Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932)
It was love at first sight for me. Rouben Mamoulian establishes something remarkably wondrous from the film's getgo: sleepy Paris waking up to the beat of a workman's hammer; the snores of a sleeping bum, noise from the city's chimneys, old ladies in their morning chores add to the rhythm of the city. Mamoulian's camera enters through the window of an apartment introducing us to still drowsy tailor Maurice Courtelin (Maurice Chavalier), singing a catchy ditty while walking and flirting his way to shop.
The enjoyable inventiveness of the initial sequence is matched when Maurice sings composer-lyricist duo Rodgers and Hart's catchy song "Isn't It Romantic." Way before Maurice meets his romance, Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald), the little tune he hums to his satisfied customer reaches her by being passed from customer, to traveling songwriter, to a battalion of soldiers, to a violin-wielding gypsy boy to the lonesome princess in her chateaus' balcony. It is only when the viscount of Paris (Charles Ruggles) neglects to pay his clothing dues that Maurice is forced to visit the chateaus, and by pretending to be a baron, finally get a chance to make his pre-destined princess fall in love with him.
It's truly ahead of its time. It's pre-code sensibilities made it possible for seemingly raunchy exchanges between the characters. The song "Mimi," sung by Maurice upon catching the fanciful princess parading in the chateaus grounds, waves around innuendos in its giddy melodics and rhythm while Mamoulian amuses us by utilizing close ups of Chavelier and MacDonald's faces with their evolving emotional reactions and reflexes. Witticism and underhanded humor, and a little touch of rhyme and rhythm in word selection, turn the always entertaining dialogues into delightful extensions of the film's lovely musical pieces.
Watching Love Me Tonight instantly turns Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge (2001) into a hyperactive mess. It's quite nice to note that everything Luhrmann tried to innovate in the musical genre was already committed into film in 1932 by the inventive Mamoulian. Love Me Tonight has everything, and more importantly, the inventiveness is not splattered into the feature like a Jackson Pollock painting. Instead, the visual gimmickry are all placed carefully and in sensiblemanner. When Maurice pleads that the hunting party leave slowly and silently so as to not wake up the sleeping stag, Mamoulian cleverly captures the party's retreat in slow motion. Similarly, when Maurice and the princess finally exchange their vows of love to each other, the night sequence is followed by Maurice waking up to the dreamy titular song which is complemented by Mamoulian splitting the screen with the sleeping (and suggestively satisfied) princess.
A race between the horse-riding princess and a charging train caps this lovely film. Again, Mamoulian expertly edits the sequence. He masterfully times shots of the train's hardworking engines, the rapid landings of the horse's legs, and the lovers faces and creates an exhilerating sequence that is comparable to the delightful chase and race sequences of the films of the silent era. It's a reminder as to how Mamoulian (who before directing for films, worked as a theater director) understands the purpose of sound in film; that it is not enough that the feature feign excitement by pumping up the music or adding heart pounding sound effects. The visuals should catch up with the tempo of the sequence and that music and sound merely complement what should already be visually portrayed; it is a trait that adheres to silent film traditions, and remarkably works in this musicale.