*** 1\2 (out of ****)
Ernst Lubitsch breaks the bank with his musical comedy "Monte Carlo" (1930).
When it comes to sophisticated, adult, sexually playful musical comedies Ernst Lubitsch has no equal. When it comes to great comedies there are few that can match the wit found in a comedy directed by Mr. Lubitsch. His delicate touch and handling of comedies became known as "The Lubitsch Touch". In "Monte Carlo" Mr. Lubitsch's gifts are on full display.
Today's younger audiences may not find much of the material in "Monte Carlo" risque but keep in mind the movie was released in 1930. This is one of those movies referred to as "pre-code", meaning it was released before the Production Code was harshly enforced in 1934 onward.
In "Monte Carlo" we are dealing with a woman desperate for money. So desperate that the question arises, will she marry a wealthy man, whom she does not love, strictly for his money? There is a male character, a playboy, that so desperately wants have a romance with a woman, he pretends to be a poor barber just so he may enter her bedroom. He then speaks naughtily about seeing the woman in her lingerie and how delicate her skin looks.
Again, to the modern audience none of this may seem like much. But, you must remember, movies hadn't fallen yet to the low standards we have today. There was not excess nudity and foul language in movies. Quentin Tarantino would have been terribly out of place back then. The most audiences could hope for were the sly, charming, playful comedies of Ernst Lubitsch.
Although "Monte Carlo" is a musical, Mr. Lubitsch was not primarily a director of musicals. He directed four movies at Paramont which were however. Three of the musicals starred Jeanette MacDonald. The others include "The Love Parade" (1929) and "One Hour with You" (1932). After the release of "One Hour with You" Mr. Lubitsch would direct, mostly, straight comedies such as "Trouble in Paradise" (1932), "Ninotchka" (1939) and "The Shop Around the Corner" (1940). Notice the difference in subject matter between "Monte Carlo" or "Trouble in Paradise" and "The Shop Around the Corner". The sexual playfulness is missing. You couldn't get away with it by that time.
The woman is "Monte Carlo" is Countess Mara (MacDonald). The movie begins on the day she is about to marry Prince Otto von Liebenheim (Claud Allister). A terrible rain storm begins, signaling trouble on the horizon, especially since this will be an outdoor affair. Before the bride is to walk down the isle the groom finds out she has left. In despair Prince Liebenheim runs to the Countess' bedroom and notices nothing is there except her wedding dress. The Prince meekly yells for his father.
This opening sequence clearly establishes a few character traits. The Prince is not "manly". When events become too difficult for him to deal with, he yells for help, his father. He is not capable of solving problems on his only. Physically we can see the Prince is not attractive. He is puny looking as well and wears glasses. This makes its difficult to believe a woman could ever be attracted to him, especially a beautiful woman. In a self-referential moment the Prince sings a song about his wealth, his looks and how his money will help him solve problems.
Although we never see the Countess in the opening sequence, the fact that she does not get married and runs away on her wedding day, demonstrates a woman that has no regard for tradition. She is a free spirit. An "independent woman". She will not marry for money, even if she is in desperate need of it. When the audiences does finally get to see the Countess she is on a train, with her assistant, Bertha (Zasu Pitts). All the Countess has on is lingerie and a fur coat, though we see more of the lingerie. She gives a sigh of relief and tells Bertha it was a close call. She nearly got married. The only thing that prevented her for going through with it was the dress did not fit. She took that as an omen. From this the audience can gather she is a superstitious woman.
In only her lingerie and with practically no money, the train conductor needs to know where the Countess is headed. With no destination in mind, she decides on Monte Carlo on a whim.
Count Rudolph Falliere (Jack Buchanan) is a carefree playboy, living in Monte Carlo. Besides spending time with beautiful women, he also enjoys gambling at the casino. He believes she has a sure-fire system for betting at the roulette table. If he is standing next to a brunette he bets on red. If standing next to a red head he bets on black. When asked what he does if standing next to a blonde the Count responds, "I ask where she lives". Audiences should be able to determine what exactly that implies.
