The Merry Widow (1934)
Comparisons with Love Me Tonight
 
In 1931 Paramount gave Rouben Mamoulian the job of directing the musical Love Me Tonight. It had previously been an Ernst Lubitsch project, and he had done a lot of work on it

Mamoulian was the latest hot director with Paramount, and Lubitsch never liked to be upstaged. He had his own reputation to consider. A year or so later when he directed The Merry Widow - which had the same leading players - he had his opportunity to demonstrate how Mamoulian's scenes could have been done.

In Love Me Tonight we first see the leading lady Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald) when she is standing on a balcony of the family chateau singing "Isn't It Romantic". Everybody in a contemporary audience would have recognised her, and if not, her picture was plastered all over the foyer where it could hardly have been missed. A fine singer, quite pretty, although a little bit horsy with her rather long teeth.

Princess Jeanette spends most of her time in deliberately dowdy clothes, until Maurice Cortelin (Maurice Chevalier) demonstrates his skill as a tailor by making her a new riding habit. It's a magnificent and rather sexy garment, but the figure wearing it hasn't changed one jot. She is still the same Jeannette MacDonald - good looking, but not the most beautiful star in movies. And very much overshadowed in Love Me Tonight by the presence of the ever-gorgeous Myrna Loy.

The difference in the The Merry Widow is striking. We first see the leading lady, the widow Madame Sonia (Jeanette MacDonald again), as she is driven through the streets of the tiny Kingdom of Marshovia in her open carriage. But we see very little, just a glimpse of her face with a veil covering her eyes. Of course it's not a real veil, but a Lubitsch veil, a brief strip of black lace that only adds to her allure.

We next see her as she addressed the locals making music in a tavern. Just half of her face this time, and that at an unusual angle. Next she is on the balcony of her residence with Count Danilo (Maurice Chevalier). She is veiled the whole time, but after she has gone inside, as she peeps through a window at the departing Danilo, she lifts her veil a fraction and we see a single eye. A very glamorous eye. A striking image that makes you want her to lift the veil completely and reveal more.

So far we all we have seen of Madame Sonya are tantalizing glimpses. But then Lubitsch creates an epiphany.

The curtains of the French windows leading to Madame Sonya's bedroom are drawn back and we see a figure reclining on a chaise longue. Hearts can be forgiven for missing a beat. Surely that can't be Jeanette MacDonald, that glorious creature with the long golden hair, her elegant figure clad in that diaphanous black negligee?

But just to show the revelation wasn't an accident, Lubitsch does it all over again.

Through an open window the locals in the tavern hear a voice singing, the languid, dreamy Vilia aria by Franz Lehár. The violinist steps outside, looking up towards the balcony as he accompanies the singer. Then the camera cuts to the singer on the balcony, and we see a series of images. First a long shot, and then a medium, all striking in thenselves. But the close-up which follows is remarkable.

Jeanette MacDonald's hair gleams against the dark background of the night sky, and her face glows as if with inner light. If she looked magnificent on the chaise longue, she looks even more glorious now. That - Lubitsch is telling Mamoulian - is how Princess Jeanette should have looked when she was transformed by her new riding habit.

In Love Me Tonight we see Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier warts and all. Occasionally Chevalier even looks ugly, his face dominated by his heavy jaw as he sings full-face into the camera. But in The Merry Widow Lubitsch would never allow anything like that. Chevalier looks handsome throughout, and Jeanette MacDonald's long face is magically transformed. Her skin looks softer, her face fuller. It radiates an inner warmth as befits the object of desire in a love story.

Lubitsch also upstages Mamoulian in another, very striking, manner. In Love Me Tonight when Princess Jeanette has finished singing, she retires inside the chateau. The camera draws back to the reveal the whole building, a gothic monstrosity with more turrets than it needs. At a balcony the small white figure of Princess Jeanette is disappearing from view.

Then the camera zooms back towards the chateau, entering through a window to reveal the Princess' three aunts hunched over a cauldron, and then it withdraws again, pans down, and enters the study of the head of the family, the Duke d'Artelines (C. Aubrey Smith). It's quite an effective way of introducing the characters that live in the chateau, but the chateau is clearly a mock-up, the rooms are sets, and the white figure disappearing from the balcony probably something being pulled inside the model by a piece of string.

This is not the Lubitsch way of doing things. In The Merry Widow Count Danilo follows Madame Sonya to Paris, and on his arrival we see Danilo in his hotel room. We are never told it is a hotel, but with typical slight of hand Lubitsch planted the idea in our minds when we saw a billboard advertising a hotel at the railway station.

Danilo should report directly to the Marshovian embassy, but the song he is singing shows that he has no intention of doing that.

I'm going to Maxime's!
Where all the girls are dreams!
Kisses go on the wine list,
And mine is quite a fine list!
As he sings the camera withdraws through the open window. It pans down and to the right, turning the corner of the building, passing the windows of the rooms on the floor below. Through one window we see Madame Sonya being attended to by her maids, but as the camera pans on she turns and starts walking away. When the camera reaches the next window she is just coming into shot and we get an impression of the size of her suite compared with Danilo's small room.

But the camera continues on its way, finally coming to rest at the lobby outside Sonya's suite where her would-be suitor's are waiting. From then on the pace speeds up.

The camera cuts to Sonya in her suite. "Close the window", she tells the maid, hearing somebody singing boisterously from outside. The maid goes to do so, but stops. Sonya comes over, puzzled why her order has not been obeyed. But then she looks down and gives a start. The camera looks down as well, and we see Danilo singing as he swaggers along the pavement on the opposite side of the road in front of the hotel.

We can place the scene exactly. Behind the pavement are ornamental metal railings, and behind that the foliage you would expect in the central garden of a Parisian square. We see Danilo climb into an open hire carriage. "Take me to Maxim's!" he's still singing. Then we are in the road, and the camera is looking up and we can see Sonya's startled face looking down from her open window.

If asked, we could draw a plan of that hotel. It is set in a fashionable Parisian square where cabbies wait for their upmarket clients. Danilo's room is small, on the second floor, tucked away at the side of the building, but Sonya's suite is very grand, only one floor up at the front of the building, and overlooking the road and the square outside.

But there is no building. Not even a mock-up. And if we look carefully we can see how it was done. There are at least four different takes in that apparently seamless pan as the camera traverses the building. When we look down on Danilo as he walks along the street, the camera is on a crane. When we look up at Sonya as she looks down, she is standing on scaffolding her face framed by a mock window. And so on.

Lubitsch has made his point. He can make magic out of nothing, but Mamoulian needs props.

But unfortunately for Lubitsch there was one technique where he could never top Mamoulian. Lubitsch's dramas are set-bound chamber pieces, but in Love Me Tonight Mamoulian's superb fluid camera technique created magic when it came to the great outdoors.