Eclipse Series 8: Lubitsch Musicals(The Criterion Collection, 2.12.2008)
Fans of classical Hollywood comedy appropriately revere Ernst Lubitsch as one of the greatest and most influential comic directors of all time. Billy Wilder had a sign in his office that asked "what would Lubitsch do?" and, while Lubitsch's influence isn't always evident in today's comedies, few of the great Hollywood comedies of recent decades would have been possible without the Lubitsch-influenced work of Wilder. Familiar with Lubitsch's numerous comedy classics (Ninotchka, Trouble in Paradise, and The Shop Around the Corner, to name just three), some might wonder why they'd need to bother with his musicals. This wonderful release from The Criterion Collection's Eclipse Series makes it abundantly clear. Not only do these films feature charmingly buoyant musical numbers, but they are largely indistinguishable from the aforementioned classics. Imagine any of Lubitsch's best comedies, but with lively musical sequences and you get the idea.
The interesting thing about the musical is that implausibility (characters breaking out into song) is built into the very form of the storytelling, which allows for a looser approach to realism and logic elsewhere in these films. In some cases, this can create tedious cinematic anarchy, but Lubitsch has so much control over the filmmaking process that it simply has a liberating effect on his films, giving him access to more adventurous storytelling possibilities. But more than anything else, the music in these films provides a stirring reminder that singing conveys affection and romance better than any conceit that's been thought of since.
While Criterion has not included The Merry Widow -- one of my personal favorite Lubitsch films and his fifth/final musical -- they have gathered his four previous musicals in a surprisingly consistent and cohesive package. Not only are these films similar in terms of style, attitude, and cast, but they're also similarly accomplished. While the bare bones approach of Eclipse may suggest that their films are sub-Criterion in some way, these films are all worthy of the full Criterion treatment. In fact, I'd rank them all above Heaven Can Wait, the slightly over-praised Lubitsch film that Criterion released in a more extra-laden package three years ago.
The first of these films, 1929's The Love Parade, features Maurice Chevalier as Count Alfred Renard, a shamelessly womanizing military attache, who is relocated from Paris to Sylvania when he's caught with his hand in one too many cookie jars. Once in Sylvania, he becomes romantically involved with -- and eventually marries -- the queen of Sylvania (Jeanette MacDonald), but he soon feels degraded and overly controlled by his powerful wife, which jeopardizes their combative relationship.
Lubitsch's first talkie and the first musical to integrate songs with narrative, The Love Parade uses music to charming and surprising effect. When Renard sings of his love for Paris, his obedient servant does the same... as do several dogs. With wry wit woven into virtually every line of dialogue, the film's humor still feels completely fresh, elegant, and subtle, particularly compared to the blunt crudeness on display in even the most respectable Hollywood comedies of today. Lubitsch also refreshingly shakes up gender roles of the period, giving a woman more power than her subservient husband. This notion is undercut by the film's more conservative conclusion, but Lubitsch's work is so full of irony and secondary meaning that it's not necessarily advisable to take the conclusion at face value.
Another early musical triumph, Monte Carlo begins with a sequence that feels like a precursor to Robert Altman's ironic brand of humor. As a wedding procession begins and a song about "a wonderful day of love" and "the sun" is sung, a powerful downpour rains down on Otto Von Seibenheim, the groom-to-be, who has been stood up by his runaway bride, Countess Helene Mara (MacDonald again). As Mara rides away in a train and sings "Beyond the Blue Horizon," the train passes farmers working in fields... and they sing back! Anyone who's skeptical about musicals need look no further than this masterful sequence, the most inspired musical sequence of Lubitsch's career.
Again, ingenious irony is woven into the narrative. At one point, Mara is forced to break up with her barber lover (who may not really be a barber) because of insufficient funds, but when Von Seibenheim returns to rekindle their romance, she can afford to resume her relationship with the barber. Also, the parallels between an opera that the three main characters attend and their own story is beautifully executed. The film's only real weakness is the somewhat broad, cartoonish performance by Claude Allister as Von Aeibenheim -- this character is downright weird; he even sings about beating his fiance -- and a little too much back-and-forth about whether Mara's boyfriend is really a barber. Other than that, this is rock solid Lubitsch.
With the final two films in this set -- The Smiling Lieutenant and One Hour With You -- Lubitsch partners with Chevalier again (although, apparently, their relationship was quite rocky behind-the-scenes) and cuts back on the musical numbers. In Lieutenant, the ever-womanizing Chevalier is torn between his musician girlfriend (Claudette Colbert) and a romantically inexperienced princess (Miriam Hopkins) with typically hilarious and inventive results.
In One Hour with You, Chevalier is reunited with The Love Parade's Jeanette MacDonald. Again they are married, but the ever insatiable Chevalier gets romantically involved with one of his wife's old friends. Even more than Lubitsch's other films, One Hour with You -- which was made on the heels of Lubitsch's first divorce -- makes clear his unconventionally pro-infidelity views. Seriously, showing just how ahead-of-his-time the sexually liberated, "pre-Code" Lubitsch was, he actually ends this film with an enthusiastic defense of infidelity. Women are even encouraged to pretend to be unfaithful so they can appreciate the joys of cheating!
Eclipse's mandate is to release related films with no extras other than brief text introductions printed on the inside of each disc cover. This seems to fly in the face of everything Criterion stands for -- namely, great extras -- but Eclipse has its own appeal. Rather than get distracted by extras, I fired through this whole set in one afternoon and I was hungry for more. Sometimes I get distracted by Criterion's always illuminating extras and, after spending a couple hours immersed in entertaining featurettes, I regret that I didn't spend that time watching a film. There's nothing wrong with extras, but when time is limited, movies should take priority... and Eclipse is all about movies.
Criterion has teamed up with Universal to put this package together and transfers are quite solid. Yes, there are scratches throughout and some shots are a little softer than they should be (not a huge complaint, given the age of these films) but, on the whole, these films look surprisingly good.
I haven't had a chance to inspect every Eclipse set, but if you're thinking about sampling Criterion's latest undertaking, this set is a great place to start. Any Lubitsch fans who are unfamiliar with the director's incredible musicals should be pleased to see just how refined "the Lubitsch touch" was in these startlingly sophisticated early talkies. -- Jonathan Doyle