The Love Parade
Director: Ernst Lubitsch. Cast: Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Lupino Lane, Lillian Roth, E.H. Calvert, Eugene Pallette, Edgar Norton, Lionel Belmore. Screenplay: Ernest Vajda and Guy Bolton (based on the play The Prince Consort by Leon Xanrof and Jules Chancel).

Witty and elegant sensibility wins out over the crudeness of technology in this early musical starring an already famous Maurice Chevalier as Count Alfred Renard, a military attaché from the country of Sylvania, assigned to a post in Paris as the film begins. From the instant we meet him, Chevalier is struggling to explain a suspicious garter belt to his irate lover, although mere moments later, we learn that she is cheating on her own husband in order to cavort with Chevalier—from what we see, an utterly rational decision. Chevalier is so amiable, he even translates the French dialogue directly to us. Suddenly, the husband intrudes, and the guilty wife appears to shoot herself in the breast, after which the grieving cuckold shoots Chevalier right in the heart, but the dapper lothario doesn't even flinch. In the first of many grace notes that Lubitsch fans will affiliate with his deservedly famed "touch," the husband and the lover puzzle together over the contraption of this gun, before realizing with mutual relief that it isn't loaded, or it's loaded improperly, or is a fake, or something: the details are less clear and less important than the suddenly evident knowledge that no one has died, and indeed, as the smiles spread across the men's faces, the wife blinks and rouses herself from the floor. As conjugal understanding is resumed, Chevalier discreetly lays the pistol in the woman's bureau drawer, already swimming with other pistols. A drastic crisis becomes an almost cosmopolitan drôlerie within a matter of minutes, and the film rarely breaks its soignée stride ever afterward, as Chevalier returns home to Sylvania and soon finds himself courting his saucy and unmarried queen, played by Jeanette MacDonald.

In a way, the least interesting parts of the movie are almost certainly the elements that drew such massive crowds in 1929: the synchronized sound effects, still lashed to markedly gratuitous actions and sights—an airplane flies overhead, for no other reason than to furnish the sound editors with another cue—and the songs, which, though reasonably tuneful, don't seem to interest Lubitsch all that much. Chevalier and MacDonald are both much more accomplished as singers than as performers, but as eager as they are to sell us on Clifford Grey's lyrics and Victor Schertzinger's melodies (about five years before Schertzinger made a movie star out of Met soprano Grace Moore in One Night of Love), the scratchiness and limited range of the soundtrack can't do them any favors, and their static, stagey delivery halts everything else that's smooth and delectable in the movie. Compare even the stars' winning duet on the titular track, in which "the love parade" alludes to how perfectly MacDonald encapsulates the most ravishing qualities of all the world's beauties, to the simpler but in every way more exciting interlude where MacDonald, surrounded by cooing and vaguely laughable ladies in waiting, tests the water of a bath with her toe, and then sudses herself up with a big, almost comical sponge, while complaining about her country's obsessive preoccupation with her lack of a husband. Somehow, every element of the scene feels entrancing, refreshing, even though none of the details considered in the abstract, including MacDonald herself, would appear all that special. The appeal rests fully in Lubitsch's presentation, and his seeming immunity to false complication. There is no lead-up of enmity or misunderstanding in Chevalier and MacDonald's rapport. Instead, they are each quite frankly aroused by the other upon first meeting, and as in later, fuller Lubitsch pictures like Trouble in Paradise, the pure carnality of their attraction somehow adds to its refinement instead of coarsening it. Plus, the comic business of an already established pair who are reconsidering their union is in many ways more involving than the more typical narrative of couple formation. Meanwhile, Figaro style, a parallel love-plot unfolds between Chevalier's valet Jacques and the queen's maid Lulu. Played respectively by Lupino Lane and Lillian Roth—yes, that Lillian Roth, the notorious booze-hound that Susan Hayward plays to the hilt in I'll Cry Tomorrow, though you'd never know it here—these two revelers are the real life of the party, thoroughly vivacious whenever they're on screen, and adding acrobatic aplomb and expert high/low comedy to the movie's one truly scintillating song, the evocatively titled "Let's Be Common and Do It Again."

With seductions this silken, subplots this delectable, and scene-constructions this efficiently polished, why would anyone want to listen to a plane flying overhead, or even watch Chevalier as he effortfully plays up that Frahnch accent in every flyaway lyric? Even the costumes and interior designs are of such refined quality that watching Chevalier stand around silently in his uniform offers more pleasure than listening to him standing around humming a ditty, frozen in obedience to some nearby, well-concealed, and hard-pressed microphone, when everything else in the movie suggests how badly Lubitsch probably wishes he could move that camera and that actor around. The Love Parade is warm and delighting throughout, but where the songs and soundtrack feel like a shaky, uncertain step into new, uncharted capabilities—ones to which this director might well be indifferent—the sexy confidence and nimble tone of the storytelling suggest an art that has already attained refinement. The next thing you want to do when The Love Parade is over is not to watch another musical but to watch another Lubitsch movie, though you could certainly call it a night with this one and still declare the evening well-rewarded. B+


Academy Award Nominations:
Best Picture
Best Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Best Actor: Maurice Chevalier
Best Cinematography: Victor Milner
Best Art Direction: Hans Dreier
Best Sound: Franklin Hansen

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