Director: Rouben Mamoulian
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Before Jeanette MacDonald paired up with Nelson Eddy to define boring, sexless romance on the big screen, she made several films with that prototype of French bon vivants Maurice Chevalier. Most of these films were made with the fabled touch of director Ernst Lubitsch; the final mating of this threesome, capped by the great operetta compositions of Franz Lehar, is the most sublime of them all—The Merry Widow (1934). Somewhere in the middle, Rouben Mamoulian, whose knockout debut as a director was the melodrama Applause (1929), was given his chance with these appealing stars and fashioned one of their stock stories of an aristocratic woman and her common courter. While Mamoulian falls short of the waltzlike grace and romantic sensuality of Lubitsch, his comedic moments more than make up for it.
The famous opening scene gives a panoramic view of the Paris skyline and then moves in to listen to the rhythms by which the city wakes up—a woman beating a rug, some men cobbling shoes together, smoke stacks churning, and so forth. Finally, the camera moves to Maurice Courtelin (Chevalier), a Parisian tailor readying for his day while singing of the noise of Paris in “That’s the Song of Paree,” the first of several delightful—and some memorable—songs by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers.
Maurice reaches his shop as his fellow shopkeeper Pierre (George Davis) comes by to pick up the tuxedo Maurice has made for his wedding. Pierre forces a 2,000-franc fee on the reluctant Maurice, who prefers to give him the suit as a wedding gift. As Pierre goes off to try it on, Maurice welcomes the Viscount Gilbert de Varèze (Charlie Ruggles), for whom he has created an entire wardrobe. The Viscount, dressed in his underwear after escaping the arms of a woman whose husband had unexpectedly appeared, needs a suit—fast. Maurice quickly shoos another underwear-clad man—Pierre—out of the dressing room to make way for the Viscount, on whom Maurice is pinning the hopes for his fledgling shop. The Viscount emerges, pleased with the fit. Maurice asks him about the bill. The Viscount, a freeloader notorious throughout Paris, promises to pay him—he is headed to his uncle the Duke’s chateau that very evening for financial refreshment. On the way out, the Viscount touches Maurice for 500 francs. Maurice offers 1,000, pulling out the two 1,000-franc notes Pierre gave him. “Let’s just call it 2,000,” says the Viscount, snatching the bills before Maurice can figure it out. It’s an old gag, but Ruggles is such a master of timing that it works.
All is forgotten when Pierre emerges looking like a king himself. His and Maurice’s delight spins into the classic tune “Isn’t It Romantic,” which carries from the shop to the people along the street, through the countryside by train and horse-drawn wagon. Each singer tailors the lyrics to his or her individual circumstances in a symphony of clever, particular rhymes. Finally, it reaches Princess Jeanette in her country chateau, who sings the standard lyrics while lounging sensuously in her satin-sheeted bed. In this way, Mamoulian brings the lovers together, letting the audiences know they can expect exactly what they hoped for.
Maurice, spurred on by the other clothiers to whom he referred the Viscount, heads off to the chateau to demand his money. On the way, he hears a woman singing (“Lover”). It is the princess. When she stops he declares his love for her in song, the impertinent and naughty tune “Mimi” (“I’d like to have a little son of a Mimi by and by!”). We watch her full face assume an insulted but gauzily romantic look in the camera of Victor Milner, who shot several films for Lubitsch and knew how to get just the right touch. A small flash of humor crosses Jeanette’s face, but she’s soon slapping Maurice and running back to the chateau—where she passes out cold. The diagnosis? Dr. Armand de Fontinac (Joseph Cawthorn) says, “You’re not wasting away, you’re just wasted.”
We spend the rest of the film getting to the inevitable clutch in most entertaining fashion. Maurice is passed off as a baron by the Viscount to prevent his uncle Duke d’Artelines (C. Aubrey Smith, whose chipper rendition of “Mimi” in one of the film’s pass-around song sequences is wonderful) from learning of his debts. The Viscount’s sister, the man-hungry Countess Valentine (Myrna Loy) (“Do you ever think of anything but men?” “Yes, schoolboys.”), chases Maurice at every opportunity. Count de Savignac (Charles Butterworth), Jeanette’s nebbishy suitor, spends hours pouring over geneology books, suspecting there is no noble family named Courtelin. He also arranges to trip up Maurice on the stag hunt by choosing a challenging steed named Thunderbolt for him. Jeanette, appalled to find Maurice at the chateau as her cousin’s guest, says that she has chosen one instead—Solitude. Maurice, encouraged by the name, gladly agrees to it over the deadly sounding Thunderbolt. Unfortunately he learns that Solitude is so named because he always comes home alone. The gag showing the stall where Solitude is kept—danger signs, loud whinnying, and cowering stable hands—is corny, but funny, particularly when we get Maurice’s reaction shot. Another funny sight gag is when the princess, 22 years old and a widow for three years, shows Maurice a photo of her late husband, a comically posed elderly man (Tom Ricketts). The timing of the edit is perfect, and drew a big laugh out of me.
For a pre-Code film, this one’s attempts at suggestiveness are pretty tame. Maurice insults Jeanette’s seamstress for building her a dowdy riding habit. He makes a bet that he can do it better. Then we get to see him remove Jeanette’s unfinished riding jacket and take a tape measure to her every body part. It could have been sexy, but Mamoulian plays it safe. Maurice is all efficiency, and Jeanette doesn’t melt even a little at his ministrations. In fact, Jeanette is pretty stiff throughout this film—including her singing—a portent of what was to come with Nelson Eddy. Seeing her flirty, womanly performance in The Merry Widow was, for me, like seeing an entirely different actress, and again, with Chevalier. Thus, I blame Mamoulian for the tepid romance.
Nonetheless, there’s not too much wrong with this romantic comedy that’s sure to put a smile on your face. The Kino DVD also includes among its extras Chevalier singing his signature song “Louise” with all his cabaret charm. l