Love Me Tonight (1932)

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.

Grand set designs and shadows blowing these emotions up to wondrous heights.

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.

‘Isn’t it Romantic’ is infectiously passed between characters, transitioning smoothly from Maurice to Jeanette, and foreshadowing their impending romance.

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.”

“How true.”

“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.

The ‘Song of Paris’ displaying an astounding coordination of editing and musical composition, building an entire city out of its percussive sounds.

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.

‘Mimi’ shot predominantly through elegant close-ups in our first run-in between Maurice and Jeanette.
Inspired editing through long dissolves and split screens. Big choices for 1930s cinema, but still so artistically potent today.

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.

Maurice’s departure wearing away at Jeanette’s psyche, and Mamoulian once again returns to these beautiful long dissolves to illustrate this distressed emotional state.
A D.W. Griffith influence in this display of parallel editing, driving Love Me Tonight towards a reconciliation between its lovers.

Love Me Tonight is not currently streaming in Australia.

Scarface (1932)

Howard Hawks | 1hr 33min

While Howard Hawks can’t take full responsibility for initiating the gangster film, we can at least give him credit for solidifying it as a genre before the Production Code cut its legs out from under it in the mid-1930s. It wouldn’t be until the emergence of New Hollywood directors like Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese in the 1970s that there was any serious revival in the United States, and another decade or so before Brian de Palma directed his remake of this film. But for a long time, it was Hawks’ Scarface which reigned supreme as the peak of the genre, setting an early standard for the sort of anti-hero we so often keep coming back to.

Tony Camonte’s arc is less of a character study than that of Tony Montana’s in de Palma’s version, but instead Hawks is far more interested in the world and legend that is built around such a threatening figure as this. The two films hit similar beats in their character journeys, playing on Freudian archetypes of the Madonna-whore complex in Tony’s relationship with his sister, as well as the murder of his boss to become the new drug kingpin in town. But Camonte is ultimately a more cowardly creature than Montana. Rather than madly going out all guns blazing in his final moments after his sister is shot, he completely breaks down. As a final gut punch, she calls him out for this weakness with her dying breath.

“I don’t want to stay. You’re afraid.”

Camonte collapsing under pressure in his final minutes, his true cowardice revealed.

Of course, this is a side of Camonte that only comes out behind closed doors under extreme pressure. The word on the street and in the newspapers paints him out as a larger-than-life figure – loathed by some, revered by others, but feared by all. So much of the gang warfare we see carried out is in short, sharp bursts of gunshots that are over within a few seconds, and target victims who are often dead before they even realise what’s happening.

Between these spurts of violence, Hawks is patient with his narrative. In the very first shot of the film, we slowly roll from the dark streets of 1920s Chicago into a nightclub after hours. Inside, crime boss Louis Costillo is wrapping up some private business with associates, and Hawks is sure to clutter every inch of his mise-en-scene with furniture, plants, and streamers. As Costillo makes a phone call, we suddenly detach from him. Our eye is caught by a shadow, moving slowly and quietly across a wall, which then turns into a silhouette behind a screen. All it takes is three gunshots from this mysterious intruder to kill Costillo, and to pay off on the masterful suspense of Hawks’ three-minute long take which introduced us to this dirty underworld.

A three-minute long take rolling from the street into a club, and ending with this terrifying assassination lit behind a screen.

To rewind a little, it is worth noting that at the start of this tracking shot, Hawks opens on the image of a street sign forming a cross shape at its intersection with the post. Though we don’t know it yet, X’s are harbingers of death in this film, marking characters who are destined to die. Scorsese surely would have had Scarface in mind when he used the exact same motif in The Departed, and Hawks is at least his equal here in the creative ways he works it into his mise-en-scène. Everything from lights, shadows, wooden roof beams, apartment numbers, and even a strike at a bowling alley seems to ominously brand each of Camonte’s targets, building tension each time by warning us of impending murders. But of course, the greatest use of this motif lies right in the film’s very title – the small, X-shaped scar on Camonte’s left cheek, marking him for dead right from the very start.

A brilliant dedication to a motif, as Hawks uses X’s all through his lighting and sets to mark characters for dead.

With that small wound, slicked back hair, and wild, angry eyes, Paul Muni strikes an intimidating figure that any newspaper would surely milk to fuel their own fear-mongering parade. But as the Chief of Detectives points out, even with that tone of dread that is attached to Camonte’s name, there is also an awe that surrounds him.

“That’s the attitude of too many morons in this country. They think these hoodlums are some sort of demigods. What do they know about a guy like Camonte? They sentimentalise him, romance. Make jokes about him. They had some excuse for glorifying our old western bad men. They met in the middle of the street at high noon, and wait for each other to draw. But these things sneak up and shoot a guy in the back, and then run away.”

One of the great performances of the 1930s – Paul Muni as Tony Camonte, leering and scowling all throughout.

In drawing this comparison to the “bad men” of the previous century, Hawks paints out an America in decline. Violence has always been a mainstay in world history, but in this new era where a coward like Camonte can reign supreme, it is conducted with secrecy and treachery, thereby repressing our most honest expressions of humanity. In wrapping up these ideas into a patient, brooding narrative, and then intermittently rupturing it with acts of brutality, Hawks effectively cuts right to the menacing heart of the gangster genre.

The real-life St. Valentine’s Day Massacre hauntingly captured in these shadows.

Scarface is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.