Watching pre-code Hollywood films sort of requires one to adjust expectations a bit, at least if you, like me, have seen actual porn from the time period. (Don’t go jumping to conclusions: I didn’t actually hunt it down. I was sent a screener for the recently-assembled compilation The Good Old Naughty Days a while back, and the boner I got watching gentlemen who look like they just stepped onto the Titanic sink their masts into brothel mistresses was purely academic.) While they’re randy to a certain extent, they’re not exactly ribald. And, as a quartet of early sex-comedy musicals from director Ernst Lubitsch only proves, the sexual politics of the era are still fairly tough pricks for modern audiences to swallow, whatever their reputations for cinematic invention and genre foundation.
Take 1929’s The Love Parade, a massive hit that was nominated for a bushel of Academy Awards, in which a seeming paradigm of total and complete modernity sets the scene. Sylvania is that rarest of rarities: a nation without a single care in the world, reveling in prosperity and contentment, and it’s all fostered into political reality by the willpower of its benevolent dictatress Queen Louise (Jeanette MacDonald). The only thing raining on her people’s parade is her lack of a husband, and not for her lack of salable qualities, as she makes perfectly clear when she hikes up her skirt to show her cabinet the only thing more magnificent than her right gam—namely, her left one.
No, her marital problems can be blamed entirely on the fact that the law of the land decrees that no man who enters her queenly chambers can be allowed to stand equal with her in terms of the big O: office. So when Maurice Chevalier’s cad of an ambassador tries to escape punishment for spreading his benevolence to women all across Europe by reaching a vagina détente with Queen Louise, little does he realize that there’s a fate worse than imprisonment, and that’s being the bitch in the relationship. If I’m making this all sound intensely salacious or at least moderately impudent, it’s only because I mean to express that the film’s musty take on sexual roles is as likely to open modern eyes as a glimpse at MacDonald’s monarchal thighs. (Well, truthfully, the acrobatic footwork of hoofer Lupino Lane as Chevalier’s manservant—including moves that might shame even Donald O’Conner’s gravity-defying “Make ‘Em Laugh” in Singin’ in the Rain—is the movie’s biggest coup.)
Ditto the scenarios of the rest of the early Lubitsch musicals collected in Eclipse’s newest box set. Monte Carlo, from 1930, is maybe the most solidly cinematic of the bunch (at least in its staging of the musical numbers), and it finds MacDonald running away from her third attempt at marrying the simp Duke Otto von Liebenheim (a magnificently chinless Claude Allister), only to fall in love with a count disguised as a hairdresser (Jack Buchanan). She’s superstitious, you see, and thinks he might bring her the sort of financial freedom—by way of the roulette table—she needs to escape having to resort to marrying Otto. He does, but as she nearly finds out too late, she can only get her mitts on it not by rubbing his limp wrists as a good luck charm, but by supplicating to his title, history, and wealth.
Released a year later, The Smiling Lieutenant finds women bonding while teaching each other the art of landing a man, but 1932’s One Hour With You (which features one of the best pre-code titles) is a little more brazen, though it still pales in comparison to the climactic image of Rouben Mamoulian’s concurrent Chevalier-MacDonald vehicle Love Me Tonight, in which the power of the female proves enough to stop a speeding locomotive. Of course, it could be said that while Lubitsch’s parallel musicals don’t brazenly straddle the line of fantasy and outright revolution that Love Me Tonight does, they come a lot closer to suggesting the status of contemporary sexual congress. So, while Love Me Tonight begins with a number that coaxes music out of everyday sounds, it’s Lubitsch’s more confused, less optimistic musical comedies that represent the fusion of music and realism.
I know the standards of excellence for Eclipse are a tad lower than those for discs released under the Criterion banner, so I was mostly surprised that these movies (which, if they were humans, would probably be dead by this point) were generally acceptable. Sound is an understandably flat pillow through which even MacDonald's piercing vibrato can't pierce, but the aspect ratios are correct to the point that they're actually narrower than standard TV sets, because of how the earliest soundtracks were attached to film at the time. I noticed that some scenes looked a tad rough around the edges, reel changes are almost always jarring, and a few shots of MacDonald lounging in Monte Carlo's early train sequence look as though they were taken from an alternate video source. But Eclipse is all about getting work out in volume at the expense of restoration, so you can't say you weren't warned.
Nothing, again in line with Eclipse's mission statement. They do, at least, provide a nice set of brief liner notes inside each disc's case.
I'm not going to lie: With these movies I expected the Lubitsch touch to at least cop a feel.