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Even minor Lubitsch rates a 7. His comedic sensibility was unique in
its poetry and effortless sophistication.
One doesn't expect an iron-clad plot in musical comedy, but MONTE CARLO's fails to fulfill even the minimal requirements of the genre. It simply makes no sense and creates no tension, erotic or otherwise. A nobleman falls for a runaway countess, and for absolutely no reason he pretends to be a commoner for the duration of the film.
Lubitsch is normally so good at plot construction, it's surprising that this one is so flat. Zasu Pitts, who can be so delightful, makes no impression here. Even the dialogue discouragingly fails to sparkle.
The film's other problem is the leading man, Jack Buchanan, who simply doesn't come across well on-camera and has absolutely no chemistry with MacDonald. Compared to the robust, lusty Maurice Chevalier in other Lubitsch/MacDonald films, Buchanan here is fey and sexless. MacDonald does her best, though, and acquits herself well.
No Lubitsch film is without its pleasures. It's worth seeing, but it's no MERRY WIDOW.
The first twenty minutes of Monte Carlo is so enjoyable and promising,
you might think you're watching one of Ernst Lubitsch's best musical
comedies. The film kicks off with a highly amusing sequence at the
palace of a silly aristocrat, where a wedding ceremony goes
disastrously awry. First, the well-wishers are doused by a sudden
rainfall (as we see a banner proclaiming "Happy is the Bride the Sun
Shines On"), and consequently the members of the processional are
forced to switch from a stately march to a mad scramble into the
church. Then the groom is informed that his intended bride has fled,
and we soon learn that this is the third time she has done so. But the
groom's father insists that the wedding gifts will not be returned, and
sends his son out to calm the guests. The groom, Otto, is played by
Claude Allister, a bizarre-looking character actor who specialized in
playing silly ass Englishmen. Otto treats the crowd to a song assuring
them that he'll retrieve his bride and that "She'll Love Me and Like
It!" This number is hilarious, and whets our appetites for more.
Next we meet the runaway bride herself, Countess Helene (Jeanette MacDonald), who, with her maid (ZaSu Pitts) has hopped a train without even bothering to find out where it's going -- nor did she take the time, when fleeing, to dress in anything beyond her slip and a light jacket. Once in her compartment she promptly doffs the jacket. (Can you say "Pre-Code"?) After an amusing exchange with a train conductor played by former Sennett comedian Billy Bevan, Jeanette sets her course for Monte Carlo and then sits back in her compartment, gazes happily out the window, and sings the film's most famous song, "Beyond the Blue Horizon." This sequence is renowned among film historians as one of the best musical numbers of the early talkie era, one that transcended the stage-bound conventions holding back other filmmakers. Here Lubitsch artfully combines a montage of traveling shots, the rhythmic sounds of the train, the swelling strains of the orchestra and MacDonald's voice to create a genuinely exhilarating number.
Unfortunately, once our Countess reaches Monte Carlo it marks the point where the movie itself has peaked. From here on, it steadily loses momentum and never again regains the propulsive cheer of those opening moments. I'm not entirely sure why the famed Lubitsch Touch faltered in this case, but in my opinion the biggest single error was the casting of Jack Buchanan in the male lead. Buchanan was a popular stage star in London, but he didn't succeed as a star in Hollywood, and his performance in this film demonstrates why. To put it bluntly, the man is an oddball: spindly, toothy, nasal-voiced and entirely too pleased with himself to score a hit as an appealing leading man. I think Buchanan must have been one of those performers like George M. Cohan or Fanny Brice whose stage magnetism didn't translate into movie stardom, or at least, not in this sort of role. He's ideal as the pompous stage director in The Band Wagon (1953), but that's an older, mellower Jack Buchanan in a funny character turn. Here, he's pretty hard to take, and none of his songs are as memorable or as cleverly staged as Jeanette's "Beyond the Blue Horizon." (And strangely, although he was celebrated in England for his dancing, he has no dance numbers at all.) Instead, Buchanan is given the film's most campy, embarrassing song, a paean to barbering called "Trimmin' the Women," a number that looks like it escaped from the Celluloid Closet. Things get worse later on when the plot calls for Buchanan to turn macho, and he gruffly orders Jeanette around, which is like watching Franklin Pangborn portray a drill sergeant.
With no Maurice Chevalier to play opposite (and Nelson Eddy still waiting in the wings), Jeanette MacDonald is pretty much left to her own devices. She's charming, but can't carry the picture by herself. Still, even if she'd played opposite a different leading man, Monte Carlo's verbal humor falls short in the later scenes. Lubitsch boosts the comedy quotient with some characteristic visual gags, bits involving missing boudoir keys and a church clock with mechanical musicians, and these moments help, but too many punch-lines fail to land, and too many scenes conclude on anti-climactic notes. Even ZaSu Pitts has to strain for laughs. I feel the director showed more assurance in this film's predecessor, his first talkie The Love Parade, which was boosted by Chevalier's high energy performance and some terrific supporting comics.
Fans of early musicals will want to catch the first two numbers here, but once you've arrived beyond that blue horizon and reached Monte Carlo, you may want to bail. After the first twenty minutes or so this film will most likely be of interest primarily to Lubitsch buffs and Jeanette MacDonald fans.
MONTE CARLO (Paramount, 1930), directed by Ernst Lubitsch, starring
Jack Buchanan and Jeanette MacDonald, is a witty, sophisticated musical
comedy with continental charm, which at times resembles some of the
latter films starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers for RKO Radio.
Lubitsch, who had recently scored a big hit with MacDonald in THE LOVE
PARADE (Paramount, 1929), once again uses her to good advantage,
presenting this promo dona as not only a good singer, but a fine
comedienne. Although MacDonald would be charmed by Chevalier's smile in
three more musicals, this would be her only venture opposite the
British import of Jack Buchanan, whose career in early Hollywood
musicals (1929-1930), would be short-lived. Although debonair, he
failed to click with American audiences, and would spend most of his
career in his native England on both stage and screen. Maybe his
occasional but sometimes annoying laugh in this production might have
found 1930s audiences finding that he is no threat to Chevalier's charm
and smile, but on and all, he gets by. Today, Buchanan is best known
for his latter Hollywood role supporting Fred Astaire and Nanette
Fabray in the lavish Technicolor 1953 musical, THE BAND WAGON.
The story begins during a rain storm where a wedding is about to take place. The stuffy Prince Otto Von Leibeneheim (Claude Allister), the husband-to-be, is awaiting at the church for his future bride, Countess Helene Mara. As the choir sings, Otto receives a "Dear John" letter from Vera, making this the third time that he has been stood up by her. The next scene finds Vera, still wearing her wedding gown, accompanied by her maid, Bertha (ZaSu Pitts), running to catch the next train. Because she is down to her last francs, she decides to make her next stop to Monte Carlo and try her luck at the gambling tables, with much success. While there, she encounters Count Rudolph Fallieres (Jack Buchanan), a ladies man who becomes interested in her. Feeling that caressing her hair will bring him luck at the gambling tables, Rudy succeeds in keeping his identity a secret and getting her to hire him as her hairdresser, later promoted to be her personal servant and chauffeur. Eventually love blossoms, until Prince Otto locates her.
Being mainly a production that consists only of singing, with music and lyrics by Richard Whiting, W. Franke Harling and Leo Robin, the tune fest musical program is as follows: "Day by Day" (sung by church choir); "She'll Love Me and Like It" (sung by Claude Allister and wedding guests); "Beyond the Blue Horizon" (sung by Jeanette MacDonald); "Give Me a Moment Please" (sung by Jack Buchanan and Jeanette MacDonald); "Trimmin' the Women" (sung by Buchanan, Tyler Brooke and John Roche); "Whatever It Is, It's Grand" (sung by Buchanan and MacDonald); "She'll Love Me and Like It" (reprise by Claude Allister, sung by MacDonald); "Always in All Ways" (sung by Buchanan and MacDonald); "Give Me a Moment Please" (reprise by Buchanan); "Always in All Ways," "Monsieur Beauclair Opera Sequence" (with selections sung by Donald Novis); and "Beyond the Blue Horizon." In spite of "Beyond the Blue Horizon" being the film's most remembered and admired song, the one that would obviously get an Academy Award nomination had the Best Song category been around in 1930, "Always in All Ways" is also a delightful tune that shouldn't go without mention. It's even the underscore heard during the movie's opening screen credits and closing THE END logo.
