after running to his fallen wife and briefly bemoaning her death, picks up the gun and shoots Renard, who standing, like the white cardboard soldier he appears to be throughout the film, is unfazed. The gun has been a fake, with the wife soon coming back to life, the couple quickly exiting with hugs and kisses. 
      When told by the ambassador that because of the scandals he must return to Sylvania, Renard, his valet, and even his dog belt out a trio, “Paris, Stay the Same” devoted to the city of lights and what it has taught them. And we realize almost immediately how much we will also miss that great city when the film transports itself to small country where even the tourists seem utterly bored.
      Indeed, the musical does take a kind of dazed turn, as Louise, awakening, complains “Why am I always awakened from my dreams?” before singing the film’s romantic and quite banal lead song, “Dream Lover."
      Soon after, in Chevalier’s courting song, “My Love Parade,” he can think of no better way to prove his love for the Queen than by comparing her with all the Parisian women he has previously loved, which she seems quite happy to accept as an expression of his true feelings.

      Although Lubitsch does his very best to merrily mock the provincial kingdom with its peeping, whispering and gossiping governmental leaders (played by some of the studios best comic types, Eugene Pallette, E. H. Calvert, and Lionel Belmore) and ladies in waiting, the frothy musical almost gets stopped in its tracks as Chevalier and MacDonald attempt to warm up to one another in the cold halls of its costly castle.
       Fortunately, acrobatic dancer and comedian Lupino Lane, accompanied by the equally physical performer Lillian Roth, save the day with their much more down-to-earth expression of love in “Let’s Be Common,” a comic number that might almost be described as a slightly less refined version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave!” And later the two, along with others, lighten up the goings on once more in “The Queen Is Always Right.”

       So boring is life in Sylvania that we, like the film’s Afghanistan ambassador, almost root for Renard to return to Paris and get a divorce. And Chevalier’s best song, “Nobody’s Using It Now”—which refers to his body parts (arms and lips, as well as hinting at his sexual organ itself) as much as it does to his intelligence and creative possibilities—quite clearly demonstrates the problems Lubitsch was faced with the work’s moribund location. The doors he is so noted as featuring in his films, seem even larger, more ornate, and permanently closed in this film than in his other works.
      Yet, the director and his characters all stumble through somehow, creating a work with enough verve to make it a hit of its day, and lead critics to perceive how The Love Parade came to define the structure of the film musical for decades. 

Los Angeles, December 16, 2015

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