Love Me Tonight (1932) & The Song of Songs (1933)
BOTH DIRECTED BY ROUBEN MAMOULIAN
Rouben Mamoulian was someone who never cast aside the filmmaking lessons amassed in the silent era. Just because the movies learned to talk was no reason to forego cinematic visual language and dynamic narrative flourish. With 1929’s Applause and 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Mamoulian demonstrates a lion’s share of dynamic unrest, overturning the simplistic notion that cinema was hobbled when filmmakers were suddenly forced to accommodate for microphones and the noise of the camera.
Simply, no one of his era was as masterful with the moving camera nor as sure handed with a transition. His use of actors is rarely off key, though in the case of the stars of the two films considered here (both made recently available on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber Studio Classics), he capitalizes on foundation groundwork carefully laid by other directors. For his landmark musical Love Me Tonight, Mamoulian was reportedly reticent to go with the winning pair of Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, as he considered them the property of Ernst Lubitsch. His next film, the sensual drama The Song of Songs stars Marlene Dietrich as an artist’s nude model and love, though it was Josef von Sternberg who truly crafted Dietrich for the screen.
Nevertheless, it’s no sin for a director to work with talent within their established persona; nor is it shameful for said talent to trade on their successful persona beyond the confines of where it originated. Mamoulian, quite comfortable with the racy and forward possibilities afforded by Hollywood’s pre-code era, came through with this radiant pair of very different yet equally bold and satisfying films. Below, each is considered on its own:
Love Me Tonight (1932)
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: SEPTEMBER 29, 2020
If one film is to be singled out as Mamoulian’s masterpiece, it must be 1932’s Love Me Tonight. He himself considered it so. Cast in the vein of the sweet and saucy early-career musicals of Ernst Lubitsch, right down to the previously-established starring pair of Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald (together in Lubitsch’s 1929 The Love Parade and 1932’s One Hour with You), Love Me Tonight takes the whole of the movie musical to the next level. (Fitting, as artistically minded Mamoulian came to filmmaking a celebrated veteran of Broadway). In fact, some maintain that the film is a pinnacle. This Includes no less than Miles Kreuger, Founder and President of the Institute of the American Musical, who declares as much in his 2003 audio commentary (for Kino Lorber’s DVD edition, released that year), included here along with several other extras from back then.
Like any great musical, the plot has little to no bearing on the overall charm and appeal of the production. In the case of this one, the sheer magnetism of the Chevalier/MacDonald pairing actually goes so far as to drown out the radiant presence of Myrna Loy (playing a man-hungry princess), as well as Charles Ruffles, and Charles Butterworth. Chevalier plays a provincial tailor and singing ladies man in old tyme Paris.
Love Me Tonight is impressively chock full of original songs by the incomparable Rodgers & Hart, including American songbook staples “Love Me Tonight”, “Isn’t it Romantic?”, “Mimi”, and “Lover”. Mamoulian’s handling of “Isn’t it Romantic?” is particularly noteworthy as it is considered the first time that different verses of a continuous song were performed by different actors in different locations by the miracle of film editing. All parties gave it their all and it shows in every frame.
Love Me Tonight is loosely based on the play Le Tailleur au château (“The tailor at the castle”) by Paul Armont and Léopold Marchand. In it, Chevalier is eventually mistaken for royalty as he strolls his way into the princess’s (MacDonald) bedchamber. But in reality, the sonofagun is nothing but a tailor. A few quick measurements of her while adorned in only her underthings (watch the hands, pal!), and he whips up a beautiful state-of-the-art outfit in just hours. Can a simpleton such as him ever be allowed to love a princess such as she? And to what lengths will she go to change things?
The copious censorship records for both U.S. and Canada, included as text screens in the Blu-ray extras, give an eye-opening look at what might’ve been, though at least per the Ontario cuts list, much of it still is. In 1932 the Hays office was certainly doing its film-vetting job in Hollywood, but the strictness of its Joseph Breen era was still a few years away. There are notes of censored rhyming dialogue such as a doctor telling a young lady “A peach must be eaten, a drum must be beaten, and a woman needs something like that!” These particularly head-turning lyrics survive in this print of the film, prompting the question of just what else is lyrically being proposed in addition to the titular request to “Love Me Tonight”? Only Rodgers, Hart, Mamoulian, and probably Chevalier and MacDonald know for sure- and this being rife with just such pre-code naughtiness, one can bet that the answer strikes quite the chord.
The Song Of Songs (1933)
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: MARCH 31, 2020/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
“A figure like that will get you into trouble if you’re not careful!” So squawks the rotund and boisterous aunt of Lily (Marlene Dietrich) as the girl is made to strip of petticoat after petticoat in in front of her. Displaced and desolate in this moment, all of her worldly possessions are either literally in-hand or on her person. Following the untimely death of her father, this is where Lily is forced to end up. She won’t remain in this dingy Berlin apartment long, though. Nor will she retain her virginal sheepishness. The Song of Songs sees Dietrich convincingly transverse the moral spectrum as it existed for women circa 1933.
When Lily was young her father loved to read to her from the Old Testament’s Song of Solomon (aka Song of Songs). “It’s beautiful”, she attests, interpreting the book’s super-sensual poetry as idealism rather than subjective interpretive bliss. The allure of idealized beauty draws her into the studio of Richard Wadlow (a rather rigid Brian Aherne), a frustrated sculptor of the female form.
Before long, he’s convinced her to pose in the buff for a grand sculpture; her hands at her side receiving the Spirit, her head looking to the heavens, as God made her. Before slightly longer, they’re ferociously making out, only an unworn robe between them. The relationship may be far from what’s considered Biblically moral, but just as the titular book describes, the woman indeed invites the man to enter her garden and taste her fruits. In his work- his hands, as a creator- she sees the idealism her late father held so dear.
This love cannot last, as Richard, still unsure how to become creatively unstuck going forward, allows Lily to be handed off to a pervy and vindictive Baron played by a very lascivious Lionel Atwill. Suddenly, Lily is married to this terrible older man, wealthy beyond her wildest dreams but just as dejected. So much for ideals.
On his excellently researched audio commentary track, film historian David Del Valle notes several times that in terms of a pre-code perspective, The Song of Songs is a movie that absolutely could not be made a year later. That’s when Joseph Breen majorly steps up content restrictions, presumably extending to full frontal statue nudity- which Mamoulian delivers here in perky spades. Now that the movie has been rescued from obscurity by Kino Lorber, it stands nakedly proud as the work of a fine artist just waiting to receive its just praise.
Both Love Me Tonight and The Song of Songs are quite welcome to high definition. The latter title in particular is especially great to have available, as it’s been a rare film for far too long. Fans of pre-code classics will want to be sure to collect both of these releases. That said, their age does manifest in the form of minor print damage here and there, but for the most part, it’s very hard to deny these beauties.