- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2003

Earlier this year, one of the most delightful romantic comedies ever made, Ernst Lubitsch’s “Trouble in Paradise,” finally entered the DVD inventory. Now one of the most delightful musical comedies ever made, Rouben Mamoulian’s “Love Me Tonight,” is available as well. The pair, both 1932 releases from Paramount, would make a nice gift package for film-loving friends.

“Love Me Tonight” co-stars Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, who had been matched successfully in two earlier Paramount musicals directed by Mr. Lubitsch. It is enhanced by the first superior song score Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart contributed to the movies. Three of the songs became standards: “Isn’t It Romantic?” “Lover” and “Mimi,” a signature number for Mr. Chevalier.

The leading man plays an engaging Parisian tailor, Maurice Courtelin, destined to transcend barriers of class and snobbery when he encounters Miss MacDonald, a lovelorn noblewoman, the Princess Jeanette, during an excursion into the countryside. He is there to collect on the unpaid bills owed by her cousin, the improvident but persuasive Vicomte Gilbert de Vareze, portrayed by Charlie Ruggles.

As a matter of fact, two priceless comic actors named Charles reside with the heroine at the country chateau of her uncle, a wealthy and respectable duke portrayed by C. Aubrey Smith. Jeanette has a hapless suitor, the Count de Savignac, played by the splendidly meek Charles Butterworth.

When Maurice arrives on the scene to disarm most of the household (including Myrna Loy as a man-hungry poor cousin named Valentine), the timid count devotes himself to library genealogy studies in order to unmask an imposture. Gilbert has begged Maurice not to blow the whistle immediately on his bad debts.

“Isn’t It Romantic?” is the film’s style-setting and supremely endearing number. It’s placed early, soon after Maurice has opened his tailor shop for another business day. The first stanzas are shared with a customer, Bert Roach as a commoner named Emile, ready to pay for a set of evening clothes, in pointed contrast to Mr. Ruggles as the slippery Gilbert. When Emile exits the shop, he carries the song with him, and it’s transmitted through other characters — a cabbie and his customer, a group of soldiers, a Gypsy violinist — to the terrace of Miss MacDonald, who gives it a full operetta soprano rendition.

The gracefulness of this “traveling” format is echoed in later musical numbers and numerous touches of incidental humor. It’s also anticipated in a prologue of Parisian scene-setting that transposes a method Rouben Mamoulian had made famous a few years earlier when staging “Porgy” on Broadway; he established the Catfish Row setting with harmonized sounds of the street. His Paris-at-daybreak variation begins with a church bell and builds to such an uproar that Maurice, discovered in his flat, exclaims, “You are much too loud for me.” He terminates the crescendo of sound effects by closing his window and introducing himself with “The Song of Paree.”

Mr. Mamoulian, of Armenian parentage, was born in Tiflis (now Tbilisi) in the Russian state of Georgia in 1898. He was attracted to the theater while studying criminal law in Moscow in the early 1920s. After emigrating to the United States, he specialized in operettas and operas at a theater in Rochester, N.Y., bankrolled by George Eastman. Hired by the Theatre Guild, he enjoyed his first Broadway success with “Porgy.” In 1935, he also staged the George Gershwin opera “Porgy and Bess.” A decade later, he directed two Rodgers and Hammerstein classics, “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel,” on Broadway.

Somewhat forgotten by the time of his death in 1987, Mr. Mamoulian was present at the creation of several landmarks in the evolution of American musical theater from the late 1920s through the late 1940s. He was regarded as a nimble innovator with both sound and imagery as soon as he began moonlighting as a film director, with the Helen Morgan musical “Applause,” a pioneering talkie in 1929. He sustained a prestigious reputation throughout the 1930s. He directed Fredric March in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Greta Garbo in “Queen Christina” and Miriam Hopkins in “Becky Sharp,” the first production that showcased three-strip Technicolor.

The admiration lavished on “Oklahoma!” for carefully “integrating” a song score with the plot might have been justly sprinkled on “Love Me Tonight” a decade earlier. The best numbers advance character points and episodes; they glide from one setting or mood to another — and all so deftly that manipulation is indistinguishable from play.

****

TITLE: “Love Me Tonight”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Made in 1932, decades before the advent of a rating system; occasional sexual innuendo)

CREDITS: Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein, Waldemar Young and George Marion Jr., based on a play by Leopold Marchand and Paul Armont. Songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Cinematography by Victor Milner. Art direction by Hans Dreier

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

DVD EDITION: Kino Video

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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