Ernst Lubitsch (1892–1947) followed up The Marriage Circle (1924) with eight more silents (three of which are sadly lost). In 1929, that probably made him the odds-on favorite among all then-prominent directors to succeed as sound was coming in. With The Love Parade, Lubitsch did not disappoint.
The roots of the Hollywood musical, which began with Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927), quickly led to two main genres: backstage melodramas (of which Rouben Mamoulian’s Applause was one of the best) and studio reviews (filmed vaudeville, showcasing some of the talent (and “talent”) then under contract to a given studio). Lubitsch went in a different direction. With his roots in Europe and operetta, he made five films in five years (The Love Parade, Monte Carlo, The Smiling Lieutenant, One Hour With You, The Merry Widow) that together were the greatest sustained effort in the genre, at least until Arthur Freed’s tenure at M-G-M a generation later. Most of these films starred an itinerant French actor/singer/charmer named Maurice Chevalier. Chevalier (1888–1972) had dabbled in film since 1908, but he was primarily known for his work on the musical stage in France. He had managed in 1909 to become the partner of Folies-Bergere star Mistinguette, both on stage and in bed. Paired with Chevalier in The Love Parade and two other Lubitsch musicals (not to mention Mamoulian’s 1932 Love Me Tonight—ersatz Lubitsch, but still charming) was an American chorus girl turned operetta star named Jeanette MacDonald (1901–1965). Together, Chevalier and MacDonald were to the early musical what James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson were to the embryonic gangster genre, of which there had been only a few more than silent musicals. The cast was supplemented by character actors Lillian Roth (of I’ll Cry Tomorrow fame), Eugene Pallette (whose girth and booming voice would grace so many great comedies to come), and Lupino Lane (erstwhile silent clown and uncle of Ida Lupino, whose films we are showcasing in a retrospective beginning in late August).
With few cinematic reference points at his command, Lubitsch developed a penchant for finding obscure vehicles that he could adapt. In this case it wasthe book Le Prince Consort, a decade-old fantasy by Leon Xanrof and Jules Chancel. Thanks to Lubitsch’s wit and Chevalier’s charming renditions, Xanrof and Chancel’s silly Sylvanian plot is elevated into something scintillating and entirely new to movie audiences. The director quickly learned to use his cinematic skills to integrate the musical numbers into the plot and keep the magic moving seamlessly. Films like The Love Parade would soon provide the fodder for parodies like Leo McCarey’s 1933 Marx Brothers vehicle Duck Soup, but Lubitsch was canny enough to know that his schmaltz was understood and accepted by audiences for what it was. Sound would continually push films toward naturalism, but in 1929 there was still room for flights of fancy. (Next week, we will see how Rene Clair, a Gallic disciple of sorts, brought off something similar in a contemporary setting in his Sous les Toits de Paris [Under the Roofs of Paris] the following year.)
The Love Parade was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, but it lost to All Quiet on the Western Front and Lubitsch lost the Best Director statuette to Lewis Milestone. He was not nominated again until 1943, for Heaven Can Wait—another fantasy, albeit without songs. Apparently, his interests were deemed too lacking in gravitas. To counter this image and out of genuine conviction, Lubitsch made the antiwar film The Man I Killed (Broken Lullabye) in 1932.
Maureen Dowd in The New York Times recently published a colloquy with the young writer Sam Wasson on the low state of contemporary filmmaking, a state of affairs that he described as “dire.” He went on: “As for Lubitsch, there will never, ever, ever be another. Ever. A guy like that comes around once in a universe.”