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Andre and Colette Bertier are happily married. When Colette introduces her husband to her flirtatious best friend, Mitzi, he does his best to resist her advances. But she is persistent, and very cute, and he succumbs. Mitzi's husband wants to divorce her, and has been having her tailed. Andre gets caught, and must confess to his wife. But Colette has had problems resisting the attentions of another man herself, and they forgive each other. Written by
John Oswalt <email@example.com>
Or to be more precise: 1 hour & 20 minutes of pleasure
The only thing wrong with this delightful movie is that it's been so hard to find on video or DVD over the years. Despite the ongoing fame of the stars and the director, even museum screenings are rare. I was lucky enough to see One Hour with You recently along with an earlier gem called The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), another saucy Pre-Code musical comedy starring Chevalier and directed by Lubitsch, and they complemented each other nicely. The earlier film is set primarily in a mythical kingdom, populated with the sort of uniformed dignitaries and nobles Lubitsch loved to send up, while One Hour with You takes place in contemporary Paris-- although "Paramount Paris" may be the more apt phrase. Production values are comparable, and the films even share a couple of supporting players in similar roles. Still, while both are highly enjoyable, I feel One Hour with You is the more satisfying film, and for me the main reason is that Chevalier's character is so much more sympathetic here.
The cheerful Chevalier of the early '30s is always interested in one thing only, and Lubitsch's slyly suggestive material leaves absolutely no doubt as to what it might be, but that doesn't mean his Gallic lover roles were all the same. Chevalier's Smiling Lieutenant is an arrogant skirt-chaser, as obsessively horny as Pepe Le Pew and equally convinced of his own irresistibility, while in One Hour with You our leading man is more the pursued than the pursuer, perhaps a little flustered by the chase, and frankly he's more likable when he's less sure of himself. Chevalier plays a prosperous doctor, happily married to Jeanette MacDonald. They share a stylish modern home and seem quite pleased with each other, but when Jeanette's aggressively sexy friend Mitzi shows up her husband is tempted to stray; he's flattered and gratified but also perplexed by Mitzi's relentless pursuit. The good doctor's mixed feelings are obvious, and amusing. At key moments when he's alone he'll turn and address the audience, even confessing that he's confused about what to do next, and this uncertainty is an appealing character trait. Cinematically, it also marks a rare occasion (Groucho notwithstanding) when a movie character's direct address to the camera is a welcome and successful device. And it underscores the point that Chevalier Bewildered is more attractive than Chevalier the Grinning Tom Cat.
Speaking of attractive, Jeanette MacDonald is a revelation here. Those who know her only from San Francisco, or who're familiar with her prim, tightly controlled performances in the operettas she made with Nelson Eddy, will be startled to see how loose, appealing, and sexy she could be with this director and this co-star. She's adept with comedy, and surprisingly moving in the last scenes when the situation turns more serious. Jeanette's supporting cast isn't half bad, either: Charlie Ruggles is hilarious (especially when he sings) as Jeanette's long-suffering, rejected suitor, while Roland Young is a stand-out, as usual, as the cuckold professor who seems both furious and oddly amused by his situation, and whose every uttered syllable conveys icy, carefully nuanced irony. Young was one of those rare players like Claude Rains who could take a secondary role and deftly steal the show. Here, he makes his first appearance early on and returns only intermittently thereafter, but he makes every moment count.
In his day director Ernst Lubitsch was almost as famous as the stars of his films; his distinctive, sophisticated, merry style was enjoyed by audiences and celebrated by critics. Like Hitchcock or Sturges, Lubitsch himself is a presence in his work. We know from the opening moments of One Hour with You's first scene exactly who is at the helm of this picture, when a rotund Prefect of Police (George Barbier) delivers a speech to his men, warning them that people come to Paris for One Reason Only-- and coincidentally, it's the same thing that so concerns our leading man. This is fine with the Chief, of course, as long as these tourists are willing to pay hard cash. The Chief's speech is delivered in rhyme, a device which recurs throughout at key moments, usually as a lead-in to songs. The title tune is the most memorable one and became a standard, but the others serve their function: each song tells us something about the lead characters' state of mind while offering Lubitsch-style wit about the film's central themes: the joys and drawbacks of marriage and the lure of extra-marital dalliance.
Anyone seeking a good definition of the "Lubitsch Touch" could profitably begin with this movie. Still, Maurice Chevalier is very much the star of this show, and in my opinion he was never better, never more charming, than in One Hour with You.
P.S. Winter 2007: I'm pleased to add that this film will soon be available in a DVD box set, along with three other Lubitsch rarities from the Pre-Code era. Paradise for the director's fans awaits!
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