Rouben Mamoulian | 1hr 29min
In the romantic, fairy tale world of Love Me Tonight, it isn’t a stretch to believe that a poor tailor could disguise himself as a baron, infiltrate a wealthy Parisian family, and still marry the princess after his lie is exposed. This is a story based in age-old archetypes, written as broadly as any fable about aristocrats falling for commoners, and yet Rouben Mamoulian’s cinematic translation of these conventions carries a narrative dexterity and formal texture unlike so many other films of its ilk. Blowing in the wind, we find music passing through cities, country sides, and castles, and in its infectious lyrical motifs Mamoulian imbues it with a mystical power that transcends class barriers and unites distant characters under rousing expressions of love.
The first time we witness such a phenomenon in Love Me Tonight is during the musical number ‘Isn’t it Romantic’, a song so immortalised in hundreds of covers that its origins here are easily forgotten. The beauty of this soundtrack shouldn’t be a surprise though – this is one of the relatively few times that musical theatre composer Richard Rodgers wrote an original score for film rather than the stage, even though many of his later theatrical collaborations with Oscar Hammerstein II such as Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music would eventually find their own adaptations to the silver screen.
Here, Rodgers relishes the flow of his verses as they are picked up by major and minor characters alike, starting with our strapping young protagonist, Maurice, in his humble tailor shop. There, he sits in front of a trifold mirror and cheerily sings to his reflections like a one-man quartet, while Mamoulian’s camera eagerly pans back and forth between each. As he finishes, the melody leaves the building with a customer, only to be passed on to a chauffeur, his passenger, a platoon of French soldiers, and a homeless camp not far from Princess Jeanette’s balcony, where she delicately brings the song to its final verse. Such elegant fluidity is present not just in the music, but Mamoulian equally instils it in his editing, camera movement, and staging as well, and further solidifies these agile ensemble pieces as part of the film’s form in several other numbers too.
Perhaps making this musical achievement even more remarkable is that Love Me Tonight falls a mere five years after the first feature sound film, The Jazz Singer, another movie-musical that, despite being a technological landmark, possesses far less artistic ambition than Mamoulian’s work. Rather than contextualising Rodgers’ songs here as conventionally isolated performances, they are instead woven into the very form of the narrative itself, demonstrating an effortless navigation of film’s transition to sound that so many other films stumbled over. Even in the middle of scenes, rhymes will occasionally start flowing from the actors’ lips, expressing eloquent sentiments that can no longer be contained within ordinary prose.
“A needle is magnetic.”
“And how poetic.”
In this way, music and romance unite to become forces larger than any single character. Even before Maurice and Jeanette are introduced, Mamoulian composes his own ‘Song of Paris’ through the polyrhythmic pulse of the city waking up, like an instrumental precursor to ‘Little Town’ from Beauty and the Beast. The opening of shutters, the sweep of a broom, and the puff of a chimney join the multitude of other sounds in this percussive symphony, building in texture and pace along with the accelerating montage towards Maurice’s introduction. Played with insurmountable charm by Maurice Chevalier, who incidentally gave his own name to the character, this cheerful tailor strides down the street towards his shop with a spring in his step, and as he greets his neighbours, Mamoulian sweeps us up in long takes gliding by his side.
It is only when Maurice meets Jeanette though that the romantic longing which has pervaded Love Me Tonight settles into something truly intimate, with the song ‘Mimi’ unfolding purely through close-ups of both actors staring right into the camera. The passionate visuals only heighten from there, with long dissolves romantically bridging a loving embrace to a cloudy moonlit sky, and diagonally splitting the frame between alternate shots of their sleeping, smiling faces. Such an alluring style does not come without a good dose of comedy either, as Maurice’s request for a band of men on horses to quietly depart on “tip-toe” sees them comically ride away in slow-motion.
It is also somewhat amusing to see what may very well be the origin of the rom-com trope that sends one lover climactically chasing after the other to confess their love, though as it plays here, it does not feel worn-out or tired. Instead, it fits in just as nicely with the rest of this folk tale as every other romance narrative convention, playing to the raw yearning that seeps through every scene, and Mamoulian even lifts it to another level with a skilful display of suspenseful, parallel editing most certainly influenced by D.W. Griffith. With a tale of “Once upon a time” and “they lived happily ever after” punctuating the ending, Love Me Tonight cements itself as one of cinema’s great fairy tales, blending musical and cinematic style to revel in the stirring universality of love.
Love Me Tonight is not currently streaming in Australia.