As soon as the Count sees the Countess he in intrigued though for the first time in his life he is afraid to simply walk up to a woman and give her a pick-up line. He quickly assesses he needed a gimmick. He requires some excuse to speak to her. As the Countess walks towards a casino, the Count notices she rubs the hump of a hunchback. This was a real superstition at one time. When the Count sees this, if feels he has his excuse to speak to her. He will tell her gently touching his hair provides good luck.
Through this the audience can determine the Count is a schemer. Perhaps not a bad man, but, someone always on the hunt for a beautiful woman, and a man who will say and do whatever he has to to speak to as many beautiful women as he can. The fact that he was apprehensive about approaching the Countess at first is supposed to imply, this time it is love. The Countess is not like other woman to the Count, just as easy conquest. This time the Count may actually have feelings for a woman.
Unfortunately the Count's scheme doesn't work. The Countess becomes a bit greedy. She initially has some success at the roulette table, betting heavy. Instead of being happy with the small fortune she has won, she continues to gamble and loses everything in the process. This ruins the Count's opportunity of presenting himself as the Countess' personal good luck charm. So, he needs to devise a new plan. After speaking to a real barber, how does the Countess' hair, the Count decides to impersonate a hairdresser, which will allow him access to the Countess.
The question now becomes, can a Countess learn to love a hairdresser? Will their difference in social status matter? Can love overcome all odds? Lets remember, the Countess is supposed to be an independent woman. But, she needs money. A hairdresser cannot provide for her. What would people say if a Countess married her hairdresser.
This part of "Monte Carlo" would seem to take its inspiration from the novel "Monsieur Beaucaire" written by Booth Tarkington. The novel was later turned into an opera and was the inspiration for a few movie adaptations. One silent movie version starring Rudolph Valentino and a comedy version starring Bob Hope.
What makes "Monte Carlo" work is the material is treated in a silly, frivolous manner. Audiences should be able to figure out how events will end. We aren't watching the movie for suspense. We enjoy watching the two lead performers. They are likable characters and the audience wants them to get together. In fairy tale Hollywood fashion of course, the hairdresser is a rich Count, which sends a positive message that women don't marry for money but instead are driven by a desire to marry for love. Whether or not this is true, we will save for another time.
Keep in mind by 1930 America was in a Great Depression. The Countess may have financial problems, as did the countless Americans in the audience watching the movie, but, she is not standing in a breadline. What a nice piece of escapism for audiences. Characters travel to Monte Carlo, even if they have no money, they search for love, and poof, good fortunate smiles upon them. Hairdressers turn out to be Counts. "Monte Carlo" is a silly, optimistic comedy.
The musical score in "Monte Carlo" was written by Richard Whiting and W. Franke Harling. The most popular song in the movie is sung by MacDonald, "Beyond the Blue Horizon", which would become something of a theme song for Ms. MacDonald. However I prefer a duet sung by Mr. Buchanan and Ms. MacDonald called "Always in All Way". There is also "She'll Love Me and Like It" sung by the Prince and "Trimmin' the Women" about the Count's deceitful plan to impose as a hairdresser.
The movie's screenplay was adapted by that great Hungarian screenwriter, Ernest Vajda, who wrote several screenplays Mr. Lubitsch directed including "The Love Parade", "The Smiling Lieutenant" (1931) and "The Merry Widow" (1934), another musical with Ms. MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier. Mr. Vajda also wrote the screenplay to the charming, funny pre-code gem "The Guardsman" (1931). Mr. Vajda is as equally responsible for "Monte Carlo"s success as Mr. Lubitsch is.
If you are unfamiliar with movies of Mr. Lubitsch, "Monte Carlo" is a nice play to start. You will see what Mr. Lubitsch was getting away with before the code was enforced. This is a funny, well acted, playful musical comedy mostly about sex and finding true love. It has a level of sophistication missing from so many movies made today. The movie may seem silly but it is intelligent in many ways.