One of the things I'm enjoying most about watching these Pre-Code films is that I'm able to re-discover what made some stars into "stars" in the first place. My spouse's first experience with Barbara Stanwyck was seeing her on the 1980s nighttime soap operas Dynasty and The Colbys and, understandably, he wondered what the big deal was. Even when he was older and saw some of her Production Code classics like Double Indemnity and The Lady Eve, he still didn't really "get" Stanwyck.
Then we watched Night Nurse and ... damn! Now he got it.
For me, that was the reaction I had to Maurice Chevalier when I saw Love Me Tonight. I knew Chevalier from his later years in Hollywood, most notably playing a dirty old man singing "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" in Gigi, but I'd never seen him in his prime. And all I can say is ... damn! Now I get it.
Before I really begin, I feel that I need to address the persistent rumor about Chevalier that he was a Nazi collaborator while he lived in Vichy France during World War II. As far as anyone can tell, the rumors are not, in fact, true -- the website Music and the Holocaust probably has the best breakdown of the facts. What seems to be the case is that, like many veterans of World War I, Chevalier was a pacifist who refused to take either side in World War II. Chevalier had been seriously wounded in battle in his first few weeks of service in WWI and was a prisoner of war for two years, so the truth seems to be that he was unwilling to participate in another war at all, even on the "right" side. Still, the propaganda from both sides successfully damaged Chevalier's reputation for years afterwards.
Love Me Tonight is one of four films Chevalier made with Jeanette MacDonald and the only one not directed by Ernst Lubitsch. It is instead directed by Rouben Mamoulian very much in the Lubitsch style, with snappy dialogue and a frank, playful attitude towards sex. But it is also very much in Mamoulian's Pre-Code style. As with his Academy Award-winning Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932), Mamoulian's musical is preoccupied with the negative effects of sexual repression, with Princess Jeanette's frequent fainting spells medically diagnosed as a side effect of her chastity. The Princess is young and healthy, but she was married at 16 to an old man, widowed at 20, and is now pining away in a castle filled with elderly aristocrats who can't provide what she needs.
The film opens with a clever musical number, "The Song of Paree," that starts with silent city streets that slowly become more noisy as the inhabitants wake and begin their work to the rhythms of the song. Chevalier is introduced through a caricature of himself formed by a crack in the wall of his tiny Paris apartment (on which, of course, his signature straw boater hangs). Chevalier plays Maurice Courtelin, an ambitious Parisian tailor who is thrilled to have attracted the business of Viscount Gilbert de Varèze (Charlie Ruggles). Varèze himself shows up fleeing from an outraged husband while clad only in his undershirt and “BVDs” (yes, it was already a synonym for underpants in 1932). Maurice willingly lets Varèze take one of the suits of clothing, while politely reminding his client that he owes 40 thousand francs for the suits already made. Varèze promises to pay as soon as he gets his allowance from his uncle, the Duke.
With the promise of payment at hand, Maurice begins to dream about his future in the now-classic “Isn’t It Romantic?” What the character finds romantic, though, is the possibility that he will now be able to get married, settle into domestic life, and have a “troupe” of children:
Isn't it romantic?
Soon I will have found some girl that I adore.
Isn't it romantic?
While I sit around my love can scrub the floor.
She'll kiss me every hour or she'll get the sack
And when I take a shower she can scrub my back.
Isn't it romantic?
On a moonlight night she'll cook me onion soup.
Kiddies are romantic
And if we don't fight we soon will have a troupe.
We'll help the population,
It's a duty that we owe to dear old France.
Isn't it romance?
The song then transmits itself across France through a composer, a troop of soldiers, and a gypsy encampment until it reaches Princess Jeanette at her country chateau, where she joins in the song. It also inspires her nebbishy suitor, the Count de Savignac (Charles Butterworth), to climb a ladder to her balcony and offer to … serenade her with his flute, an offer she politely declines. Her three weird aunts (Elizabeth Patterson, Ethel Griffies, and Blanche Frederici) cast a spell meant to bring the Princess back to health.