MONTE CARLO also includes a running gag throughout the story in which some members of the cast tell each other a riddle: "She comes from a wedding, she has nothing on, she left her husband behind, she has no ticket, she has no idea where she wants to go, and she goes to Monte Carlo. How old is the husband?" Eventually, when this riddle reaches poor Otto, it slowly but finally dawns on him that it's pertaining to Vera and himself when he goes to tell this same riddle to another.
Regardless, MONTE CARLO, looks strictly modern with its lavish sets and advanced camera technique. In fact, it looks even better than the previous Lubitsch/MacDonald collaboration of THE LOVE PARADE or anything else from 1929. The only slow spot is the final ten minutes set during its prolonged opera theater sequence, but otherwise, a grand show not to be missed. If the story and leading man are forgettable, the sequence where MacDonald sings "Beyond the Blue Horizon" from her window of the train while looking at the countryside, with others such as farmers joining in the rendition as the train passes by them, will remain in memory long after the movie is over. Seldom broadcast since New York City's public television showing on WNET's Cinema 13 during the 1980s, MONTE CARLO has turned up on DVD around 2009 before having its long overdue cable television broadcast on Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: December 21, 2012). How fortunate that this, among many films of the early sound era, have not to be among the "lost" movies from that bygone era. (****)
Though a bit flawed, "Monte Carlo" is still one of Ernst Lubitsch's
most dynamic and inventive musicals. A follow-up to Lubitsch's
delightful "The Love Parade", "Monte Carlo" regains Jeanette MacDonald
but unfortunately it lacks Maurice Chevalier whose Gallic, continental
charm was one of the things that made "Love Parade" (and also
Lubitsch's later sublime musicals - "The Smiling Lieutenant", "One Hour
with You" and "The Merry Widow") such a joy to watch.
Still, it has one priceless musical number: Jeanette MacDonald rendition of "Beyond the Blue Horizon" while riding a train - a sequence so inventive and spectacular that you forget the rest of the film. It is powerful enough to make the whole countryside alive with song and elation. The song will stick with you long after you completed watching the film.
Frank Tashlin pays an homage to this sequence in his hilarious 1956 musical "Hollywood or Bust": a number called "A Day in the Country", a duet between Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
This was Jeanette Macdonald's 4th film in all and 2nd for director
Ernst Lubitsch both getting into their sound-stride and both with
many classics still ahead of them, after all their lives had only
begun. Print quality on the DVD is marvellous for a 1930 film, making
me wonder why it was never shown on UK TV in the days when they used to
cater for people like me.
In the gambling dens of Monte Carlo Countess Jeanette pretends to be rich when she's poor and the guy who fancies her, Count Jack, pretends to be poor when he's rich so as to be her hairdresser. Later famous variations in Paramount films were with Chevalier as her (nothing but a) tailor unintentionally masquerading as a Baron in Love Me Tonight directed by Mamoulian and the fake Baron and Countess in the sublime Trouble In Paradise directed by Lubitsch. The story goes in a few unexpected directions but ultimately all's well that ends well this was the Golden Age of course. Out of the seven songs only Beyond The Blue Horizon and Always In All Ways were truly memorable, but all were listenable to and pleasant. Zazu Pitts was as sadly underused as Jeanette's maid as was Barbara Leonard as Mitzi's in One Hour With You and Jack Buchanan managed to keep it a dark secret why he was such a big star; the film only lost a little momentum at the opera but overall everything worked well. The sets and costumes were relentlessly beautiful in fact an extremely colourful black and white. Jeanette looked radiant with her gorgeous hair Roll Over Madonna!
