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Monthly Archives: April 2018

Movie Crash Course: Me And My Gal

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So, typically after watching a film, and before writing a review, I read some other reviews online out of curiosity’s sake.  And every so often, I find that my own opinion differs wildly from everyone else’s.  However, that’s the beauty of reviews – they are opinion, and they are not a reflection on a given reviewer’s intelligence education, or schooling.

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So with that said – I did not like Me And My Gal, to the point that I wondered why it was on this list in the first place.

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I mean, intellectually I can guess why. It’s an early Spencer Tracy film, and he does give a good performance as spanking-new detective Danny Dolan, a former beat cop covering New York’s Lower East Side and East River Waterfront. He also has feisty chemistry with Joan Bennett, in her role as Helen Riley, the diner waitress he takes a shine to.  Director Raoul Walsh also introduces some cute gimmicks and schtick – Dolan’s partner, who’s been advised to “be like Dolan” to further his career, takes the advice literally and spends the whole rest of the film practically glued to Dolan’s hip and repeating everything he says.  A running gag between our lovers about how Dolan wears his hat is pretty endearing.  An early scene set at the reception of Helen’s sister’s wedding sees the father of the bride jovially encouraging everyone to have a drink – then actor J. Farrell McDonald looks directly into the camera, at all of us in the audience, and crows, “you guys too, have a drink!”  There are even a couple of scenes that see Danny and Helen thinking about – and even talking about – the double standard in courtship between men and women.

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So there are some interesting bits.  But the film as a whole just didn’t hang together for me. There’s a subplot concerning Helen’s sister Kate and a mobster she once dated; when we aren’t watching Danny romance Helen, we’re watching Kate secretly (and a little unwillingly) help her ex.  The film does make Danny the chief investigator on the case, but the tone in each story thread felt too jarringly different.  An extended bit of schtick with a profoundly drunk man hanging around the docks and causing mayhem was cute at first – actor Will Stanton pulls off some acrobatic pratfalls – but got pretty old after a while.

And one of those comments on the dating double standard takes the form of a bizarre riff on the O’Neill play Strange Interlude (misremembered by the characters as “Strange Inner Tube”), or as they describe it “that play where the characters say things and then you can hear what they’re thinkin’”.   The notion of an inner monologue during a mundane conversation was handled a little better in the film Annie Hall, I thought; here, it just comes across as a reference that was probably up-to-date in 1932, but old and dated today.

The film was apparently a box office flop in the 1930s.  So even though critics have lauded it, I am vindicated in my thumbs-down.

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Movie Crash Course: 42nd Street

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For a while, the ads for the Broadway stage adaptation of 42nd Street billed it as “the musical for people who love musicals.”

….Yeah, that’s about right.  This pretty much hits all the tropes for stories about “backstage and putting on a show” – the plucky newcomer who gets her big break, the aging diva, the overblown budget, the director who overworks everyone, and a happy ending where a star is born and the show is a rave and the box office coffers overflow.  I was amused, though, to see a few other familiar sights from my own backstage past – everyone else in the cast stealing catnaps while the director obsessively works on one tiny bit of one scene over and over, the gossip about who’s hooking up with who, the co-producer who’s given up on reining things in and is just sitting back and letting the staff run wild.

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42nd Street is the behind-the-scenes story of the development of a musical called Pretty Lady, staring the famed Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels); however, the biggest reason it stars Dorothy is so that they can get the funding from her sugar-daddy producer Abner (Guy Kibbee).  Director Julian Marsh (Warren Baxter) is tapped to direct, but during his hiring interview the producers ask about a recent breakdown he’s supposed to have had, is he okay?….Marsh confesses that it was due to anxiety over money – he lost everything in the Stock Crash of 1929 – and he needs to work on a successful show so he can make his money back and retire.  So clearly, he argues, he needs Pretty Lady to be a success just as much as his superiors do, which guarantees that he’ll move heaven and earth to make it so.

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This anxiety informs Marsh’s behavior during the auditions and rehearsals for Pretty Lady – barking orders during the audition, throwing tantrums at his stage manager, and working the cast for hours. Brand-new chorus girl Peggy (Ruby Keeler) is an especial target for her inexperience, and faints in rehearsal one day – while she’s recovering by the stage door, she befriends actor Pat Denning (George Brent), who’s lingering outside.  He invites her to dinner to console her – and to take his mind off being recently dumped by Dorothy, who’d been secretly dating him under Abner’s nose.  Peggy’s skill grows over the course of rehearsals – as does her flirtation with Denning – leaving Dorothy feeling like Peggy’s trying to steal her thunder as the show’s opening night draws closer…

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It’s a melodramatic plot. And to be frank, some of the plot threads are simply dropped midway through; Marsh’s health and money woes are rarely alluded to again, and most of the film only sees him shouting at the actors. Peggy seems to transfer her affections from Denning to another actor pretty easily.  But this isn’t the kind of show you watch for the plot anyway – it’s understood that what people have really come to see are the songs and dancing throughout, culminating in a set of all-out Busby-Berkley production numbers in the last 20 minutes of the film, as we watch the “opening night” of Pretty Lady.

