Movie Of The Month by JB Kaufman

Monte Carlo (1930)

July, 2023

Paramount, 1930. Director: Ernst Lubitsch. Screenplay: Ernest Vajda, based on a story by Hans Müller. Camera: Victor Milner. Cast: Jack Buchanan, Jeanette MacDonald, ZaSu Pitts, Tyler Brooke, Claud Allister, Lionel Belmore.
            Like most classic-film enthusiasts, I love musicals—some more than others, of course. The 1930s were a particularly rich period for the American film musical. Many of us think of ’30s musicals in terms of the two surpassing series of the decade—the Warner Bros. musicals featuring the spectacular production numbers of Busby Berkeley, and the RKO series costarring the uniquely talented Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers—and, to be sure, both series represent high points in film history, and fully deserve their latter-day status. But they were not the only musicals of the 1930s, and if we look more closely at the decade, we can find additional treasures worthy of attention.
            Prominent among these are a group of musicals directed by Ernst Lubitsch. During the silent era Lubitsch had established himself, both in Germany and in Hollywood, as a director of rare wit and imagination. With the coming of sound, he continued his winning streak with The Love Parade (1929), a musical costarring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. The success of this film with audiences and critics led to a further series of frothy musicals, sparkling with Continental sophistication—really more light operettas than traditional musicals.
            What makes these films doubly remarkable is that they were produced during the early years of sound, a time notoriously hostile to any kind of musicals. We’ve heard the narrative more than once: the coming of sound brought a flood of dreary, uninspired musicals—the kind of film that was easiest to produce with the new sound equipment—until audiences, fed up with a glut of mediocrity, turned their thumbs down on musicals altogether. After this the genre remained dormant until Warner Bros. brought it roaring back in 1933, with 42nd Street. This story is true enough in its broad outlines, but as with any generalization, there are exceptions. The Lubitsch musicals are set apart, not only by their witty story content (taking full advantage of the innuendo allowed during the pre-Code years), but also by their musical content. These are not static, stagebound song-and-dance numbers, but charming cinematic interludes that combine music with imaginatively staged visuals.
            A delightful case in point is Monte Carlo, Lubitsch’s second musical. Intended as a followup to The Love Parade, this film was originally cast as a reteaming of Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald—but when Chevalier bowed out in favor of other commitments, he was replaced by Jack Buchanan. Perhaps because of the absence of Chevalier, Monte Carlo is often overlooked today, but personally I think it’s one of Lubitsch’s best efforts. Buchanan is fully up to the vocal demands placed on him. And, without the overwhelming presence of the Chevalier personality, Jeanette MacDonald has a chance to shine the more brightly.
            As a headstrong countess, possessed of a mercurial temperament but buoyantly romantic and cheerful, she delivers a tour de force performance and dominates the film. The story begins with her escape (not the first one, we gather) from an arranged wedding to silly-ass Englishman Claud Allister. Deciding on a whim to go to Monte Carlo, she boards a train and exults in her new freedom with a song: “Beyond the Blue Horizon.” This is a classic example of a musical number framed in cinematic terms: the rhythm of the train’s wheels is absorbed into the orchestral accompaniment, and as Jeanette throws open her compartment window for the final chorus (incidentally displaying her phenomenal vocal range), the train passes a farm where the field workers join in the song as her backing chorus. Here is a charming level of artifice that could exist only in the movies. In these early years of sound, when a mass of talk threatened to crush the art of film, Lubitsch was rightly recognized as one of the few artists who demonstrated creative uses of the new medium—along with Walt Disney and, in France, René Clair, who mounted similarly imaginative combinations of music and visuals in A nous la liberté and Le Million.
            When Monte Carlo is recalled today, it’s usually on the strength of “Beyond the Blue Horizon”—and, indeed, this number is a highlight and worth the price of admission by itself. Happily, there is much more to enjoy. The on-again, off-again romance between Buchanan and MacDonald (he’s a member of royalty himself, but poses as a hairdresser in order to be near her) proceeds along Lubitsch’s usual light, witty lines. The score features further musical numbers, likewise staged in imaginative ways. One key song, “Give Me a Moment, Please,” is sung by Buchanan to MacDonald—over the telephone! And the story’s denouement, as the principals attend a performance of Monsieur Beaucaire, cleverly incorporates a fragment of Messager’s opera into the resolution of the scene.
            Monte Carlo didn’t turn the tide for movie musicals in 1930—nor did Lubitsch’s next two musical outings, The Smiling Lieutenant or One Hour with You—but they surely planted a seed. Ultimately, the principle of presenting song numbers with an entertaining, visually dynamic approach would not only rescue the film musical from oblivion, but would create some of its all-time classics.

J.B. Kaufman