If I were asked to name the greatest musicals ever made originally for a film, I would include, "Singin’ in the Rain," "The Wizard of Oz" and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." But above them all, I have to put the 1932 black-and-white "Love Me Tonight." The stars on the screen are Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald; but the real stars behind the screen are director Rouben Mamoulian, lyricist Lorenz Hart and composer Richard Rodgers.
This classic comes from the time when every third film was a musical, and theater owners and the public were getting more than impatient with performers trying (but not too hard) to make a paint-by-numbers plot credible while exhibiting very dubious vocal and dramatic talents. Mamoulian (who had never directed a musical) was determined to make the plot not only amusing but interesting, to make the songs actually seem to fit the mood and the fit the plot-situation in which they appeared, and to render the songs dramatically. Quite a tall order for a genre that had fallen into such disrepute -- and that would continue to do so. You can recall the idiotic plots of the otherwise wonderful Fred and Ginger films and all their successors, can’t you?
So take the very opening of "Love Me Tonight." There is absolutely no music except for some morning church bells. We see a street with a solitary worker beginning to break up the road with a steady beat. He is joined by a sleeper loudly snoring in counterpoint, two cobblers hammering nails into shoes, a woman beating a rug, chimneys belching smoke, and so on -- until a young girl puts a needle onto a recording and we finally hear some music.
Or consider the incredible sequence in which "Isn’t it Romantic" is sung in a tailor shop to one set of lyrics, carried onto the street by a customer, picked up by a cab driver who whistles it to a passenger who is a musician who jots down the notes, who then sings on a train surrounded by soldiers, who hear his words, sing them on the march and are heard by a gypsy violinist, who plays only the melody that is heard by MacDonald in the very chateau that Chevalier will soon visit and she sings with altered lyrics -- thereby uniting the future lovers even before they meet! Now talk about the dramatic use of music!
The now-famous "Lover" is a throw-away sung by MacDonald to her horse just before it throws her at the very spot that Chevalier’s car has broken down and Š well, he can now sing "Mimi." She protests that her name is not Mimi. He sings it anyway. How many rhymes are there for "Jeanette"? Note: She is named Princess Jeanette in the film, while Maurice keeps his own first name as well.
And it must have seemed a bit risky to show MacDonald lying on her pillow and Chevalier on his, while split-screen photography made them seem together! And I read that in the sequence in which each major character is singing the same song in his/her room, Myrna Loy is not seen. It seems her belly button was showing and that was a no-no in 1932.
This is also the first filmed musical in which the composer was asked to supply the incidental (background) music rather than just the songs. And as for the supporting cast, Myrna Loy easily steals every scene she is in -- not only with her beauty but with her delivery of some very funny lines, the most famous of which is about "going for a doctor." And when was the last time you heard stage and film veteran C. Aubrey Smith sing? Finally, yes, the Major Domo (Robert Greig) is the same one who plays Hives the butler in "Animal Crackers."
I am most grateful that this gem is still available on DVD, thanks to the Kino Video folk who specialize in old-time classics. This very well processed video offers up some marvelous bonus material, the best of which is a running voice-over commentary by Miles Kreuger. All in all, a Grabbit.