by Allan Fish
(USA 1932 80m) DVD1/2 (France only)
Oh, that Mitzi!
p Ernst Lubitsch d Ernst Lubitsch, George Cukor w Samson Raphaelson play “Only a Dream” by Lothar Schmidt ph Victor Milner ed William Shea m/ly Oscar Straus, Richard Whiting, Leo Robin art Hans Dreier cos Travis Banton
Maurice Chevalier (Dr André Bertier), Jeanette MacDonald (Colette Bertier), Genevieve Tobin (Mitzi Olivier), Charles Ruggles (Adolph), Roland Young (Professor Olivier), George Barbier (Police commissioner), Josephine Dunn, Richard Carle,
Whenever I think of this trademark Lubitsch soufflé, I recall a tale told by Leslie Halliwell when, the morning after its debut showing on British television in 1983, he discussed the film with a neighbour, who said they turned it off as they didn’t like Jeanette MacDonald’s acting. He observed, in recollection, how can one explain sunlight to a blind man?
What’s ironic is that the film hasn’t been seen on British TV in any form in two decades and until recently seeing it – as with his other pre-code masterpieces, The Smiling Lieutenant and Trouble in Paradise – was virtually impossible unless you either spotted a copy on ebay or emigrated to the US. It’s a story that Lubitsch knew well, for it was a reworking of his 1924 silent The Marriage Circle, and it concerns the romantic complications of Parisian doctor André Bertier. He’s married to Colette, he loves Colette, he’s crazy about Colette, but things start to take a turn for the worse when his wife informs him that her best school friend, Mitzi, is on the way to visit. (Suffice it to say that not since Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp has there been a more treacherous ‘best friend’.) Mitzi immediately sets her sights on André, not realising her professor husband is onto her unfaithfulness and has employed a private detective to spy on her.
Looking back at Lubitsch’s films of this period feels almost like an archaeologist dusting off a pristine fossil. No director so suited the pre-Hays Code sophistication and naughtiness of Paramount than Ernst Lubitsch, and though One Hour may not quite be his best film, it certainly sums up his style of nudging musical comedy better than any other. One restoration, courtesy of the UCLA in the nineties, is a lovely tinted print, never better demonstrated than by the use of a moonlight blue tint to the night-time sequences, including a legendary sequence in the opening act where Chevalier and MacDonald are caught necking in the park – oh, for the days when Park Life had nothing to do with Damon Albarn and Phil Daniels. An officer exclaims “you can’t make love in public!”, only for Chevalier to retort “I can make love anywhere.” And when the officer replies with the expected “no, you can’t”, it’s MacDonald who responds this time, chirping “oh, but officer, he can.” They’re then escorted from the park to the only other place they can go, namely to the boudoir. A nudge-nudge sexy tone carried on throughout the film, as when a deadpan Young observes of his blonde wife “when I married her, she was a brunette. Now I can’t believe a word she says.” My favourite moment, however, has to be when Chevalier returns home, presumably having been unable to resist joining Mitzi in bed, and turns to the audience – as he does throughout the film – and asks the male half “I ask you, what would you do?” and then, after a suitable pause, says “that’s what I did, too.”
With gorgeous visual contributions from past-masters Banton, Dreier and Milner – all Paramount mainstays – and wonderful rhyming music and lyrics, it would nonetheless not work were it not for the style with which the actors perform, in a way long since lost in the mists of time. It’s very much a prototype Chevalier performance, while MacDonald matches him line for line and glance for glance, Tobin has her finest hour as the incorrigible Mitzi and Ruggles and Young offer typically skilful comic portrayals. Forget the charges from fired director Cukor that Lubitsch’s comedies lacked feeling, for that’s being churlish and rather missing the point, while charges of datedness expose our era’s shortcomings, not those of the film. As Halliwell also observed, “as musical comedies go, this is so intimate that it whispers.”
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