Leonard Maltin, a respected film critic and historian, exclaims Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight is “one of the best musicals ever made.”
This comes from a man who devotes his life to motion pictures – and being a former student of Leonard Maltin, where I would often share his sense of nostalgia and admiration for classical films – it’s no wonder that he loves this film.
Rouben Mamoulian, fresh off his third feature film, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a fascinating film that transcends the horror genre, moved onto Love Me Tonight, a delightful and romantic musical. The film deals with Maurice (Maurice Chevalier), a Parisian tailor who encounters a family of aristocrats after chasing after a penniless nobleman who owes him money. Maurice stumbles upon Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald) and attempts to win her love, even after her family discovers he is far from royalty. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Love Me Tonight are polar opposites – the former deals with split personalities, whereas the latter is charming and heartwarming – and it’s a tough skill to be able to navigate between genres like Rouben Mamoulian so effortlessly did.
In the early days of the film industry, when the film director was subject to his producers, the film studio had creative control over their projects. In Mamoulian’s case, however, he exerted his vision onto the screen and his films had a distinguishable sense of style. These films were surprisingly modern then and look unbelievably stylish now, particularly because of his inventive use of sound and camera movements.
The film was produced in the early days of the sound era, when filmmakers were still adapting to new technology. Rouben Mamoulian’s use of sound in this film, however, is inventive and ahead of its time. The film opens with an extended sequence of a morning in Paris, where everyday people contribute to the overall “sound” of the city; construction workers drill at the concrete, shoemakers drive nails into shoes and women dust their rugs. These sounds form a melody – a symphony of city sounds – which later prompts the opening of the film with Maurice’s opening line, as he claims, “This city is too noisy for me!” In comparison to Singin’ in the Rain‘s depiction of early sound films, which emphasized the difficulties filmmakers had in directing their actors to speak into plants where microphones were hidden, Rouben Mamoulian is far more interested in the capabilities of sound design rather than sound as means of dialogue.
Love Me Tonight, however, was released around the time of the Motion Picture Production Code. The production code’s censors on films became an artistic handicap for filmmakers. The films from this time were forbidden from explicitly referring to sexual situations, although some filmmakers cleverly found their way around these censors. The daring use of sexual innuendo in this film can be seen through the director’s use of various techniques; his split-screen of Maurice and Jeanette sleeping suggests they are in bed together, and later when they finally come together, he frames their embrace beside a train, so as soon as they passionately kiss, the train releases its steam and envelopes them. These techniques were all sexually suggestive and showed how Mamoulian created films his own way because of his ingenuity.
There’s another scene in the film that jumps off the screen, showcasing the director’s skills as an artist. Maurice and Jeanette hop on a horse and ride home, after “hunting” with their family. This scene, however, is shot in slow motion. In 1932, when this film was released, the use of slow motion was quite uncommon; in comparison to today’s films, where slow motion is often overused, but is primarily an artistic touch. The use of slow motion in this film is a modernistic touch, a technique that shows that the director was years before his time while crafting his films. The result is a film that more than holds up decades after its release because of its creativity.
Rouben Mamoulian was one of few directors who had artistic control over their films during a time when the director was simply considered a craftsman. In a time when the term “auteur” didn’t have meaning, he was working on defining the term for future filmmakers.