About twenty years ago I managed to see three of the four films in this set at an Ernst Lubitsch festival and was able to see MONTE CARLO in the University of Chicago film archives. Since then I've managed to see ONE HOUR WITH YOU, one of my favorite Lubitsch films, one on AMC (back when it showed classic films) and once on TCM (after it wouldn't allow AMC to show the films it had the rights to). Although I'm only reviewing this set now, I had it preordered when it was first released. As a huge fan of Lubitsch, I had for years regretted his neglect not only on DVD but on VHS as well. This set makes several of these films available for personal ownership (unless one recorded them off TCM or AMC) for the first time. My only hope is that the rest of Lubitsch's films will also be released.
Lubitsch is one of the great masters of cinema. Andrew Sarris in THE AMERICAN CINEMA placed him and Hitchcock at the apex of the greatest directors in American cinema. He obviously also made Sarris's "Pantheon." Hitchcock and Lubitsch are both unsurpassed in their ability to use the camera to tell a story. Both are complete virtuosos and mastered the unique qualities of cinema that cannot be immitated by other art forms. Lubitsch can move the story along merely by showing the changing contents of a closet. Showing a clock and the changing light of day can speak volumes. And no one in the history of cinema -- especially in his pre-code films, but even afterwards as well -- could handle sex as well as Lubitsch. There is never anything lascivious or dirty about his treatment of sex, but it is always fun, mischievous, and deeply flirtatious.
These are also among the most watchable films of the early years of sound cinema. There were huge technical difficulties while THE LOVE PARADE was being made. And even MONTE CARLO and the other two films were made when many of the kinks of the sound process had not been worked out. If you watch carefully, THE LOVE PARADE frequently becomes a silent film, with music providing all of the soundtrack. But these difficulties hardly slowed Lubitsch down. Along with the Marx Brothers, most of the early sound films that we still watch with delight were largely these made by Lubitsch.
Lubitsch is unique in another way. He is the only major film figure who is simultaneously an important studio head (he was for many years until health prevented it head of production at Paramount) and one of the great directors of cinema (many rank him among the top 4 or 5 directors ever). So in making his films there was little or no conflict with the studio brass over artistic vision, simply because he was the studio brass.
I love all four of these films, though I will confess a preference for ONE HOUR WITH YOU, a film that was begun by George Cukor. All four films are dominated by Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald, with each of them appearing in three films each, two of them with both. They also appeared together in the great THE MERRY WIDOW, one of the last pre-code films and one that desperately needs to be brought out on DVD. they also appeared in 1929 in another truly great musical, LOVE ME TONIGHT, directed by Mamoulian. If you didn't know Mamoulian directed it, you would swear Lubitsch had. Ironically, though MacDonald is best known for her films with Nelson Eddy, they cannot even remotely compare in quality with the group of films that she did with did with Chevalier.
Two of the films are scripted by Samson Raphaelson (who was pretty transparently the model for the Eli Wallach character in the recent film THE HOLIDAY, in which Kate Winslet). He wrote the screenplay for both THE SMILING LIEUTENANT and ONE HOUR WITH YOU, and would later write other major screenplays for Lubitsch such as TROUBLE IN PARADISE, THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, HEAVEN CAN WAIT, and others.
Now, while I am absolutely delighted that these films have been made available once again in the Criterion Eclipse series, I do have complaints. First, there are absolutely no special features. No commentaries, no documentaries about the films, nothing. Second, while the prints were somewhat cleaned up, they are not truly pristine. Most of the films show lots of scratches and scrapes. The pictures are not as vivid as one might wish. Still, their available at all trumps these complaints.
The four films in the set are:
THE LOVE PARADE
This was one of two great films Chevalier and MacDonald made in 1929, the other being LOVE ME TONIGHT. Though Lubitsch was the greatest comedy director in cinematic history in my opinion (though I have to confess that I'm hardly alone in that assessment), for once Mamoulian managed to top the master. THE LOVE PARADE is a very good movie, but LOVE ME TONIGHT is a masterpiece. THE LOVE PARADE features a story that is similar to many of the plots of his films: two individuals of widely differing social backgrounds or classes find love. Here a princess elevates a diplomat so that she can marry him. (Interestingly, LOVE ME TONIGHT had the same kind of tension.) The plot is thin, but the execution is delightful. There are a host of wonderful moments that shows Lubitsch at his finest. I especially loved a song where Chevalier, about to depart Paris, sings aloud his regret at leaving his lady loves. His valet then sings his regrets, and all of the servant girls come to their windows to hear him with distress. Finally, Chevalier's dog comes up to the window to bark out his sadness at leaving his lady friends, and a group of female dogs hear his lament.
