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Maurice Courtelin, a Parisian tailor (Maurice Chevalier), is owed a great sum of money by a viscount (Charles Ruggles). Stalling for time, the titled but penniless nobleman moves Maurice into the family chateau and passes him off as a baron. The beguiling Maurice soon charms the entire aristocratic household, except for the haughty Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald), who remains suspicious of him. But suspicion eventually gives way to love. Written by
Dan Navarro <email@example.com>
Yes, it's available from Kino. If not in general distribution, you can still order it from most Internet-based distributors. Its publication is coincidental with one of Rouben Mamoulian's other masterpieces of the sound era, 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' (the Fredric March version, 1931). Although the producers of this last two-for-one DVD (where it is coupled with Victor Fleming 1941 version with Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner) were able to restore most of the parts of 'Jekyll' which were cut away either by the studio (Paramount) or the censors, the same cannot be said of 'Love Me Tonight'.
Don't get me wrong: it still is a must-own masterpiece reproduced in a pristine print with sound as clear as a bell, but it is still missing songs and scenes that were cut because they were too long or because the censors repeatedly asked for their exclusion. I didn't have time to listen to the whole commentary by Miles Kreuger, who probably explains how these tasty bits were either destroyed or lost to posterity.
What remains, of course, is the version film lovers have always known from television and have recorded on their VCRs for years. What comes out in this print is that the photography by Victor Milner is very reminiscent of the celebrated Brassaï still photographs of Paris, the lighting is extremely rich and complex and the camera movements are unusual for the time (including a discreet use of the zoom lens for comic effects). Two set pieces ('Isn't Romantic?' and ''The son-of-a-gun is nothing but a tailor') are guaranteed to knock the wind out of you. One song, 'Mimi', has Maurice Chevalier singing to Jeanette MacDonald but directly to the camera and Jeanette looking back at him in the same way, which is spine-tingling. Another song (the pre-recorded 'Love Me Tonight') Is sung over a split-screen view of the lovers sleeping each in their own bed. The film even includes a full-regalia deer hunt and a race between a train and a horsewoman worthy of the 'Perils of Pauline'.
The script is based on a French boulevard comedy called 'The Tailor and the Princess' by Armont and Marchand but it has been amplified by a very witty and poetic script by American Samuel Hoffenstein (who also worked on 'Jekyll'), spoken and sung rhymed couplets by Lorenz Hart and, of course, songs and incidental music by Richard Rodgers.
In this gentle lampoon of French aristocracy and the democratic aspirations of the working classes, songs are not mere filler, they announce scenes, introduce characters and propel the action. They also give rise to very cinematic montages which keep the spectator in a perpetual state of expectation. In this respect, Mamoulian was probably paying respect to what René Clair had accomplished in his French musical 'Le Million' a short time before (1931). Its sexual content, however, was clearly inspired (or dictated) by the preceding film Ernst Lubitsch had directed starring the box-office smash duo of Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier ('Love Parade', 1929, followed in 1935 by 'The Merry Widow'). 'Love Me Tonight' in turn inspired the French style of film comedy for decades to come, where the introduction of working class elements in an aristocratic setting became a kind of stock situation (see 'The Rules of the Game', Jean Renoir, 1939).
As Miles Kreuger explains, this is probably the last screen musical where most of the sung numbers were recorded live on the soundstage, with a live orchestra in attendance off-screen (as evidenced in the production photographs), because the complexity of film-making from this point on required the songs to be pre-recorded. This gives the film a unique, spontaneous quality even in the most choreographed numbers.
The inclusion of the three spinster sisters is a particularly fine touch, reminiscent of the famous 'Mesdames' of Louis XVth's court (his three moralizing unmarried daughters), but they also serve as Greek chorus and a benevolent version of the Three Witches or Three Fairies of folk literature.
Luckily, the DVD also includes a complete reprinting of the script pages of the scenes that were lost to censorship or cut by the studio, as well as censorship notes and they make for fine reading.
All in all, this is one of the most important films in cinema's history, a timeless comedy whose enjoyment will never be marred and a fine DVD package.
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