Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s post is the latest addition in our series of Pre-Code Essentials. Here’s the updated list.
40. One Hour With You (1932)
Both members of a married couple fight the temptation to stray. Starring Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Genevieve Tobin, Charlie Ruggles, Roland Young, and Josephine Dunn. Written by Samson Raphaelson. Based on the play by Lothar Schmidt. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch & George Cukor. Songs (mostly) by Leo Robin, Oscar Strauss, and Richard Whiting. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.
“In Paris in the spring, Dr. André Bertier (Maurice Chevalier) and Colette (Jeanette MacDonald), his wife of three years, live in a state of connubial bliss until Colette’s flirtatious school chum, Mitzi Olivier (Genevieve Tobin), visits, and André is tempted to have an affair. Mitzi schemes to get André alone by feigning illness, and Colette urges him to visit Mitzi, believing André is reluctant because he doesn’t like Colette’s friend. At the Oliviers’ apartment, Mitzi tries to seduce André, and Mitzi’s husband, the professor (Roland Young), who has hired Detective Henri Pornier (Richard Carle) to find evidence of Mitzi’s affairs, walks in on the doctor and his patient on the couch. When the Bertiers hold a dinner party, André switches place cards with Mlle. Marcel (Josephine Dunn) in order to avoid sitting next to Mitzi. Colette, believing André is having an affair with the mademoiselle, tells Mitzi, who spends the evening with André under the guise of saving Colette’s marriage…
“After the party, Colette refuses to believe André’s story about the mademoiselle, and he leaves to meet Mitzi in a waiting cab. Adolph (Charlie Ruggles), André’s best friend, who has been pleading for Colette’s affections all evening, then appears in her parlor and kisses her before she orders him out. The next morning, Mitzi leaves for her mother’s place in Lausanne, and Colette tries to guess who Mitzi’s lover is. Next, Olivier confronts André with a minute-by-minute account of André’s rendezvous with his wife… When André receives a summons to appear as a witness at the Oliviers’ divorce trial, he confesses his affair to Colette, and she tells him their marriage is over. Adolph then arrives, and although André believes his friend incapable of seducing Colette, she, with the help of André’s amused promptings, forces a confession out of Adolph, making the husband and wife’s infidelities equal. She then tells André, ‘An eye for an eye…an Adolph for a Mitzi.'” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Adapted from a play that had served as the source material for famed director Ernst Lubitsch’s second film, The Marriage Circle (1924), this utterly charming Chevalier-MacDonald musical comedy — which opened a few months before their legendary turn in Love Me Tonight (1932), the Mamoulian masterpiece that’s also one of our Pre-Code Essentials — caused a bit of a controversy at the time. However, for once, the trouble didn’t emanate from the material (although, as you can see, the script and subject matter are delightfully racy), but rather from the behind-the-scenes drama. Although Lubitsch was always Paramount’s first directorial choice, he was hung-up on another project and could only serve as a consultant to this film’s assigned director, the young up-and-coming George Cukor. But after a few days of shooting, Lubitsch and all involved (including Chevalier) successfully lobbied to shut down production until the German auteur could come aboard full-time, while the script was tightened with that illustrious “Lubitsch touch.” Cukor remained on the film in a lesser capacity and initially received full directorial credit, until Lubitsch (rightfully) had this altered; Cukor’s name was stricken from the titles, he filed an injunction halting the film’s release, and both parties settled out of court.
Lubitsch’s genius hand is evident within the final product, and all of this off-screen Cukor drama remains only the stuff of footnotes, for this frothy film was clearly made and designed to be made by no one but Lubitsch, the gentleman who found his speciality in precisely this kind of melodiously light adult fare, with just enough titillation to counterbalance the earnestly-rendered elegance. In other words, he knew how to make a sophisticated picture without any false pretenses. He inherently had a sense of style, and a knowingness about how certain narratives could indeed be enhanced by the incidentals: the cinematography, the score, the performances. For those who’ve never seen a Lubitsch film, this is as good a place as any to start, for all the hallmarks are in play, including a consistent sensuality of spirit, an emphasis on musicality (naturally engendered through the casting of Chevalier and MacDonald), and a fluidity of pace. Also, there’s always a clear focus to a Lubitsch film, and when the material is well-matched to its master, the results are divinely crisp.
In the case of One Hour With You, all of its elements are played with ease, never once hitting a false note. In addition to the deft direction, our collective delight must also be directed towards the pitch perfect casting, as stars Chevalier and MacDonald sparkle with a joy that’s both youthful and mature, imbuing their scenes with a believable chemistry that also helps to set the sense of delicate gaiety that underlines the marital conflicts within the plot, allowing for threats of infidelity (or, rather, legitimate infidelity — this is a Pre-Code, after all) without mitigating the strength of their own connection. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast is equally ideal, with Genevieve Tobin’s saucy turn as Chevalier’s temptress ably illustrating how imperative the success of her performance is to plot’s viability. If we don’t like Tobin, then we won’t like Chevalier for being tempted by her. But we do like Tobin, and although we’re not rooting for Chevalier to step out on MacDonald, we understand his dilemma and don’t fault him for the story’s conflict. Additionally, Ruggles is, as always, a humorous addition to the proceedings.
So with a marvelous direction, a fine cast, and a scintillating score (which, if I’ve neglected to mention thus far, is a whole lot of fun), this utterly Pre-Code story — in which a man struggles to be faithful, gives in to his lusts, but returns to his equally unfaithful wife (who may or may not have really strayed) and accepts their mistakes as having evened the score — is allowed to come alive with its talent’s collective felicity, refinement, and intelligence: a winning combination. An enchanting essential for Pre-Code fans, Lubitsch fans, film fans, et all. Must see!
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical!