The Importance of Seeing Ernst

Speaking of music, bear in mind that Lubitsch also made the first great screen musicals, including the very first all-talking,

Speaking of music, bear in mind that Lubitsch also made the first great screen musicals, including the very first all-talking, all-dancing, all-singing, fully plotted musical-comedy in American picture history, The Love Parade (1929), starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, both brand-new to movies. Parade is one of four musicals just recently released on DVD by the Eclipse (budget) division of the Criterion Collection—under the comprehensive title, Lubitsch Musicals—and each of them is pure gold. I have to admit that these are—along with Lubitsch’s last and best musical, The Merry Widow (1934; currently not available on DVD except in a Japanese edition, which can be played here only on all-region machines)—among my favorite movies of all time. There is an innocence and a sophistication combined that is enchanting, a sense both of mockery and celebration that is at once very funny and strangely touching.

In four short years, Lubitsch and his talented collaborators put together four complete book musicals, all with original songs, all sung live during shooting, with the orchestra right off camera. This was before sound mixing was possible, or playback, so everything had to happen at once. (I remember Hitchcock telling me about shoot
ing an insert of a radio in the same period, and having to have a full orchestra off-camera to play the music supposedly just coming from the radio.) However, singing live that way gives these early musicals a remarkable immediacy, a spontaneous freshness that doesn’t date. Chevalier and Macdonald (and in Parade the legendary second bananas Lillian Roth and Lupino Lane) are really singing right there and then.

After The Love Parade, there was Monte Carlo (1930), with MacDonald and the English music-hall star, Jack Buchanan; followed by the bittersweet The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), with Chevalier, Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins; and finally One Hour With You (1932), again with Chevalier and MacDonald, a musical version of The Marriage Circle and in its own special way just as delectable. Lubitsch’s superb way of shooting those films gave nobility to the new art of talking pictures, and influenced everyone who followed. The Smiling Lieutenant is especially unorthodox in creating a triangle situation that does not have the happy ending the audience would prefer.

In both The Love Parade and One Hour With You, Chevalier actually speaks directly to the camera a few times, daringly breaking the fourth wall in a way that no one was ever quite able to do as well again. For the Best Picture-winning Gigi (1958), Vincente Minnelli and Alan Jay Lerner brought Chevalier back to America, and in an homage to Lubitsch, had him address the audience (“Thank Heaven for Little Girls”) just as he had done 30 years before (though this time he was lip-synching to playback, and often not very precisely). Minnelli had remembered Lubitsch before: When making his terrific The Band Wagon (1953), he brought Jack Buchanan to Hollywood for the first time since Lubitsch’s Monte Carlo, in which Buchanan is inordinately charming, and which features one of the most famous of early musical numbers—MacDonald on a train singing “Beyond the Blue Horizon” while passing farmers wave and join in with the syncopated sounds of the engine.

Both The Love Parade and The Smiling Lieutenant (and later, The Merry Widow) are Ruritanian romances, Chevalier being an officer from some mythical middle-European country. Monte Carlo begins in one and then shifts to the French Riviera. One Hour With You is set entirely in Paris, a favorite city of Lubitsch’s: One of his best silent comedies is So This Is Paris (1926), and The Merry Widow mostly plays there, too, as does Ninotchka and nearly all of Trouble in Paradise—though it is really a fantasy Paris. As Lubitsch famously said, “I have been to Paris, France, and I have been to Paris, Paramount. I think I prefer Paris, Paramount.” In other words, the places of his imagination—and indeed, it’s his very personal slant on everything that makes his pictures so intoxicating.

Naturally, all older films suffer from not being seen, as they were meant to be, on the big screen, which is probably one of the main reasons why younger people are so impatient with anything made earlier than about 1990. I was fortunate to have first seen these Lubitsch musicals in a large screening room at Paramount in the mid-1960’s when Jerry Lewis generously set me up to screen whatever studio prints I cared to run. I ran 82 movies, some in their original, gloriously shimmering nitrate prints. There is simply no substitute for that. We cinéastes of the 60’s used to scoff when someone said they had only seen a classic on TV: “Then you haven’t seen it,” we’d say. Now it’s all on TV, and there’s very little chance of viewing classics the way they were meant to be seen (Film Forum and MoMA are two New York oases).

Many films, therefore, are irreparably damaged and diminished. John Ford’s famous long shots, for example, lose all their majesty and impact. Howard Hawks’ comedy pacing becomes exhausting when you have to strain to see. Mythology, which is what pictures are at their best, by its very nature must be bigger than life, not smaller than life. Being overwhelmed by images in the dark is part of the basic magic of the medium. Take that away and you take away a good deal of the glory. At least if you’ve seen a picture the right way once, repeat viewings retain in memory a residual glow. But kids don’t have that, so to them it becomes perhaps just a charade they must strain to view, certainly not something that takes over.

In 1929, when Maurice Chevalier in The Love Parade sang to the audience—“Paris, Please Stay the Same” was his first number—he was bigger than he could be on any stage, and therefore proportionally all-powerful. Today, on DVD, unless you have a gigantic screen, he becomes maybe only a charming curiosity. I’ll take it, though, in place of most of what’s out there. It speaks of a simpler, more civilized era. The America that took Chevalier to its heart is definitively gone, too, of course, and only retrievable by an act of imagination. To see these Lubitsch musicals takes us back to a remarkably more innocent time, evoking a period when charm, wit and grace could rule, when an ineffably light touch could become famous and cherished the world over.

The Importance of Seeing Ernst