A lovely little film and a window on 1930 it's not a classic but it was another building block for those to come from Paramount in the next few years.
Jeanette MacDonald is luminous, and, to my utter surprise, there is a real erotic charge between MacDonald and Jack Buchanan. Parts of the score may be a bit underwhelming, but "Beyond the Blue Horizon" is as terrific as advertised. Of course, at the root of it all is the peerless cinematic wit of Ernst Lubitsch. A marvelous trifle with a real depth of feeling.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I seem to be spending time with films like this. If you take away the
story (excepting the last five minutes) the characters, the dialog and
the songs, this is a very fine movie. It has such deft technique that
it can support a tone of light humor regardless of the main attraction.
This fellow was a master. Too bad he only made useless movies.
There is what I call a narrative fold. The story is that a nobleman disguises himself as a servant to get close to a penniless noblewoman. They fall in love. He is shunned because he is a commoner or perhaps because he has no money, it isn't clear. As all simple love stories do, this one must end with discovery and happiness. It occurs when the two at an opera where: guess what? The story is the same.
In that last few minutes, the songs and words on the stage of the opera overlap with those on the stage of the movie. Its nice.
The craft is enough for this.
Ted's Evaluation -- 2 of 3: Has some interesting elements.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
What is there about Lubitsch endings? In this 1930 film Monte Carlo
we're in the Monte Carlo opera house watching two people as they watch
the end of the operetta, Monsieur Beaucaire. In one box is the handsome
and debonair Count Rudolph Falliere. In another box is the beautiful
and sad Countess Helene Mara. Monsieur Beaucaire is all about a
nobleman who pretends to be a hairdresser so he can be close to and woo
a noblewoman. Lubitsch's Monte Carlo is all about
well, a nobleman who
pretends to be a hairdresser so he can woo a noblewoman. The situation
as it plays out for us observers is amusing, clever and sophisticated.
We wind up thinking, because we know what's going on, that perhaps
we're amusing, clever and sophisticated, too. It's a wonderful way to
end the movie.
How we got to this point is just about as amusing as the ending. Countess Helene Mara (Jeanette MacDonald) left her twit of a fiancé, Prince Otto Von Seibenheim (Claude Allister) at the alter. Otto is the product of far too much noble inbreeding. She hops a train with her maid and decides to go to Monte Carlo where she will, of course, make piles of money at the casino. Count Rudolph, a charming and rich fellow, falls for her as soon as he sees her. Without a proper introduction, of course, he decides he must take the place of her hairdresser in order to meet her. Before long, he has also taken the place of her lackey and her chauffeur and speculates about the moment when he'll take the place of her maid. And pursuing Helene Mara is her fiancé, the dim-witted Prince Otto. There are some songs, some kisses, much nearly transparent lingerie worn fetchingly by Helene Mara, a number of cocked eyebrows by Rudolph (now Paul the hairdresser) and much light-hearted suggestiveness by Lubitsch. "Oh, oh, oh, oh... ohohohoo... that feels good!" says Helene Mara, while her maid listens behind a closed door. "... oh, oh!...that feels even better... you must have electricity in your hands! I've never felt like this before!" Lest we speculate with as much interest as the maid, Paul is merely massaging Helene Mara's scalp. Unlike Monsieur Beaucaire, this couple has a happy ending because, reasonably enough, that's what they want.
Jeanette MacDonald gives a first-class performance that combines haughtiness, longing and sexuality. She looks great in her scanties. When she hides the key to her bedroom so that she won't be tempted to open it and let Paul enter, it involves three keys, each smaller than the last, two boxes and a pillow. MacDonald is just as delightful in the morning trying to figure out what she did so she can get the bedroom door unlocked.