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Now, I’m not really a “musical theater” person, at least not like most High School Drama Club Alumni are. Yeah, I mainlined the soundtrack album of A Chorus Line and I cannot hear the song “All That Jazz” without breaking out Bob Fosse Jazz Hands and I know all the words to “Seasons Of Love” from Rent and almost all the words to “Guns and Ships” from Hamilton, but…honestly, I prefer straight drama.  Big dance production numbers for their own sake usually see me shifting in my seat and wondering when we’re going to get back to the story.  But damned if the dance numbers in this weren’t impressive to look at, even though they’re all totally unrelated to each other or anything else in the film.  I was especially charmed by “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”, which Keeler and costar Dick Powell do on a stage-set version of a Pullman Car train; it was the most nakedly “stagey” part of the show-within-a-show, to the point I could imagine just how the set designer would have rigged it up.  Then that was immediately followed by “I’m Young And Healthy”, a full-on Berkley number with Powell cavorting with a bevy of chorus girls, complete with overhead shots of the action and a tracking shot through the chorus girls’ legs.  Did it have anything to do with “Buffalo”? Nope.  Did it have anything to do with the title track, which followed it up?  Nope.  But did it look cool?  Okay, yeah.

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This may be a film for people who love musicals – but even this person who isn’t all that crazy about musicals was pleasantly surprised.

Movie Crash Course: Scarface – Shame Of A Nation

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Interestingly, at about the time I watched the 1932 Scarface, there was apparently a whole big panel at the Tribeca Film Festival to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the 1983 remake (which I haven’t actually seen, except for hearing “Say hello to my little friend!” quoted a gabillion times).  And one of the factoids being bandied about is that both Al Pacino and his manager claim credit for being the one to see a screening of this original one afternoon in the 1980s and start thinking “hey, I bet this would be cool to remake.”

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It certainly is a meaty role for an actor: first-generation American turns gangster, spurred by his own ambition for wealth and power.  He is headstrong and overeager, which leads to a quick and bloody rise in the underworld; but his aggression and quick temper have consequences. He carries a torch for his boss’s girlfriend, determined to win her over; he is overprotective of his little sister, driving her to cover up her own romance with one of her brother’s companions.  This is a lot for an actor to play with, and it’s no wonder that Pacino (or his manager, whoever) jumped at the chance for a remake.  It certainly gave star Paul Muni a lot of chances to show off his own talents as Tony (whose last name here is “Camonte” instead of “Montana”).

What I liked about the 1932 film, though, was that it also added some moments of humor, both broad and subtle; actor Vince Barnett has a cameo as a guy named “Angelo”, whom Tony has taken on as a secretary despite his being thoroughly inept.  But dedicated – there’s a scene set during a shootout when Angelo attempts to answer the phone and take a message according to Tony’s specifications.  I also immediately liked Karen Morley as “Poppy”, the girlfriend to Tony’s boss; she is thoroughly unimpressed by Tony during their first meeting and has no qualms about him knowing it.

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The 1983 remake has something of a reputation for its violence and language; it was originally rated “X”, primarily because of a lot of f-bombs, before some judicial editing and a lot of arguing brought that rating down to an “R”. As it turns out, the 1932 version had its own ratings-and-editing woes – prompted by the violence more so than the language. Interestingly, the originally-scripted ending is not unlike the 1983 remake, with Tony holed up in a shootout, taking on all comers and going down guns blazing.  Other scenes showed Tony’s mother happily accepting his ill-gotten money for the family, and politicians hobnobbing with Tony’s gang.

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But officials at the Hays Office vetoed this version of the script, and the screenwriters began tweaking things; changing Mama’s opinion of the money and giving Tony a bit more of a pathetic death scene.  They shot that version at producer Howard Hughes’ insistence (“screw the Hays Office,” he supposedly ordered, “and make it grisly as possible”), but the Hays Office didn’t like that either, and director Howard Hawks shot some extra footage and tried an alternate ending, in which Tony is captured alive by police, tried, convicted, and hanged.  The Hays Office in New York State still objected.  Hughes was by now thoroughly fed up, and ordered Hawks to put back the originally-filmed ending, slap on a text introduction, and release the film in states where the censors weren’t as strict. The critical and box office success in the participating states made up for the states that went without.

