October 13, 2013 by smumcounty
“Love Me Tonight” (1932) begins with scenes of the waking of Paris one early sunny morning. Eager to establish its musical bona fides it takes the rhythmic sounds of a pickaxe, a snoring man, the hammerings of a cobbler and other such early morning fare and turns them into a symphony which then becomes “The Sound of Paris” when we are introduced to Maurice Courtelin (Maurice Chevalier) who sings “It has taxi horns and claxons to scare the Anglo-Saxons…You would sell your wife and daughter for just one Latin quarter. That’s the sound of Pareeeee.”
With songs by Rodgers and Hart and produced and directed by Robert Mamoulian, “Love Me Tonight” is an early example of the movie musical, often cited as being the first modern movie musical since the songs included are integral to the plot and not just so much window dressing. Based on the play “The Tailor in the Castle”, Rodgers and Hart were tasked to write the songs before the screenplay was written thus giving added weight to the music of this movie musical. The results are impressive since the songs in this musical can stand alone on their own account. “Isn’t it Romantic” and “Mimi” especially stand out, with “Mimi” becoming the signature song of Maurice Chevalier for the rest of his career.
The story involves a Parisian tailor, Maurice Courtelin (Chevalier), who has done a great amount of work for the Viscount Gilbert de Varèze (Charlie Ruggles) who has a reputation of ordering goods from tradesmen and then never paying. In order to induce him to resolve his debts, Maurice goes to find him at his country estate. As usual, the Viscount doesn’t have the money to pay and is reluctant to ask his rich uncle for the money. Maurice swears he will not leave without his money and if he’s not paid will speak to the uncle himself. The Viscount promises that if he will just wait a few days he will have the money for him and offers to let him stay at the estate, meanwhile, introducing him as the Baron Courtelin to his family. Maurice at first refuses. He has to get back to his shop but then he is introduced to the Viscount’s cousin, the Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald). Maurice had previously run into Jeanette on his journey to the castle and was smitten so he eagerly agrees to stay a few days. The rest of the story involves (spoiler alert) how this lowly tailor and this aristocratic princess fall in love, despite their differences in station.
Sounds like typical Depression-era fare for a movie musical but “Love Me Tonight” manages to rise above many others of its genre. One way it does this is through the aforementioned terrific music and the light and breezy way it is woven into the plot. The most famous song of the group, “Isn’t It Romantic” is a case in point. This song is introduced by Maurice Chevalier singing in his shop in Paris. It is then picked up by one of his customers as he walks out the door who then transfers it to a composer as he is getting into a cab. The composer sings it in the cab and transcribes it to paper. Later, he sings it on a train and it’s picked up by a group of soldiers. Cut to the soldiers marching through the woods and it becomes a military march overheard by a gypsy who plays it on his violin at his camp site that night. This is then overheard by the Princess Jeanette who takes it up in MacDonald’s operatic fashion. This song through clever editing then becomes a thematic link between our two prospective lovers, linking them romantically through song before they’ve even had a chance to meet. Call it an example of a Depression-era ear worm. My family can attest to the power of this ear worm as we all went around the house singing “Isn’t it romantic. La dee da dee da.” after this scene was over.
“Isn’t It Romantic” Ear Worm
Another element that sets this musical above others of this era is the number and quality of the character actors involved all of which will likely get their own blog entry in the future in my Know Your Character Actor series. There’s Charlie Ruggles, he of the raised eyebrow, who is great as the spendthrift Viscount. He often played a role in Chevalier musicals of the time. C. Aubrey Smith plays the blustering uncle. Myrna Loy does a turn as a man hungry cousin who is bored to tears with life at the estate. This is two years before she first appears as Nora Charles in “The Thin Man”. Charles Butterworth is great as a suitor in residence to the Princess. Butterworth plays the same sort of limp, ineffectual effete he usually plays. In the first scene where you see the Princess sing “Isn’t It Romantic” he climbs a ladder to woo the her at her balcony. “I trust you do not find my wooing too ardent?” he asks her in all seriousness. “I was just admiring your restraint,” is her reply. Even the butler is played by the gentleman’s gentleman of character actors, Robert Grieg.
