Welcome to another Film Friday! Today, we’re continuing our series of posts on the Pre-Code work of Myrna Loy, one of M-G-M’s sharpest and glamorous stars of the ’30s and ’40s. Though her greatest successes would come during the Post-Code era, the films of Loy’s early career demonstrate her versatility and the slow appropriation of what would become her niche — the sophisticated dame who could make audiences both laugh and cry. The films we’ll be covering over these next few weeks — and we will NOT be going chronologically — are all very different: in some we’ll see Loy as merely a supporting player; in others, she’ll be our leading lady. As one of the busiest actresses of the Pre-Code era, these posts will examine the way in which a second-tier actress grappled with defining her image into something that, though strangely Pre-Code, would soon take off and make her a major star in the immediate Post-Code years to follow. So far we’ve covered Penthouse (1933), Transatlantic (1931), and The Animal Kingdom (1932). Today, Love Me Tonight (1932).
Love Me Tonight (1932)
A Parisian tailor falls in love with a princess. Starring Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Charlie Ruggles, Charles Butterworth, Myrna Loy, and C. Aubrey Smith. Screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein, George Marion, Jr., and Waldemar Young. Based on a play by Leopold Marchand and Paul Armont. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian.
Classic film fans, musical theatre fans, pre-code cinema fans — Love Me Tonight is essential viewing. With a top notch cast headed by Chevalier and MacDonald, a melodious original score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and a story filled with both humor and romance, Love Me Tonight may just be the best musical film of the 1930s.
“Struggling Parisian tailor Maurice Courtelin finds he has been bilked on a bill for fifteen suits by the Vicomte Gilbert de Vareze. When he discovers that de Vareze has a bad reputation with tailors all over Paris, Maurice becomes outraged and goes to the Chateau d’Artelins to collect his bill. Along the road to the chateau, Princess Jeanette narrowly avoids a collision of her buggy with Maurice’s car. Maurice immediately falls in love with Jeanette and, although flustered and haughty, she is delighted by him. Neither are aware of the other’s social status. When Jeanette goes home to the Chateau d’Artelins she faints, and the doctor recommends marriage to a man her age as a curative. Maurice arrives and de Vareze, afraid to expose his indebtedness, nervously introduces him to the Duke as a baron, thereby enabling Maurice to join the other guests of rank. While Maurice is on a royal hunt, Count de Savignac discovers that Maurice has no lineage, and informs the Duke. De Vareze then intimates that Maurice is actually royalty traveling under a nom de plume. A costume ball is thrown in honor of Maurice and he comes dressed as a Parisian “Apache.” He then follows Jeanette into the garden where they proclaim their love for each other. The next morning, Maurices dismisses Jeanette’s seamstress and the insulted seamstress tells everyone that Maurice intends to sew Jeanette’s riding habit. Soon Maurice must confess his true identity, appalling Jeanette and everyone in the chateau. Maurice collects his bill and boards a train for Paris, but when Jeanette realizes that she loves Maurice despite his lowly profession, she takes the fastest horse and catches up with the train, shouting that she would love to be a tailor’s wife. Maurice does not accept this proclamation, so Jeanette stands on the train tracks until the train is forced to stop, and Maurice and Jeanette joyfully embrace.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
The romantic story — of imaginary barons and glamorous princesses — is imbued with just enough Pre-Code spice to keep it from getting cloying. Rather, it’s exciting, with seeds of screwball comedy and an explicit sexuality that runs throughout the picture (while Myrna Loy’s character comes across as the most delightfully oversexed). In fact, several scenes, including a risque moment where Loy sang a refrain of “Mimi” while dressed in a see-thru negligee, were deleted upon the film’s Post-Code rerelease. These excisions have unfortunately never been recovered. (While the picture is not lacking in anything, one can’t help but feel when watching that perhaps there were more things we didn’t see. Recovering these missing sequences would be extraordinary, not just for the picture, but also for the expansion of Loy’s character, who does seem a trifle too thin.)
Loy’s not the only member of the ensemble to give a highly memorable performance. Charlie Ruggles is excellent as the Vicomte who cheats Chevalier’s character out of his money, while Charles Butterworth gives depth to his role as MacDonald’s ineffectual suitor, and C. Aubrey Smith is expectedly amusing as the head of the house. And I Love Lucy (1951-1957, CBS) fans may delight in seeing Elizabeth Patterson, better known as upstairs neighbor Mrs. Trumbull, as one of the three kooky aunts, who function similarly to the witches in Shakespeare’s Scottish play. But, this film is a showcase for our leads. MacDonald does an admirable job of making her character, who at first appears quite nasty (because she’s painfully chaste), likable, while Chevalier, whether he’s your cup of tea or not, is completely charming and believable in his role as the idealistic tailor who falls for the hardened princess.
Meanwhile, Mamoulian’s direction is outstanding. As we saw with 1929’s Applause, he’s a master at making the camera feel alive, moving it around in ways that most directors wouldn’t. The cinematography, the design, the scope — everything visual about this film — is superb. It’s romantic, it’s heightened, and yet there’s a simplicity. The best remembered sequence from the entire film is “Isn’t It Romantic?” a stirring number which moves from the boisterous Chevalier in his Parisian shop throughout the countryside to the Princess on her shadowy balcony. With truly inventive shots and marvelously fluid editing, the scene is brilliantly cinematic — conveying an idea that would be impossible in any other medium. Mamoulian is supreme, and this is one of his crowning achievements.
Speaking of crowning achievements, Love Me Tonight is blessed with Rodgers and Hart’s best non-stage score. In addition to the iconic number above, another one that caught on is “Mimi,” which likewise moves from location to location in a montage that really bounces. Take a look.
I’ve also always been partial to “Lover,” which is sung here in a surprising context — MacDonald to the horse she’s riding. Watch.
There are a handful of other great songs, but I’ll leave you to discover those for yourself. Though Loy’s not the main draw here, she’s one in an ensemble of wonderful players — singing wonderful songs. Needless to say, this film comes highly recommended.
Come back next Friday for another Myrna Loy film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment!