When I was younger, I was never a fan of musicals but I remember the day that changed. I was studying film at Columbia College and I was scurrying from work to my afternoon class – Aesthetics of Film – and not looking forward to it. We were going to start an examination of the musical genre and it was raining cats and dogs. Having no money, I was unsuccessfully dodging quarter-sized raindrops as I scuttled from the subway to campus, some four blocks distant, thinking, “Blow off class…go home, get dry…blow off class…” However, the fact that it was my first year in college and I still believed in being responsible about going to class for an education I was paying for, compelled me to slog, soggy shoes and all, up to the 8th floor screening room for what I was sure would be a horrible afternoon.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The film I saw that day, the one that made me change my mind about an entire genre, is being shown on Turner Classic Movies Thursday night and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is Rouben Mamoulian’s masterpiece Love Me Tonight, a rollicking, bawdy, charming film, a musical that helped revolutionize the form and establish the structure for future entries in the genre. Banned in many states for its suggestive content, surviving prints of the movie are missing up to 15 minutes of footage that was deemed too offensive. Fortunately, no other cuts were made and what survives is a delightful exercise in clever innuendo and innovative musical presentation.
The film gets off to an ingenious start as tailor Maurice Courtelin (Maurice Chevalier) wakes up in the morning to thesounds of Paris, as steps are being swept, rugs are being beaten and anvils are being clanged upon. All of these sounds are combined as part of the musical number “That’s the Song of Paree,” which Chevalier sings, walking through the streets on the way to his shop. This innovative approach – integrating the environment into the music – sets the tone for the film, as it is done in a joyous, carefree manner that suffuses the entire movie.
Chevalier is at his finest, absolutely captivating and charismatic as a romantic man about town who gets swept away by the beauty of Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald), a young woman who’s been married to a series of much-older men and happens to be wasting away from a severe case of melodrama. What she and many others in the cast regard as passionate is summed up in the classic Rodgers and Hart song “Isn’t it Romantic?” which is presented in a series of vignettes in which various characters sing separate verses of the song, all of which are edited together as the story moves from one setting to the next. It’s believed that this is the first time such a device was used in a musical and it’s a tribute to Mamoulian’s genius as he recognized that this genre was in its infancy, ripe for molding and innovation.
One of the reasons the film is not as well known, as it should be is because of its notorious reputation. The film ran afoul of the Hays Commission, a body set up in Hollywood to regulate the content of all movies before they were released. It’s easy to see why the film raised so many eyebrows in 1932 as many of the costumes MacDonald and co-star Myrna Loy wear are more than a bit suggestive. A sequence in which Courtelin measures the princess for a new set of clothes, while she’s in one of the skimpiest negligees ever made, was deemed too offensive and was cut out of many prints. Thankfully, it survived in some versions of the film and when you see the outfit the actress is wearing, you’ll understand why the tailor falls for her. Also of note is a black lace dress that Loy wears late in the film. When MacDonald saw the original ensemble her co-star was going to wear in the scene, she had a jealous fit and insisted that she wear it. The star got her way but Loy got her revenge when she and a friend raided the costume room and pulled together the black lace outfit she wears on-screen. Needless to say, she stole MacDonald’s thunder as all eyes end up on her as the scene played out.
While the clothes were a concern, so were some of the suggestive songs and bits of dialogue. The very nature of the song “A Woman Needs Something Like That,” was called into question as was a ribald joke about the “virgin springs” and many of Loy’s lines of dialogue, as her character is quite man-hungry and makes no bones about her desires. Also garnering notice was a line from the title song that runs “Must we sleep tonight, all alone?” Each state had its own review board, so while some scenes may have been cut in some regions, they survived in others. Thus, by comparing all surviving prints, the most complete version of the film was put together.
Added to the National Film Registry in 1990, Love Me Tonight is one of the lesser known masterpieces of the 1930’s, a film that will have you laughing, gasping and smiling with delight as it unfolds. I’d be willing to bet that you’ll be humming one of its catchy tunes for days afterward and going out of your way to recommend it to those looking for a true gem of a movie. Trust me on this one – this is a surefire delight, a film I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying.
Love Me Tonight will be shown on Turner Classic Movies at 9:15 PM on Thursday, March 7th.