Finally, this being a Pre-Code film, they don’t miss a chance in making a film with a little sex and it’s done in the same breezy, lyrical way as the rest of the film. After the Princess has just run into Maurice on the road she makes her way into the house and promptly faints, one can only guess from the excitement that the meeting has created in her. She is placed in bed and the doctor is called to examine her. The examination is done with the doctor talk-singing and the Princess answering him likewise and sometimes singing out right. The doctor wastes no time in having her disrobe down to her camisole. “And now, my dear, remove your dress…There’s no occasion for distress…As long as professional ethics apply, I’ll see you with only a doctor’s eye.” Jeanette drops her dress to the floor and the camera dutifully pans down her body from head to foot. You gotta love Pre-Code Hollywood.
The doctor takes her pulse and listens to her heart and determines that she is in perfect health. “Then why do I lie awake in bed? And why does blood run to my head?” she sings. The doctor inquires if she is married and then it comes out. She’s been widowed for three years after having been married at 16. She offers the doctor a portrait of her dead husband and we see an old man staring back at us. “How old was your bride-groom, dear?” “Seventy-two,” she replies. The Princess tells him she’s worried she’s wasting away. “With eyes and red lips and a figure like that?” he replies. “You’re not wasting away. You’re just wasted.” (rim shot) The doctor determines that she should be married to a man of her own age, and quickly. It’s interesting to note that this scene, even though seemingly innocent to us, was commonly one that was deleted by local censors when the film was exhibited. I like this scene. It’s really very charming in its naughtiness and I like the rhyming speech going back and forth between the Princess and the doctor although I can see how this might grate on some.
The Doctor Examines Jeanette
Another aspect of the film I find interesting is the characterization of Maurice. He’s a tailor, not at the same station as a princess, but he takes pride in being a tailor. He enjoys his work which I appreciate in anyone. When he is first introduced to the estate house, he off-handedly admires the workmanship of the butler’s suit. He walks past the Princess’s three aunts and comments on their embroidery. “The needle is magnetic,” he tells them. He enters the library and sees the uncle polishing a suit of armor with a piece of silk. “Never use silk on armor,” he says. “You want flannel.” “Are you interested in armor,” the uncle asks. “Any sort of wearing apparel,” he replies. I can’t help but think that audiences of the time could relate more readily to this hard working man than the protagonists of most other musicals who inhabited a world they could only dream of. Sometimes it’s nice to see the little guy catch a break.
In the end, Maurice’s love of tailoring is his undoing. At this point, he and the Princess have declared their love to one another. He’s made a half-hearted attempt to prepare her for the truth: “You don’t know me.” and she’s gone so far as to say, “Whoever you are … I love you.” The next morning he finds her in her room being fitted for a new riding suit by her seamstress. At first he is so in love he can see nothing but her but when she asks his opinion of her new habit he tells her that it just won’t do. The collar rides up; it’s too tight across the chest; the whole thing lacks smartness. The seamstress is so insulted she leaves and causes the rest of the family to enter the room to see what the hubbub is all about. By this point, Maurice has taken off the Princess’s coat and has begun to disassemble it so when the family finds the Princess with only a camisole top on, they are shocked. They won’t believe that he only has her fashion in mind so to prove his honorable intentions he is forced to declare that he will rebuild the riding habit for her in two hours. Of course he does. But he can’t help himself. His professional pride causes him to complete the job too well. “How were you able to make this habit in two hours?” the Princess asks “How were you able to make it at all?” Remembering her words earlier, he manages the courage to sheepishly admit, “Because I am a tailor.”
Once the Princess realizes he’s not joking, she can’t accept the truth and she runs out of the room. Soon the rest of the house hears the truth and after they finish singing a few verses of “The Son of a Gun Is Nothing but a Tailor” Maurice is paid off and sent packing. Later, of course, when Maurice is on the train back to Paris, Jeanette changes her mind and races after him on horseback. She stops the train by standing on the tracks and the film ends with them in a clinch.
One final note on the singing styles of the two primaries in this film: Maurice Chevalier has a very relaxed, informal style that is descended from the music hall while Jeanette MacDonald’s style can be seen as the polar opposite; she has a very formal, operatic style. It would seem that these styles would clash when combined in the same film but they don’t. I’m not a big fan of Jeanette MacDonald’s operatic voice and I think if she were paired with another opera singer it would be too much. Of course, she was paired quite often with Nelson Eddy, a classically trained baritone, and the result is just too much, in my opinion. In their films, Jeanette MacDonald gives Maurice Chevalier class while Chevalier softens MacDonald’s style and makes it more accessible.
These early musicals are very light entertainment and can be cloying at times but I find “Love Me Tonight” charming.