Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Writers: Samuel Hoffenstein, Waldemar Young and George Marion, Jr, based on a play by Leopold Marchand and Paul Armont, with delightful songs by Rodgers and Hart
Stars: Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Charlie Ruggles, Charles Butterworth, Myrna Loy, C. Aubrey Smith
The Story: A poor but happy-go-lucky Paris tailor decides that he must track down a deadbeat client at a grand country estate. While there, the tailor falls in love with his client’s royal sister.
How it Came to be Underrated: MacDonald and Chevalier were wildly popular for a short time, but their light-operetta style started to seem very old-fashioned and their fame faded quickly, which is ironic, since the movie seems so startlingly modern today.
Why It’s Great:
- If you were to poll the general public about the greatest musicals of all time, this wouldn’t crack the Top 50, simply because many haven’t heard of it, but a good number of film historians would put this all the way up near number one, making this one of the most underrated movies ever. No other musical has done such a great job capturing the infectious joy of song. Chevalier the tailor cheerily bounces through Paris singing, “Isn’t It Romantic.” Soon, a passing taxi driver starts singing the same tune… The tune then passes to his fare, who passes it to an army troupe, who march through the countryside singing it, where it finally makes its way to the ear of a lonely princess looking wistfully out her window... Inevitably, of course, this bond of song will bring these two together. It’s one of the joyous sequences ever shot.
- Experimental filmmakers at the time were having some success making feature-length montages of city life called “City Symphonies” Mamoulian takes this concept and makes it literal: In the opening shot, a long workman with a pickaxe emerges onto the streets of Paris in the morning and begins a rhythmic clanking, then he’s joined by shopowners sweeping the streets, maids beating carpets, cobblers nailing on heels, cascading car horns, babies wailing, laundry whipping in the wind, etc. Each sound is transformed from a nuisance into something beautiful as they all blend together. Every moment in this movie is a pure unadulterated delight.
- Why did musicals becomes so artificial after this? Once musical production units split off from the rest of the studio system, they prided themselves on attracting the best dancers and choreographers from Broadway, who expected indoor work, elaborate lighting, and a proscenium arch. Mamoulian will have none of that. Rather than cut away to “musical sequences” this whole movie hums to life.
- The movie is wonderfully naughty. Mamoulian was one of those directors that enjoyed the lawless pre-code days so much that he never was never quite able to reach the same heights under the puritan strictures of the Hays Code. He was most often compared to Lubitsch, who did a better job adjusting his level of subtlety to fit the new system that came in from 1934 on.
- But as indebted as he is to Lubitsch, Mamoulian also looks ahead to the mapcap post-modern absurdity of Frank Tashlin: Chevalier slows down the film stock when it suits him. Angry sculptures of ancestors sing about how disappointed they are by their descendants. There are no rules here, and it’s thrilling.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Besides this and Queen Christina, Mamoulian’s other pre-code triumphs Applause, and Jekyll and Hyde. One of his best post-code movies was The Mark of Zorro.
How Available Is It?: There’s an excellent Kino DVD with an in-depth commentary by Mamoulian protege Miles Kreuger.
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