not in our stars, but in ourselves
Ah, Paramount. Once upon a time, it was the mark of quality – more so than MGM, in my very humble opinion – and that time was most definitely the Pre-Code era. You no doubt remember Trouble in Paradise (1932); same year, same studio, we have the utterly charming Love Me Tonight. Alas, no Lubitsch this time, but we do get Rouben Mamoulian directing; Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald starring; and Myrna Loy, Charlie Ruggles, and C. Aubrey Smith supporting. More about them presently.
The plot is just a bit of fairytale fluff: Maurice Courtelin (Chevalier) is a tailor and a ladies’ man. He’s just started his own custom tailor business, and thinks he’s found terrific luck in his newest customer. The Vicomte Gilbert de Varèze (Ruggles) is known as one of the best-dressed men in France, and he’s ordered 14,000 francs’ worth of suits. Less well-known, at least to Maurice, is that Gilbert is a notorious debtor. Oops. So Maurice decides to follow Gilbert back to the family chateau to settle his debt – and on the way, he meets Princess Jeanette (MacDonald).
Jeanette was married three years ago, to a man five decades her senior. He died, and she hasn’t had a whiff of fun or romance since – not that there was much to be had in her marriage to the prince. She often has fainting spells, due to what nineteenth-century quacks would have called “female hysteria.” When cocksure Maurice bursts into her chateau, she doesn’t quite know how to react. He’s hit with le coup de foudre, and aggressively romances her. You all know that Pepe Le Pew was inspired, in part, by Chevalier – oui? Well, here he is, in the flesh.
It’s almost hard to believe that this sweet little operetta-inspired fable is a Pre-Code film. Chevalier’s lechery seems to be almost suitable for, say, 1938! MacDonald so clearly wants love and marriage that Joseph Breen would probably have obliged her himself! There’s even a scene with Maurice feeding a stag oatmeal and making doe eyes at it! What could be cuter? What could be more innocuous? Maybe not all of those Pre-Codes are as dirty as – oh, wait a minute.
Didn’t I say we’d get back to Myrna Loy et al.? Yes. Well. Here we are. Love Me Tonight would be plenty adorable if it were just Chevalier and MacDonald, chasing and being chased. But fortunately, Loy is there as Countess Valentine, a girl after my own heart. Here are some of her best quips:
Jeanette: Do you think of anything but men, dear?
Valentine: Oh, yes! Schoolboys.
Gilbert: [after the Princess has fainted] Could you go for a doctor?
Valentine: Certainly! Bring him right in!
Valentine: Can’t we ever get a footman under 40 around here?!
The Duke: [on hearing that she has drilled holes in a door to spy on Maurice as he dresses and undresses] VALENTINE! Are you aware that that door’s come down to us through generations?
Valentine: So have my instincts!
She is just fabulous. Man-mad in the extreme, and unapologetically so. She certainly doesn’t want to get married. She doesn’t want to have to buy the cow if she can get the milk for free.
Ruggles is also a treat, as a rogue himself. When joking with Valentine about how to “handle” their uncle the duke (Smith), “the old skyhawk,” Gilbert says he’ll start a charity “to find good homes for bad stenographers.” The first time we meet him, he is running in a race, clad only in his undershirt and boxers, to escape the vengeful husband of a girl with whom he was caught in flagrante. I don’t know why Charlie Ruggles isn’t as big a star as Barrymore, but I often lie awake at night wondering.
There are other Pre-Code goodies, thankfully: Chevalier singing, in praise of Paris, “You would sell your wife and daughter for just one Latin Quarter”; a song about needing to get laid for medical reasons; a suitor of Jeanette’s who never seems to understand that he’s making a dirty joke; Smith singing, “I’d rather throw a bomb at her than let her wed a commoner!”; and a song that was very sadly cut and lost forever, which included the line: “A peach must be eaten, a drum must be beaten, and a woman needs something like that.” Oh, naughty!
I will admit that, despite my affection for it, it’s a somewhat slight little film. However, the Rodgers/Hart songs are fantastic – especially my favorite version of “Isn’t It Romantic” – and it’s just lovely to look at. Paramount was a great studio for Continental flair, and Love Me Tonight has it in spades. Sets that seem to be made of real marble, enormous doors, California countryside made to look genuinely French – oh, yes. Good old Paramount. MGM had its gloss and Warner Bros. its grit, but Paramount had panache, élan, elegance, charm – everything, in short, that you could possibly want in a movie, whether pre- or post-Code.
P.S. If you try to remember what the opening “Song of Paris” reminds you of, it’s because the “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago (2002) ripped it off. I see you, Rob Marshall. Plagiarizing Fosse and Mamoulian AND “Remember My Forgotten Man” – you stinker.