Varèze arrives, intending to collect his allowance and immediately return to Paris, but he’s thwarted by his stern uncle, the Duke (C. Aubrey Smith), who refuses to give him any money and demands that he remain at the chateau until further notice.
This scene also introduces us to Varèze’s cousin, Countess Valentine, who very nearly steals the film …
Yes, it’s Myrna Loy in one of her first comedy roles. It’s a very small role, but very memorable, and it helped Loy break out of the “exotic” roles she had been trapped in. Valentine also feels trapped at the chateau, where the Duke’s idea of entertainment is endless rounds of bridge with his elderly guests.
Back in Paris, Maurice finds out that Varèze is the most notorious deadbeat in France, with unpaid bills all over the city. Outraged, he and his friends (the bootmaker, the shirtmaker, etc.) decide that Maurice should “storm the chateau” and collect their money. One of Maurice’s flirts volunteers her husband to act as Maurice’s chauffeur, and they set out to the cheers of Maurice’s neighbors.
The car, of course, breaks down short of the chateau, which gives Maurice the opportunity to spot Princess Jeanette driving her carriage across the countryside. He is immediately enchanted by her singing and, when she is startled and crashes, he carries her to the car where he sings another classic to her, “Mimi.” There is one line of the song that is only audible on the first repetition:
You know I'd like to
Have a little
Son of a Mimi
By and By
In all of the reprises (and there are several), Chevalier mutters the line almost inaudibly, possibly as a way to get the line past the censors.
The Princess is both attracted and insulted by Maurice’s boldness and returns home in high dudgeon, only to faint in the foyer of the chateau. A doctor is called, and we get the signature scene of a Pre-Code film: a loving close-up of the leading lady clad only in her lingerie.
The doctor’s diagnosis is that the Princess should be married (i.e. having regular sex), but the Duke informs him that the only two possible candidates of proper rank are, respectively, over 80 years old and just turning 12. The doctor changes his prescription to “exercise,” so the Duke plans a hunt for his guests.
Maurice arrives, only to find the chateau all but empty since the servants have been given the afternoon off. After wandering around, he encounters the Duke, who is polishing one of his prized suits of armor with a silk cloth. Maurice immediately corrects him – silk will damage the armor, so he should only use flannel. Varèze discovers the two of them talking and is forced to claim that Maurice is his friend “Baron Courtelin” so his uncle will not be even more enraged that tradesmen are pursuing him to the chateau for payment. The Duke urges the “Baron” to stay for a few days. Maurice is reluctant until Jeanette walks in and he decides on impulse to stay.
What I find interesting about Chevalier’s persona in this movie is that, while he’s presented as a successful ladies’ man, he succeeds in charming all of the men as well. The Duke declares that the “Baron” is the first one of Varèze’s friends he hasn’t wanted to hit with a battleaxe, and he leads the reprise of “Mimi” that each of the supporting characters sing in their bedrooms the next morning.
(Sadly, this scene is one of the ones that was partially censored for the 1949 re-release to remove a scene of Myrna Loy joining in the reprise – her negligee was deemed too revealing for 1949 sensibilities, and the missing footage has been lost.)
Savignac is, of course, suspicious of this sudden rival for Jeanette’s hand and asks to stay behind from the hunt so he can research the “baron’s” ancestry, which Savignac (correctly) suspects is bogus. During the hunt, Jeanette is outraged when Maurice shelters the stag in a farmhouse and refuses to let the hunt kill it, explaining that the stag is very tired and needs his rest. The Duke is hugely amused by this explanation and the rest of the hunt tiptoes away (in slow motion) so as not to disturb the poor, exhausted stag.
At that evening’s Hunt Ball, all of the guests are eagerly awaiting Maurice’s arrival. The other guests' costumes are historic, ranging from the Duke’s suit of armor to Jeanette’s Napoleonic-era dress, but Maurice arrives dressed as an “Apache” (pronounced “A-pash”), a modern-day Parisian street criminal – or, as we in the audience know, Maurice's everyday street clothes. The ancient guests find this “daring” and demand that Maurice explain the Apache to them, which he does in “The Poor Apache.”
Princess Jeanette is again so frustrated by her alternating attraction to and irritation with Maurice that she goes out into the garden and faints, where Maurice wakes her with a kiss. She finally surrenders to him, saying, “Whoever you are, whatever you are, wherever you are, I love you.” After this romantic scene, they each retire to their separate bedrooms, where Mamoulian shows each of them sleeping (separately) while they sing “Love Me Tonight” in voiceover.
The next day, Maurice surprises Jeanette as she is being fitted for her new riding habit. He admires her greatly, but his professional side comes out and he criticizes the habit as being too prim, not “smart.” The insulted dressmaker storms out and the whole castle finds Maurice and Jeanette alone with Jeanette only half-dressed. She hastily explains that Maurice was helping her with her new riding habit, and Maurice agrees to re-do it within two hours to show their motives were innocent. He succeeds, but Jeanette doesn’t understand how he possibly could, so he confesses the truth to her:
This, frankly, is the scene that won me over to Chevalier. The vulnerability of Chevalier’s reaction to the Princess’s horror that he’s “nothing but a tailor” is really remarkable, especially in a romantic comedy.
When word gets out that the “baron” is just a simple tailor, he is paid off and leaves the castle. The princess retreats to a tower room with “Nothing But A Tailor!” echoing in her head, but eventually her other memories of Maurice crowd the song out and she pursues the train that is returning him to Paris, proving that she is serious by standing in front of the train to force it to stop.
Overall, Love Me Tonight is a light romantic comedy with some classic songs, but it also includes some Pre-Code messages about how unhealthy sexual repression is. As I mentioned above, it had an unsuccessful theatrical re-release in 1949, probably due to the fact that it had to be trimmed to remove scenes that were too “racy” for the Breen office, including an entire musical number, “A Woman Needs Something Like That.”
In Production Code musicals, sex and sexual desire were replaced with dance, allowing couples to court each other physically without any hint that they were also hopping in bed. By the time Astaire and Rogers released their first co-starring film, The Gay Divorcee, in October of 1934, the Production Code was in full force and there would be none of the (relatively) open discussion of sex that’s on view in Love Me Tonight.
One of the things I find interesting about sex in Love Me Tonight is how closely it’s tied in with having children, an aspect that’s generally missing from Lubitsch’s similar films. Maurice dreams not just of sex, but of marriage and children and a contented domestic life, with sex as an integral part of that domestic life. Countess Valentine pursues Maurice, but he’s not interested in anything beyond flirtation, because he has already decided that he wants his “Mimi” to be the mother of his children.
And even this thoroughly domesticated view of sex was too racy for the Breen office to allow post-World War II audiences to see. It had to be sanitized for the protection of people who had already seen the worst of human nature during the war, including the horrifying images of the Holocaust. It’s a continuing problem with our entertainment today – the audiences of 1949 were allowed to see images of emaciated, starved Jewish prisoners and piles of dead bodies, but had to be protected from the sight of Myrna Loy in a negligee or any hint that maybe, possibly, women liked sex and would suffer psychologically if they couldn’t have it. King Vidor could show Gary Cooper essentially raping Patricia Neal in 1949’s The Fountainhead (and her character’s thrilled reaction), but those same audiences were too delicate to hear that a woman might actually be interested in sex in “A Woman Needs Something Like That.” I’m not surprised the re-release failed, since audience members who remembered the 1932 release would have been disappointed by the cuts and those too young to have seen the original would have been disappointed by the essential innocence of the film when they had been raised on a diet of Code-required perversity.