Directed by: Rouben Mamoulian
Starring: Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Charles Ruggles, Myrna Loy, Charles Butterworth
I first saw this 1932 film at the age of 15, when my father took me to see it at a Rouben Mamoulian retrospective at the University of South Florida in Tampa. I don't know when I had ever been less interested in seeing a movie. I wanted to see Mamoulian's legendary Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, not this one, but scheduling played a part in the decision, and it was Love Me Tonight or nothing.
Within five minutes, I had forgotten all about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I was entranced by what I saw; it was as if I had never seen a movie before. The film completely changed my idea of movies, and it impacts my thinking to this day. Here was a movie that used every cinematic device in the vocabulary of film -- split-screen, rhythmic cutting, traveling camera shots, location shooting, slow-motion, fast-motion, dreamlike dissolves, model work, etc. You name it, it's in there -- even a couple uses of the early zoom lens (the "variozoom").
All of this could have amounted to little more than a cornucopia of innovation (and it is that), but Mamoulian's film uses all these wonderful innovations with such grace and ease that it's almost possible to forget the "cleverness." In fact, the more obvious effects have little to do with some of the most memorable moments in this slender story of a tailor (Maurice Chevalier) who falls for a princess (Jeanette MacDonald) when he comes to her family's chateau to collect a bill.
For example, in deceptively simple fashion, Mamoulian shoots the first part of the breathtakingly creative "Isn't It Romantic?" number by panning from panel to panel of Chevalier reflected in a triptych mirror, then moves directly to Chevalier, who is startlingly larger than his mirror image. Equally simple is the bold theatricality of Chevalier's "I'm an Apache" song, the surprise of him singing "Mimi" directly to the camera, and the image of the footmen spreading out across the checkered flooring as they rush to gossip with the other servants that "The Son of a Gun Is Nothing But a Tailor."
It helps that the songs, which were written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, are beyond fine. (Three of them -- "Isn't It Romantic?", "Lover" and "Mimi" -- have become standards.) And a big plus is the fact that the screenplay is both clever and pre-Production Code suggestive. "Do you ever think of anything but men, dear?" MacDonald asks her sex-starved cousin Valentine (Myrna Loy), only to be assured that she does. "Of what?" asks an unbelieving MacDonald. "Schoolboys!" Valentine cheerfully replies.
A delight from start to finish and a film that no fan of the movies has any excuse for missing, Love Me Tonight will be shown at 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 10, 2005 in Pack Memorial Library's Lord Auditorium.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke