‘Love Me Tonight’ or — Isn’t it romantic… and sexy and innovative as hell.
Ah, gay Paris. Isn’t it romantic?
The city wakes as a symphony: shops keepers set-up shop; wives hang out clothes to air; milk bottles clink; cobblers hammer and, gradually, all these noises become music, the soundtrack to the movie. Is this a ‘music concrete’ musical… made in 1932?! This is not just Paris and its residents awakening but filmmakers too as they realise just what they can do with sound in the movies. And Rouben Mamoulian knew EXACTLY what he could do with sound and, in this film, he does… and then some.
A lowly Parisian tailor (Maurice Chevalier) is owned a lot of money for countless suits he has made for an irresponsible Count who cannot pay up. So he decides to visit the Count at his family’s estate in the countryside to demand payment; a sort of one-man French Revolution against the aristocracy.
Yet, because Chevalier is a romantic, he sings a romantic song (‘Isn’t it Romantic’) before he sets off. One of Chevalier’s costumers hears this song and sings along as he exits the shop and continues to do so as the costomer enters a horse-drawn carriage. The cabby sings along too, as does his next fare who gets on a train where the other passengers hear it and keep it going until a troop of soldiers catch the ear-worm and it isn’t long before ‘Isn’t it Romantic’ has passed, like a virus, from Paris to a group of gypsies in the French countryside and then, finally, onto the estate the Count is holed up in and we have just witnessed Hollywood having a sonic epiphany and cinema would never be the same again. Suddenly, anything is possible.
This is a ‘film musical’, written specifically for what the medium of film can do, although the story is adapted from a play. ‘Love Me Tonight’ isn’t trapped or “bogged down” by a stage musical ancestry where the overriding feeling of the orchestra just off-camera cannot be easily erased. When a musical can be written for film a radical thing happens — visually and sonically anything goes! ‘Love Me Tonight’ has less in common with anything performed on Broadway and more with Vertov’s ‘Man With A Movie Camera’ (1929) and the effect is mind-blowing. It’s no wonder Stephen Sondheim was so in love with this movie.
Mamoulian had the score composed beforehand and not just before the cameras started rolling but before the script was even worked-out. Nothing was off limits in terms of the imagination. The score would be pre-recorded so they didn’t have to worry about the lumbering orchestra just off camera and the restrictions of its off-screen gravitational pull (even though we never see it we can always seem to sense when the weight of an orchestra is there). Visually they can now do anything they wanted as well as syncing up the rhythm of the visuals, the gestures of the performers and the editing perfectly to the rhythm of the music. This is less a musical and more a live action cartoon.
And it is not just in terms of sound design that the movie soars but also in terms of visually innovation and playfulness. So we are treated to sped-up camera work, model work, hidden transitions, forced perspective, dissolves, Soviet style montage and one of the finest, funniest and dreamlike uses of slow-mo I’ve ever seen. This movie puts any modern day film I’ve seen over the last few years to absolute shame in terms of showcasing cinema and what it can do. Have we become too inoculated to such radical flourishes and changes of style? That they now seem passé or jarring if too much variation is presented to us? If so, that’s a shame because I miss them.
Yet ‘Love Me Tonight’ is way more than a cinematic exercise as it is also one of the funniest, and sexiest, musicals ever made (it was made pre-code but even then certain scenes had to be trimmed or cut as they were so naughty). Everyone is thinking about sex. Everyone seems sexually frustrated. In France it seems sexual frustration is treated very seriously, almost like a disease. Is this why the doctor prescribes a good, hard fucking as a cure for ennui? Seems so.
For example, take this piece of dialogue here between the Princess and her even more sexually frustrated female friend, who seems to be so erotically wound-up that the implication is she spends her evenings masturbating and edging herself into total oblivion:
“Are men all you think about?”
“No,” she replies, “Sometimes schoolboys.” Gives a smile and rides off! If that’s what they left in the film then what the hell did they leave out?!
The move is also funny to the point of leaving you delirious, almost making films by the Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy seem slow and pedestrian in comparison. There is so much unbridled insanity going on here it’s off the charts, one of the best examples being the unbridled horse Solitude who might have the greatest introduction to an animal I’ve witnessed on film, leaving me in a genuinely hysterical state. Every single decision Mamoulian makes whether in terms of script, music, editing, camera-work, performance or general joie de vivre is designed to pummel us into a state of helpless laughter or erotic arousal (I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard or was so hard whilst laughing).
It can be easy, and lazy, to say such and such a film is the such and such ‘Citizen Kane’, yet I feel it accurately describes ‘Love Me Tonight’ as the amount of visual and sonic innovation going on, and the way it goes on, must have had an influence on Welles. The only difference is ‘Love Me Tonight’ might be even more intoxicating.
‘Love Me Tonight’ is a film about love but not so much about romantic but more the union between sound and vision… and I am delighted to say that they have been happily married ever since.