The four Ernst Lubitsch musicals collected in this box set mark a transitional period in his work, a bridge from perfectly judged silent films like So This is Paris (1926) to the risky, spare achievements of later movies like To Be or Not to Be (1942) and Cluny Brown (1946). Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald are the nominal stars of this early talkie series, either together or paired with other players, and you just have to accept and even embrace the former’s full-frontal “ooh la la!” chortles and the latter’s not-yet-calcified operetta hauteur if you plan to make it through these pictures alive. They both came from the stage, and they have just the right lightly formal quality for Lubitsch’s theatrical bits of business. Though a little of Chevalier’s strenuous Gallic charmboat act goes a long, long way, it must be said that Lubitsch makes MacDonald surprisingly sexy and even touching in her pre-Nelson Eddy salad days at Paramount.
The Love Parade (1929) opens with lots of quick cutting to close-ups of garters and tiny derringers and closing doors, as if Lubitsch is trying to continue the fluidity of his silent films in this early talkie context, much as Hitchcock clung to his montage effects in his first talkie, Blackmail (1929). Then Chevalier starts to sing to the camera, and it’s hard not to recoil from his “oh ho ho’s!” and cartoonish boasting about women, which never appear to have any firm basis in sexual reality. We then see MacDonald rise from her bed in fetching lingerie to long in song for a “Dream Lover.” She’s queen of a country called Sylvania, and gets a kick out of showing off her legs to her dirty old men cabinet ministers until she meets up with supposed lothario Chevalier. Lubitsch sends up the audience’s voyeurism by having all the film’s servants staring at the movie star couple through keyholes and open windows, vicariously thrilling to their anticipatory erotic excitement. The main theme here is the melancholy but also momentous promise of sex; all Lubitsch’s characters have one foot in bed at all times.