Tag Archives: Maurice Chevalier

L´homme du jour (Julien Duvivier, France, 1937)

 

L´homme du jour has so many delightful moments, many that revolve around Maurice Chevalier singing :Il-y-a de la joie (above), Yop la Boum! Ma pomme, and Mon vieux Paris. In fact Chevalier has grown on me over the years. Except in his great Lubitsch films (The Smiling Lieutenant, One Hour With You, The Merry Widow), I used to find his mugging tiresome. But now his presence gives me a lift. Watching him is like hearing Ethel Merman: what they do is not subtle but it evokes joy. No one evoked preening, smug masculinity like Chevalier until Burt Reynolds came along in the 70s, and both ironise it enough so that we know they´re both kidding it and embodying it simultaneously.

 

Moreover, unlike in his American films where he always invariably ended up as upper class, in L´homme du jour, Chevalier is the Chevalier born in Ménilmontant, a Parisian version of a cockney, man of the people, an electrician who wants to be a star, a man like the star himself. In the clip above, in a glorious art deco setting,, Duvivier shows us Chevalier trying to hide his dirty shoes, before integrating himself into the queer world of toffs, where floors open and tables rise, by getting them all involved in singing ´Ma pomme.´That they all do so with less talent, skilll and chic only enhances the natural nobility of the working man Chévalier.

But  L´homme du jour is Duvivier as well as Chevalier and there are other pleasures: the satire on celebrity culture, the kidding of the highbrow, the sympathy with the queers and whores that people his films; the conceptual and technical flair of the mise-en-scène. This has a great moment where Chevalier as Alfred Boulard, an electrician who dreams of becoming a star, goes backstage to see his girlfriend in a show Maurice Chevalier is starring in, and we get to see Chevalier as himself teaching Chevalier as Alfred Boulard how a song should be done. I´d say such as ironic self-awareness  postmodernism before the fact if it weren´t also evident in so many other works of this period. You can see the excerpt below:

 

 

A French musical, clearly influenced by the backstage musicals of the period, and much more visually and conceptually sophisticated than most of them.

As an interesting aside, Sheldon Hall has pointed out to me that ´L’HOMME DU JOUR was one of the 14 feature films shown on BBC Television before the war (on 12 and 13 Sept 1938)´. The UK title was Man of the Moment.

José Arroyo

 

 

My TV This Week, 21st November

 

ballet 422

I installed Now TV, Google Chromecast and also subscribed to Netflix last week so much of my cultural consumption this week has been spent trying to explore their offerings. I very much enjoyed seeing Ballet 422 in which Justin Peck, a member of New York City Ballet’s ‘corps de ballet’ is chosen to choreograph a new work. The series follows Peck from the moment he starts his choreography to the moment the work is premiered at Lincoln Centre.

I find ballet glamorous and moving in its idealisation of art in posh settings. Here are all these young people, totally committed, totally absorbed, totally disciplined; sacrificing their youth, their beauty, their health and most likely their future earning power for art in full knowledge that even the very best in the world can mostly only expect to eke out a living in that milieu for a few years, that that form is ephemeral and disappears at the very moment of enactment, and that only the rich or the fanatically committed have access to that art they serve. At the end of Ballet 422 there’s a moment when Peck is in front of the house with the audience — proud Mom by his side — as he thrills to see his work onstage; then as soon as the houselights dim, he dashes backstage, changes into costume, and joins all the other background dancers onstage for the next ballet, ego submerged, the collective over the individual, always part of a company, now back to anonymity within it. I found it moving.

hollywood singing and dancing

I also loved seeing Hollywood: Singing and Dancing on Sky Arts, a thirteen-episode history of film musicals narrated by Shirley Jones. It’s one of those series that not only has clips from the main figures — Garland, Astaire, Chevalier etc– but also includes delicious rare clips from B musicals featuring the likes of The Andrew Sisters and the Big Bands and Peggy Lee; the filmmakers prove very knowledgeable. All styles of the genre are well represented and the long form means the series is luxuriously peppered with glorious numbers. It’s also great to see Mickey Rooney’s appreciation of Eleanor Powell, hear why Leslie Caron didn’t like Busby Berkeley musicals (all the strict formations reminded her of the Nazis) and hear Shirley MacLaine’s views on Maurice Chevalier, whom she worked with on Can-Can with Frank Sinatra and Louis Jourdan: ‘’Chevalier was a supreme narcissist. He knew who he was; jeez he never forgot it. He was Mr. France and knew it but after all he *was* Chevalier. I liked him very much’.

