So, I dragged my feet on this review a bit.
You’d think I would have liked this more, for someone who enjoyed Rene Clair’s work. After all – this is a musical-ish film set in Paris, just like Le Million, with the added benefit of renowned musicians Rogers and Hart behind the songs. And I admit that I did sigh over the opening scenes, with their beauty shots of Paris at early morning (I’ve fallen hard for that city in recent years). But – this was an American production, with Hollywood tastes, and I think I’m just too much of a cynic for the classic Hollywood movie musical.
The storyline isn’t so much of a storyline as it is a series of excuses for the stars to burst into song. Maurice Chevalier plays a Parisian tailor (conveniently named “Maurice”) who heads out to a nearby Duke’s chateau to collect payment for some overdue bills racked up by the Duke’s nephew. But the nephew intervenes, introducing him to the duke as “my friend, the Baron Courtelin, come for a visit!” Maurice is about to correct him – but then sees the Princess Jeanette, the Duke’s eligible bachelorette daughter, and decides to play along. Princess Jeanette (also conveniently named, as she is played by Jeanette McDonald) has a few other suitors hanging about the chateau who smell a rat and start researching this “Baron Courtelin”. But while they are slowly uncovering his pedigree – or lack thereof – Maurice is slowly winning over the spirited Jeanette, through comic misadventures and swooning serenades.
I try not to give away the endings in my reviews any more, but come on, you can probably guess. Does anyone find out the truth about Maurice? Yep. Is there still a happy ending? Yep.
But at the end of the day – was I entertained?….Okay, yeah, a little.
Admittedly, some of that entertainment came at the film’s expense. Maurice Chevalier speaks and sings with his heavily French-accented English throughout; which makes sense, given the film’s French setting. But no one else in the film even attempts a French accent; actor Charles Butterworth in particular, in his role as the “Comte de Savignac,” speaks instead like he hails from somewhere outside Brooklyn.
The film also handles some “ensemble songs” impressively well. If you’ve seen a stage musical, you know what I mean – the songs where everyone in the cast is involved, mostly singing in chorus, maybe with a few soloists with lines here and there. Usually they’re staged with everyone in the same place, or with soloists flitting in and out.
Director Rouben Mamoulian has a bit more fun, however. One of the film’s big songs, “Isn’t It Romantic”, comes early; Maurice starts things off, singing it in tribute to a customer’s upcoming wedding. The customer walks out humming it himself, and passing cabbie overhears and picks it up. His next fare gets it stuck in his own head. The film follows the song as it passes through a series of other hands – a budding lyricist, a squad of soldiers, even a band of Roma – and finally ends up at the Duke’s chateau, where Jeanette gets her own verse to finish up.
Another ensemble piece isn’t even sung. The very opening scenes- the ones that had me swooning over Paris-at-dawn (“Oh gosh, the Seine…the Pont de Neuf…and that’s probably supposed to be Montmarte…”) slowly start gathering people – and sounds. First a laborer, swinging his hammer to repair a pothole. Then another shopkeeper starts sweeping his steps, the sweeps in syncopation with the hammer. Another shopkeeper starts sharpening knives. A housewife creaks open shutters and starts beating a rug. Another laborer has a squeaky wheelbarrow. And all the sounds keep time, gradually building into a percussive melody that segues into Maurice’s opening number about “The Song Of Paree”. Chevalier’s singing is great and all, but for me, the percussive build was the best bit.