For many years, critics and historians tended to see Love Me Tonight as an unsuccessful imitation of the great director Ernst Lubitsch. In recent years, however, this extraordinarily stylish musical has come into prominence and has been recognized as a key film in the liberation of the screen from the limitations of early sound recording. If it does not quite reach the height of sly wit which was the hallmark of "the Lubitsch touch," it has an audaciousness and a fresh taste for experimentation which give it unique status among screen musicals.
Director Rouben Mamoulian had directed opera in Rochester, New York, and had done distinguished work on the Broadway stage after having been brought to this country in the 1920's by the Kodak magnate George Eastman. He was ripe for being summoned to Hollywood in 1928 when the film studios were in a panic over how to produce the sound films which the public increasingly demanded. Dealing with words had been the one commodity which Hollywood had treated with disdain during its silent era; suddenly, however, it was being forced to mine the seeming center of dialogue expertise—the legitimate stage. Mamoulian was one of a horde of Broadway types who trekked West, but he was virtually alone in his artistic belief that ,directing for films required an entirely new technique from that of the stage. In the direction of his first film, Applause (1929), he stubbornly insisted on experimenting with techniques which the all-powerful sound engineers pronounced impossible. He was allowed to have his own way by the front office, presumably on the assumption that he would fall on his face and return East. Applause was a sensation, however, and directors all over town began copying Mamoulian's techniques.
Not content to repeat 'himself, this gifted man went on to direct many different kinds of films, including the gangster film City Streets (1931) and the first talking version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932). Love Me Tonight was the director's first musical. He later went on to direct the stage originals of such landmark musical works as Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma!, and Lost in the Stars.
Love Me Tonight concerns Maurice Courtelin (Maurice Chevalier), a Parisian tailor who, in order to collect unpaid bills for himself and his fellow shopkeepers, visits the debtor, the Viscount de Varese (Charles Ruggles), at the chateau of his uncle the Duke (C. Aubrey Smith). Maurice allows himself to be mistaken as the Baron Courtelin upon the urging of the Viscount. His ulterior motive is to get to know the Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald), whom he had met by accident on his way to the chateau. Although the Princess is seemingly unimpressed by Maurice, during the course of a hunt and the Ball following, the two fall in love. The following morning, Maurice is revealed as merely a tailor. The Princess, although initially shocked by the revelation, reconsiders her feelings, and in a dramatic horseback chase of Maurice's departing train, effects a happy ending.
Such a bald recitation of the plot cannot begin to suggest the charm and spirit of the film, but a closer look at the film's extraordinary opening sequences might convey a sense of its real worth. In a fifteen-minute sequence, consisting of two extended songs and a minimum of dialogue delivered both in rhyming couplets and in blank verse, an entire universe of characters and their relationships is created in a dazzling display of virtuosity which would be extraordinary in any filmmaking era. In the early days of sound, however, when experimentation was discouraged and stage-bound conventions were the rule, it was absolutely unique.
A shot of Paris rooftops and the Eiffel lbwer in the distance establishes the locale as Paris. Deserted streets in the first glow of morning are just beginning to come alive with people. A road crew begins paving operations; shoemakers set up their benches, and the sounds of their hammers hitting nails acts as counterpoint to the paving sounds; some derelicts' snores add a different rhythm; a housewife shakes out the bed linen; cars and taxis begin to rattle, honk, and cough their way through the streets. A young woman throws open her window and starts a phonograph record and the camera moves through the open window of a young tailor named Maurice, who is dressing for the day. Hanging from a crack in the wall is the characteristic straw hat which tells us even before he appears on film that the young man is Maurice Chevalier.
Meanwhile, the street noises have coalesced into a symphony of cacophony which proves too much for Maurice, who closes his window to sing "The Song of Paree." He continues the song, and it becomes a running recitative as he proceeds from his house along the street to his tailor shop. This sequence introduces various neighborhood types along the way and defines Maurice's character entirely through song. After Maurice opens his shop, Emile (Bert Roach) arrives to pick up the tuxedo in which he will be married. As he is trying it on, a marathon race passes the shop, and one of the entrants, who is wearing his underwear instead of track shorts and carrying a sign from a fruit stand, runs into the shop. He is the Viscount de Varese who had earlier ordered fifteen suits from the struggling Maurice. Explaining that he has just escaped from a jealous husband, the Viscount takes a suit and borrows money from Maurice, promising to return soon with "bags of gold." Maurice then sings to Emile of his good fortune and his optimistic view of life in "Isn't It Romantic?" As Emile leaves the shop he begins humming the catchy tune as he walks, and then turns down the offer of a ride in a taxi. A musician rushing for the train station jumps into the cab, and he and the driver pick up the tune as they drive along. Although the scenes change rapidly from one locale to another, they are all bridged by the same song.
On the train, the musician decides to add words to the tune. He is surrounded by soldiers who pick up the song and sing it in military fashion both on the train and then on maneuvers in the countryside. A strolling gypsy violinist hears the tune and plays it in his camp, gypsy-style. The song wafts through the forest to the balcony of a magnificent chateau where, as destiny would have it, it is ended in operettic fashion by Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald). Before she finishes singing the song, an elaborate series of vignettes introduces the other denizens of the chateau. They include a milquetoast Count (Charles Butterworth); the stuffy Duke; the Viscount; his cousin, the nymphomaniac Countess (Myrna Loy); and three maiden aunts who invariably appear together, share dialogue, and do imitations of the witches in Macbeth.
The sequence is a masterpiece of writing, acting, musical and lyric composition, editing, and sound recording. In an imaginative and totally cinematic manner, all the major characters are introduced and their relationships with one another are established; and all is accomplished with wit, grace, and movement.
Aside from the charm and audacity of the direction, Love Me Tonight boasts a landmark score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Although they had earlier written a score fora musical called The Hot Heiress, Rodgers considers this his finest film score—and with good reason. In addition to "The Song of paree" and "Isn't It Romantic?," the score includes the waltz "Lover" and a classic recitative of subtle eroticism in which a doctor says to the ailing Princess: "You're not wasting away, you're just wasted." At the Ball, Maurice sings "I'm an Apache" and the title love song "Love Me Tonight." As he is unmasked, the entire household sings the patter song, "The Son-of-a-Gun Is Nothing But a Tailor!"
More than any other film score, the music in Love Me Tonight acts to propel the plot along; it predates, in this regard, Rodgers' score for Oklahoma! The script is very witty, particularly in dealing with Myrna Loy as the sex-starved Countess. In one memorable scene when the Princess has fainted, the Viscount says to the Countess, "Can you go for a doctor?" Straightening her hair, she responds, "Certainly, bring him right in." Love Me Tonight is so full of good humor that it is the only known film in which C. Aubrey Smith, the very symbol of the British Empire, actually sings a song. In fact, he is so flabbergasted by his own rendition of "Isn't It Romantic?" that he puts his arm in the wrong sleeve of his robe. The gaffe was left in the film.
The supporting cast is first-rate, including Myrna Loy, Charles Ruggles, Charles Butterworth, Elizabeth Patterson, and Ethel Griffies. The physical production is stunning, re-creating Paris streets, bucolic chateaus, and the French countryside on the Paramount backlot. In viewing the film closely, one can observe three zoom shots which are puzzling when one thinks of the zoom lens as an invention of the 1950's. Mamoulian was once asked about this. Frank Capra was standing alongside him at the time, and when asked why, if the zoom was available in 1932, it was not used extensively until thirty years later, Capra said, "We had taste then."