 

supergirlposter

Supergirl is the reason I subscribed to Now TV: I was so eager to see it! And I so wanted to like it. It’s perhaps the most overtly feminist series on television ever. It’s got a female superhero with a sister who in spite of not having super-powers also does daring things. They look after each other. Jimmy Olson is now black. It’s got Calista Flockhart doing a Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada and in fine form…and yet. I didn’t quite get into Arrow either though I haven’t fully given that a chance yet. Likewise the few episodes of The Flash I have seen doesn’t tempt me to see more. Perhaps I’m now too old for this kind of thing. And ye, as i’ve written here previously,  I happily sat through the whole first series of Daredevil….

The best of the comic-book connected series that I saw last week was  Jessica Jones on Netflix on which more later…

 

José Arroyo

 

The Merry Widow (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1934)

The original Punch illustration for the film.
The original Punch illustration for the film.

The Merry Widow is a shallow masterpiece. Sonia (Jeanette MacDonald), the richest woman in Warshovia has been widowed, might be hooked by a foreigner and send the country’s economy into a tailspin. Danilo (Maurice Chevalier) gets caught by the King (George Barbier) making love to his wife and the Queen (Una Merkel) is so complimentary that he is chosen to be the one to woo and win The Merry Widow back to Marshovia. It’s a film full of delights; the magnifying glass over the map that introduces us to Marshovia (figure 1), the first meeting between Danilo and the Widow which begins by her reading the letter saying he’s terrific and ends with him following her to the palace and saying ‘I tried to bring a little moonlight into your life…..Forget me – if you can!…and Don’t include me, even in your dreams!’; The montage of black veils, shoes, corsets and dogs that signify her life and whose change in colour symbolises a decision to change that life; How the King discovers his wife is cheating on him — a scene that Billy Wilder used as an exercise with students at UCLA asking them how would they stage it and then showing how Lubitsch did it; the fabulous waltz sequence, with hundreds of dancers waltzing through a palatial hall of mirrors, a still from which illustrated countless early film books (see fig. 1); the charming prison sequence at the end; Sam Raphaelson’s witty dialogue. The film is  a delight, a joy, a mini-masterpiece of cinematic inventiveness. Barbier and Edward Everett Horton, as the Marshovian Ambassador to France, are particularly enchanting. It’s only of Lubitsch that one dares ask for more.

The film was based on Franz Léhar’s operetta and was remade by Curtis Bernhardt in 1952. I quite like the Bernhardt version with Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas but to see the two films side by side is to be convinced of Lubitsch’s genius. Both films were for MGM, the Lubitsch version, the most expensive film made to that point and, though a considerable hit, it still lost money.

Figure 1: The magnifying glass over Warshovia.
Figure 1: The magnifying glass over Warshovia.

N. T. Binh and Christian Viviani have called The Merry Widow the quintessential Lubitsch film (Lubitsch, T. &B Editores: Madrid 1991, 2005, p. 160). It contains the elements of spectacle evident in his early silent (from Carmen onwards), the operetta form of his early thirties musicals (e.g. The Smiling Lieutenant) — hugely popular then and unjustly marginalised in historical accounts of the musical genre now — the rhythmic elements evident in all of his great works (note the dance number in the silent The Oyster Princess from as early as 1919), the use of doors, the indirect way of showing, the ingeniousness and comedy that infuses the whole film, the sophisticated comedy of manners of his greatest films (Trouble in Paradise), the great dialogue of most of his great talkies (Ninotchka), the controlled, precise, and poetic imagery of is late masterpieces (the letterbox sequence from The Shop Around The Corner say). One can’t help but agree. The Merry Widow might not be the best Lubitsch – it doesn’t quite touch our hearts – but it is the quintessential Lubitsch in that it delights the eye, the ear and the mind.

Figure 2: Classic imagery from celebrated waltz sequence.
Figure 2: Classic imagery from celebrated waltz sequence.

José Arroyo