Love Me Tonight

LOVE ME TONIGHT, an absolute delight from the remarkably strong year (for movies, anyway) of 1932. A moderate success at the time, 31st place at the boxoffice, with a gross of $2,100,000 comfortable enough to cancel a $995,000 expenditure. Today it’s justifiably exalted as an all-time classic, jostling Singin’ In The Rain for which one draws the most rhapsodic reviews.

Parisian tailor ‘Maurice’ (Maurice Chevalier) hopes to collect a large and overdue bill from a reckless aristocrat, but this will involve social-status subterfuge—impersonating a Baron—when he shows up at the deadbeat Count’s country chateau. This will also help him woo ‘Princess Jeanette’ (Jeanette MacDonald), widowed and lonely. Thus disguised, he charms her, but what will happen when the inevitable unmasking occurs?

The Depression was underway and box office receipts were down. Adolph Zukor, head of Paramount Pictures, was vexed that two of his biggest stars, Chevalier and MacDonald were drawing large salaries with no project lined up. He tasked Rouben Mamoulian, who’d just scored a hit with Dr.Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, to come up with a winner. Mamoulian took a suggestion from playwright Leopold Marchand about reworking Le Tailleur au Chateau (The Tailor In The Castle), a piece he’d written in France eight years earlier with Paul Armont. He contacted Rodgers & Hart to write a score first, then had Samuel Hoffenstein (Laura, Cluny Brown), Waldemar Young (The Sign Of The Cross, The Lives Of A Bengal Lancer), and George Marion Jr. (You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man) adapt their script to suit. It’s considered the first in the genre where script and musical numbers are linked so closely that each tune serves a dramatic purpose and propels the plot. This was a full decade before Oklahoma!—with Mamoulian at the helm— would integrate those elements on the stage. The giddy screenplay is loaded with risqué innuendo, enough that censors felt taste-bound to whack at it. *

Chevalier, 43, both enhances and kids his established persona–it’s a testimony to his skill that he was able to beautifully deliver such buoyant cheer when off-screen he was consumed in mourning the death of his mother. His signature songs “Mimi” and Isn’t It Romantic” are on the menu. MacDonald, 28, displays more vivacity than in her other films, her soprano gifts on display, as well some surprisingly agile horsemanship in a few scenes. Gem comic supporting turns come from Charles Butterworth (droll duffer ‘Comte de Savignac’), C.Aubrey Smith (pompous patriarch ‘Duc d’Artelines’) and Myrna Loy (man-hungry ‘Comtesse Valentine’). For Loy, 26, this humorous sendup role was a present, a chance to break out of the vamp straitjacket she’d labored under, decorating 62 pictures in seven years, nine in ’32 alone.

The ace cast, wicked script and lilting music, Victor Milner’s camerawork (including possibly the first use of a zoom lens in a feature) and Hans Dreier’s art direction all fall in perfect tempo to the poetic rhythm set by Mamoulian’s innovative direction, turning what in other hands may have merely been amusing fluff into a flow of pure joy and inimitable artistry.

89 minutes, with Charlie Ruggles (the ne’er do-well ‘Vicomte Gilbert de Varèze’)  Elizabeth Patterson, Ethel Griffies, Blanche Friderici, Robert Greig, Bert Roach and George ‘Gabby’ Hayes.

 * Mamoulian: “The most important critic is time.”  Originally running 104 minutes, the Production Code mandated cuts brought that down to 96, then again to what’s left today at 89.

Trimmed or not, the happy result belies the actual atmosphere during the shoot, where the director’s intensity and serious approach was so off-putting to cast and crew they nearly rebelled, with MacDonald finally telling him “We are supposed to be making a comedy, a gay picture full of laughter. But it’s almost impossible in the funereal atmosphere you’re creating.” This was after crew hostility reached a point where an ‘accidentally’ falling lamp nearly clobbered him.

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