THE LOVE PARADE also features a couple of fascinating supporting actors. Chevalier's valet is played by British vaudevillian Lupino Lane. He was famous for his remarkably physical style of dancing, which he puts on display here. He was the uncle of Ida Lupino. More poignantly, he is teamed with Lillian Roth, who was only 19 when this film was released. She had a great voice and a remarkable youthful beauty. Fans of the Marx Brothers will recognize her from ANIMAL CRACKERS. Although she was a major talent, she underwent a long string of personal tragedies, including alcoholism and drug addiction (much of it in reaction to major disappointments in life, such as the death of her fiancé when she was in her early twenties). Eventually she managed to make a major comeback as a nightclub performer and wrote a biography that was made in to a major film, I'LL LIVE TOMORROW, which garnered an Oscar nomination for Susan Heyward. Roth was perhaps the first celebrity to publicly admit a problem with alcoholism and her openness made it possible for other troubled celebrities to get help. But seeing her in this film, so pretty and young and talented, really makes you regret that she did not have the kind of career her talent might have generated.
This is the least of the four films included in the set, though it is still quite good. Jeannette MacDonald sang "Beyond the Blue Horizon" in it and it became her personal theme song for the rest of her life. But for many film fans the greatest source of delight is the presence of Jack Buchanan in the male lead. Most American film fans know him primarily for his extraordinary work in the Fred Astaire film THE BAND WAGON. This film shows that he was not a one-hit wonder and the wonderful elegance that he displayed in THE BAND WAGON is fully in evidence here.
THE SMILING LIEUTENANT
Two things that really strike me in this film are how very, very young Claudette Colbert is in it. We don't usually remember that most of Colbert's career came in her mid to late thirties, or even in her early forties. In this film she is 28 and one can see just how thin she was at that stage of her career. Though she was never a large person, she is surprisingly thin in this one, especially in her face. The other thing that struck me about her is that she hadn't yet refused to be photographed from her left profile. Here she frequently can be seen in full right profile and thinks nothing of going from one profile to another. Contrast this with THE PALM SPRINGS STORY, where she laboriously blocks her scenes to stay in left profile.
The film is also graced by the wonderful Miriam Hopkins, one of the great comic actresses of the thirties and one of Lubitsch's most frequently used stars. She was in one of Lubitsch's greatest films, TROUBLE IN PARADISE, as well as in DESIGN FOR LIVING. I was not previously aware that she played the piano, but in the scenes where she is supposed to be playing it definitely looks as if she is. If she isn't, it is one of the best jobs at pretending to that I've ever seen.
The greatest thing about this set is that it makes movies like this one available again. Although Lubitsch was impeded in his filmmaking by his duties at the studio and by ongoing health problems, it is absolutely amazing how many great movies he made. Now those who previously only knew him from NINOTCHKA and HEAVEN CAN WAIT and TO BE OR NOT TO BE and THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and TROUBLE IN PARADISE can see a great film like THE SMILING LIEUTENANT.
ONE HOUR WITH YOU
This is one of my all time favorite movies. It is also a film that couldn't possible have been made three years later, after the Code was fully implemented. It is quite naughty, about a promiscuous married female who is trying to seduce her best friends husband. She succeeds and one of my all time favorite scenes in any film comes when Chevalier, doing the walk of shame the next morning and sensing the moral disapproval of those in the film audience, asks them (us) if someone came up and did all the things that this temptress had done, what we would do? He then self-righteously proclaims, "Well, I did, too!"
ONE HOUR WITH YOU also contains one of the strongest supporting casts of any Lubitsch film. Genevieve Tobin, Roland Young (who provides one laugh after another), and Charlie Ruggles provide one marvelous moment after another.
Interestingly, while Lubitsch was making this film he simultaneously did so in French as well. Chevalier was, of course, French, and MacDonald fluent in it. They switched some of the supporting actors with others who could speak French. I've never seen this version and don't even know whether it is available. It would have been nice if they had included it as an extra in this set. It is definitely one of the movies that I would most like to see. Many people are unaware that many Hollywood films were simultaneously filmed in more than one language. Many Laurel and Hardy shorts were also made in Spanish and can be found without too much trouble.
If you love classic cinema, this is as much as anything gets to a "must buy" set. Four great films by one of cinema's greatest directors focusing especially on two great stars. Sets simply don't get any more compelling than this.