For modern American audiences, Jack Buchanan probably is something of an acquired taste. In Britain during the late Twenties and Thirties he was a huge star, particularly on the British stage. Critics called him the English Fred Astaire. The upper U accent, the careless confidence, the high-nose nasality, the slight hint of upper-class entitlement are a little dated today. Like many leading men of the Twenties and Thirties, before the style went out of fashion, he seemed to promise for duchesses and shop girls alike days of laughter and nights of exquisite passion, without dwelling too much on the mechanics of that passion. While his style is now dated, watch how he uses inflections, a quick expression, some physical business, how he laughs. Buchanan knew what he was doing and he was good at it. There are several things of his from the Thirties that you can see on YouTube. Nowadays he's better known as having played Jeffrey Cordova in The Bandwagon with Astaire.
You'd have to have a severely ingrown toenail not to watch Monte Carlo with a smile, especially that ending.
Certainly when you look at this film as a 1930 musical, the way that
songs are integrated into the plot is a marvel, and it has a fluidity
that belies the year it was made. That said, this is rather a chore to
sit through, compared to the likes of The Smiling Lieutenant and One
Hour With You, and despite the appeal of MacDonald in her early, earthy
days, before she became partner to the eunuch Nelson Eddy.
There are three main culprits: first, a plot which just doesn't compare to the comedy-dramas of sexual tension and yearning that Lubitsch's best films offer. The others are fantasies, but this is flat out unbelievable, with too many mistaken identities, arbitrary shifts in attitude by the leading lady, and a lack of tension (since all of MacDonald's romantic choices are stinking rich). It's just impossible to care about. The second is leading man Jack Buchanan. It's not just that you can imagine Maurice Chevalier getting something innocently naughty out of the lines which might actually be charming, but as lightweight as he is, Buchanan seems too smart to believe what a doof-slash-stalker he's playing. Imagine Fred Astaire being replaced in Top Hat by Herbert Marshall, or maybe Paul Muni. And finally... at best the songs are unmemorable ditties cleverly staged. One, however, "Trimmin' the Women," could make the short list of worst movie numbers of the golden age of Hollywood. In short, be glad that Paramount compelled MacDonald and Chevalier (who she apparently disliked) to get back together in time for Love Me Tonight.
NOTE: Since viewing the film I have learned that the reels are misnumbered on nearly all surviving prints-- a fact which explains the otherwise baffling scene in the movie where Buchanan, who has already met MacDonald (IF you've seen it out of order), goes to work for her and she has no idea who he is. I'm not saying the movie would be radically better if it was in the correct order, but it would undoubtedly make somewhat more sense.
102: Monte Carlo (1930) - released 8/27/1930, viewed 6/23/08.
KEVIN: I feel compelled to keep this brief, because I don't think this movie will stick with me. I didn't hate it, I just couldn't fall in love with it like I usually do with Ernst Lubitsch. There were plenty of enjoyable moments to keep me watching until the end, but I found the love story somewhat confusing. I blame this on Jack Buchanan as the male lead. His character is not only a liar, but a manipulator and stalker, and I must say there wasn't anything terribly charming about him. Buchanan played him just too creepy for me to root for him. Jeanette MacDonald was excellent, as usual, but her growing infatuation with this creep was what really confused me. I suspect when we've watched all of Lubitsch's other hits, this one will not rank so high.
DOUG: Only Ernst Lubitsch could make such a breezy, likable comedy with such despicable characters. Jeanette MacDonald plays the flighty, naïve Countess Helene, who ditches her wedding to head off somewhere fun and ends up in Monte Carlo. Jack Buchanen plays Count Rudolph, a total creep who decides to court Helene by getting hired as her barber and stalking her at every turn. Claud Allister plays Prince Otto, the dim-witted older man Helene is set to marry. The proceedings are amusing in that fun Lubitsch kind of way; everyone's just on the edge of crazy throughout and are all the more enjoyable for it. The love story is rather dated though; I found Rudy to be an obsessive manipulative loon, scheming his way into her bedroom and saving locks of her hair. Because it's Lubitsch, it's all fluffy and lighthearted, but this is maybe my least favorite of his films so far.
Last film viewed: The Divorcée (1930). Last film chronologically: The Big House (1930). Next film viewed: The Criminal Code (1930). Next film chronologically: Animal Crackers (1930).
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