- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2008

A native Berliner, Ernst Lubitsch was no stranger to musical entertainment. While a prominent character actor with Max Reinhardt’s company at the Deutsches Theater between 1911 and 1917, Mr. Lubitsch moonlighted as a nightclub and cabaret performer.

He also moonlighted as a film actor, and before long, the avocation supplanted his theatrical career.

During World War I, Mr. Lubitsch (1892-1947) emerged as a slapstick star of German movies. It was a logical step to begin directing his own vehicles. Eventually, he submerged his acting in film direction, where his postwar specialty became feature-length spectacles, typically irreverent historical sagas that showcased Pola Negri as a femme fatale. The director and his leading lady were Hollywood fixtures by the early 1920s.

The next Lubitsch specialty was boudoir romantic comedy while he was a prestige asset at Warner Bros. from 1924-26. Toward the end of the silent period, Mr. Lubitsch directed a movie version of “The Student Prince” at MGM. The operetta’s melodies certainly were heard from theater orchestras, organs or pianos, although not on a movie soundtrack in this 1927 release. It was a near miss because the next two Lubitsch films were silents augmented by music and sound effects.

Three movies after “The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg,” Mr. Lubitsch began almost a decade at Paramount by finessing his talkie debut with a musical comedy that created a delightful new romantic-comedy vocal team, Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, and illustrated what movie musicals might aspire to in terms of optimum playfulness and sophistication. This was “The Love Parade,” which received six Academy Award nominations but won none.

“The Love Parade” blithely approaches an 80th anniversary in 2009, defying the ravages of time and fashion with distinction and authority. “The Love Parade” casts Mr. Chevalier as an amorous military attache obliged to reconcile himself to a somewhat ignominious role as prince consort after beguiling Miss MacDonald, queen of a miniature kingdom called Sylvania. It launched Mr. Lubitsch on a fleeting career as a specialist in cinematic musical comedy. This period ended in 1934, when he reunited with his co-stars for a sumptuous movie version of “The Merry Widow” at MGM. Before that finale, he directed three more musicals at Paramount in the early 1930s: “Monte Carlo,” “The Smiling Lieutenant” and “One Hour With You.”

These titles and “The Love Parade” are part of “Lubitsch Musicals,” a DVD set distributed under the Eclipse imprint of the Criterion Collection. Eclipse selections are designed to revive “lost, forgotten or overshadowed classics.”

An inescapable conclusion of watching Mr. Lubitsch’s Paramount musicals in succession is that the subsequent pictures were overshadowed qualitatively by “The Love Parade.” Its ingredients proved so fresh and harmonious that duplication became a slippery proposition.

The last of the quartet, “One Hour With You,” comes close, in part because it restores the Chevalier-MacDonald chemistry. She plays opposite a different leading man, England’s Jack Buchanan, in “Monte Carlo” but is missing from “The Smiling Lieutenant,” which compensates rather more deftly by giving Mr. Chevalier, back in the Lubitsch fold, a pair of leading ladies, Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins.

Miss Colbert, the leader of an all-girl band, is by far the more compatible sweetheart, but it amuses the filmmakers to favor Miss Hopkins, cast as a pill of a lovelorn princess. The perverseness of the matchmaking arguably is trumped by the number that reconciles the women as rivals, “Jazz Up Your Lingerie,” a choice reminder that these musicals were made and released before the strict censorship regime of Hollywood’s Production Code.

Not that the Lubitsch flair for innuendo and deadpan sexual allusions was ever severely inconvenienced by censors, but returning to the early 1930s is always an invitation to diverting forms of romantic effrontery and suggestiveness.

Perhaps the greatest value of having “The Love Parade” readily available to new generations is that it’s admirably equipped to restore Miss MacDonald’s reputation, which suffered decades of ridicule as a result of the undeniably stilted aspects of her numerous operetta movies at MGM co-starring Nelson Eddy. The performer who made her film debut in Ernst Lubitsch’s first musical is a charming revelation who wouldn’t necessarily evolve into the established songbird who later earned the sobriquet “the Iron Butterfly.”

Introduced in fetching lingerie, Miss MacDonald at 26 might have been likened to a butterfly, but one of irresistible freshness and delicacy. The demure attributes that came to seem preposterous a decade later are sincerely appealing in “The Love Parade,” in which both stars project a subtle and lovely appreciation of how social protocol needs to be at once appeased and outmaneuvered to save a genuine romance.

TITLE: “Lubitsch Musicals”

CONTENT: Four musical comedies directed at Paramount by Ernst Lubitsch between 1929 and 1932

RUNNING TIMES: “The Love Parade,” 109 minutes; “Monte Carlo,” 90 minutes; “The Smiling Lieutenant,” 89 minutes; “One Hour With You,” 78 minutes

DVD EDITION: Eclipse Series of the Criterion Collection

WEB SITE: www.criterionco.com

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