Directed by Rouben Mamoulian
The United States of America
It used to be that actors didn’t need an excuse to burst out into song. Ecstatic joy, crumbling despair, and sheer boredom were all triggers for exultations of music. It was a different time...a time when actors and actresses were expected to be able to sing, dance, and act for their paycheck. Perennial tough men like James Cagney could even be found cutting the carpet and singing to the rafters. It was a time of sequins and tap shoes, of lavish sets and legions of extras, of breathtaking gowns and smart suits. It was the time of Hollywood musicals.
Perhaps there has always been an urge to direct the silver screen towards song and dance. After all, the first talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927), featured seven songs and only a few lines of dialogue. Two years later, the first authentic musical, The Broadway Melody (1929), was so successful that it inspired three sequels and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. But these were still clumsy, uneven affairs. Early musicals were still largely tied to vaudevillian roots, featuring over-the-top acting, boring staging, and clunky songs. The early musicals were also almost always about the backstage antics of stage productions. It seemed as if these musicals were composited from two completely different films: gritty and realistic drama about struggling entertainers and lavish, fantastical musical segments that promoted escapism from the very problems experienced by the cast.
What a blessing Rouben Mamoulian was! What freedom he provided! While other musicals were chained to the stage, Mamoulian took his musicals out into the streets, into the homes, and throughout the countryside. His innovations may seem obvious to modern day moviegoers: a free moving camera, quick scene transitions, and double-channel soundtracks with overlapping dialogue. But they literally revolutionized both the screen and musical industries. Mamoulian’s films focused on every day people instead of actors and actresses. The musical numbers were woven seamlessly into the action, providing unheard of freedom to the action. His dialogue was fast and witty and actually helped progress the plot and lead into the musical numbers. His greatest triumph, Love Me Tonight (1932) did nothing less than to change the face of musical pictures forever.
From the very first minute of the film, viewers from the 30s must have known that they were in for something different. It opened not with a song, but with a “symphony of noises.” We see empty Parisian streets early in the morning before the city comes to life. Suddenly, we hear the THUD THUD of a man fixing street pavement with a spade.
It continues in rhythmic time: THUD THUD...THUD THUD...THUD THUD...Then, we hear a vagabond snoring behind a mountain of barrels.
His snores weave into the heartbeat of the city. A woman starts to sweep her front porch. Smokestacks come to life. Alarm clocks go off. Babies commence to wail. Soon, the entire city of Paris is alive.
Each citizen adds to the rhythmic collage of sound. It is a fascinating scene even by today’s standards. Without surrendering a single note of music, Mamoulian has created his first song: the sounds of Paris.
But then a second, proper song starts. As the camera zooms into an empty window, we meet our hero, Maurice Courtelin, a simple street tailor. He starts to sing about the city of Paris:
It has taxi horns and claxons
To scare the Anglo-Saxons.
That’s the song of Paree.
He then bursts onto the street, continuing his song as he interacts with his fellow Parisians as the camera tracks him in one continuous shot:
Maurice: (To a shopkeeper) How’s your business?
Shopkeeper: How can it fail?
Maurice: (To an old man) How’s your grandpa?
Old Man: He’s back in jail.
Mamoulian has freed the musical from the stage and made even passing extras co-stars. But the innovations don’t stop there. Probably the film’s most famous number is the delightful “Isn’t it Romantic?” It starts with Maurice in his shop signing about the joys of love and romance. His song goes out into the street where a man getting into a cab hears it and starts to sing where Maurice left off. Both the man and the taxi driver continue the song.
The man then gets off the taxi and onto a train where the song is then picked up by a group of traveling soldiers.
The soldiers then transfer the song to a gypsy violinist.
The song finally comes to rest when they are overheard by the young Princess Jeanette.
As she starts to croon the melody, the audience comes to a startling realization: we have been introduced to the romantic interest in the film through the power of song. Through technological prowess, Mamoulian has fated the two lovers with a melody before they have even met.
How they meet is typical Hollywood whimsy: a member of Jeanette’s family has worked up a sizable bill for Maurice, yet refuses to pay. So he travels to their castle to collect, but instead falls madly in love with Jeanette. He has himself introduced as “Baron Courtelin” and convinces the entire family that he is of noble blood. And then the wooing begins. He slowly convinces Jeanette to love him while winning over her family.
But he eventually cannot stand lying anymore so he reveals that he is merely a tailor to Jeanette. She runs off, horrifies, and leaves Maurice heart-broken. He is revealed to the family as, GASP, a commoner and is quickly kicked out. But Jeanette succumbs to her feelings and runs off after Maurice. The whole story leads to a strange scene where she chases after Maurice’s train while on horseback, professes her love through an open window, and then forces the train to stop after playing a dangerous game of chicken.
Of course, as a musical, the plot is secondary to the music. But Mamoulian adds extra dimensions to this relatively straightforward film. He develops Jeanette into a symbol of sexual repression. In one particularly revealing scene, Jeanette tells Maurice that she has already been widowed once before. She was married at nineteen years old to a seventy year old aristocrat who died the following year. As such, her family insists that she remarry a man of her own station. The only problem is that the only two men that fit that description are as old as her first husband. So Jeanette is stuck in a perpetual state of sexual dissatisfaction. In one scene, when Maurice enters, her immediate reaction is to run up to him and shout, “A man!” But this begs the question as to why she repels Maurice at the start of their courtship. Could it be that she literally does not know how to react in such a situation? After all, at twenty-two years old all of her previous courting had been done for her. This may, in fact, be the first time that somebody who reciprocates her affection fought for it with such passion. This is especially obvious in a charged scene where Maurice measures a scantily clad (for the 30s) Jeanette when she tears her gown. Watch Jeanette’s face. She is obviously uncomfortable with how Maurice is touching her. But is it out of modesty or the fact that she has never been touched that way before? After all, her brief marriage to the old aristocrat didn’t bear any children.
This film is also a telling indictment of class and social barriers in the late 19th, early 20th century. Despite her great affections, the realization that Maurice is a common tailor is enough to send her running. In one of the film’s last songs, the staff that works at Jeanette’s castle sings about their total indignation that their hard work would be wasted on someone of their own stature. It isn’t an ironic song, either. The staff is genuinely offended that they had to wait on one of their own. As for Jeanette, it is only after she rejects her family and position that she is able to accept Maurice as her lover.
Of course the film ends with the separated lovers embracing. The plot is rather formulaic. But it is director Mamoulian’s astounding directing that makes it extraordinary. The songs are seamlessly integrated into the action and story. We are whisked away to lands beyond the stage. Indeed, Mamoulian succeeded in making all of Paris and its countryside the stage. Future musicals would build off Mamoulian’s foundation. After all, in the early 30s, the film musical was still in its infancy. But while young, Love Me Tonight was the first giant step that musicals took to achieve their eventual greatness.
Editor's Note: This entire film has been posted on this blog's youtube account. Look to the sidebar for a link.