Movie Crash Course: Shanghai Express

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So I really don’t know what to think of Shanghai Express.

Technically, it’s great. Marlene Dietrich is wonderfully languorous as “Shanghai Lily”, one of a handful of passengers on a cross-country express train passing through 1930s China. Anna May Wong is also great as her friend and bunkmate “Hui Fei”, and the rest of the cast also pulls things off with aplomb. The cinematography makes great use of shadows, the scene depicting everyone’s arrival at the station is endearingly quirky, and the other passengers have actual depth instead of being the series of caricatures you think they’re going to be.

In fact, the rest of the cast ultimately was part of my problem, because Dietrich’s story in the film wasn’t as interesting as what I thought everyone else’s story would have been.

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I will admit that some of this is just my taste. I have a grudge against films that depict “real-life events” and slap a subplot concerning the characters on top of it because they think that makes it more interesting.  And I especially dislike it when that subplot is a love story where the “problem” the couples face is something they could solve in about five minutes if they would simply talk to each other like grownups.  Like here – Clive Brook plays another passenger on the train, a doctor who once was her lover years ago but broke things off over a misunderstanding.  Back then, instead of trying to clear things up, Lily got mad that he “didn’t have faith in her” and let him go.  And now that fate has brought them back together, and after their emotions spur them to confess they still love one another….they make the same damn mistakes, with the doctor misunderstanding Lily’s motives and Lily stubbornly refusing to explain herself because “he should have faith”.

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Meanwhile, the other passengers were German drug dealers and Australian priests and an English innkeeper who keeps trying to smuggle her dog into places it shouldn’t be and a French sergeant who insists on only speaking French so no one knows what he’s talking about and an American businessman who tries to bet on literally everything and an actual Chinese revolutionary spy, who were all way more interesting and I was annoyed that I was stuck watching the film through the perspective of two stubborn idiots with a grudge instead of following any of those people.

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The spy’s actions drive the story’s main plot – he’s a leader of one of the revolutionary factions in China, and when one of his other colleagues on board is arrested, he secretly sets up a takeover, stopping the train in a small town and grilling the other passengers about their business in search of a suitable hostage to negotiate a swap.  He also tries to talk Shanghai Lily into a hookup, implying that that could also save the other passengers.  Lily refuses, and he turns instead to Hui Fei and is much more aggressive (it’s not shown, but is heavily implied, that Hui Fei is raped).

All the other characters even have more interesting storylines throughout the film.  The Australian priest goes from being a stuffy prude who scorns Lily and Hui Fei to respecting the unique sacrifices each makes in the film; in fact, he’s the one who tells the doctor he’s being a jerk.  Hui Fei decides she isn’t going to stand for her assault.  The fussy innkeeper has her moments of bravery, and the gambling American keeps everyone’s spirits up.  Even the French officer finally meets other Francophones so he can finally have a conversation. And yes, things also end well for Lily and the doctor but…did you really expect they wouldn’t?

The story is loosely based on an actual incident, which would itself have made a more interesting plot. In 1923, The “Blue Express” train from Shanghai to Beijing was captured; unlike the film, the capturers had no military connection as such, they were just bandits.  They looted the train, rounded up all 300 passengers and dragged them on a ten-day march to their mountain hideout.  They released all the women within a couple days, but kept the men for nearly a month, demanding pre-emptive full pardons and prestigious military commissions as well as a cash ransom.  The Chinese government finally complied but kept tabs on the bandits for the next six months – and then once the fuss had died down, they were all executed.

Movie Crash Course: Trouble In Paradise

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Trouble in Paradise might be the first screwball comedy in this list – depends on how you define “screwball comedy”, that is.  Is it the comedic misadventures of the plot?  Do you need the Sorkin-paced dialogue?  Must the plot simply be about romantic misadventures, or does this film’s subplot of grifting disqualify it?

Oh who cares, it was fun.

The film kicks things off in a hotel in Venice, where visiting dignitary Francois Filiba has just been knocked out in his hotel room and robbed.  All he remembers is that a man claiming to be a doctor came to his room, insisting he’d been summoned to tend to Filiba’s tonsils.  Filiba hadn’t called for the doctor, and his tonsils were fine, so far as he knew.  But – he got so fascinated with their ensuing conversation about tonsils that he agreed to let the doctor check him out anyway.  Next thing he knew, he was waking up on the floor.

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Elsewhere in the hotel, con man Gaston Monescu – posing as a baron – is preparing for a tryst with “Countess Lily”.  Except – midway through their cocktails, he discovers that she’s conning him right back.  And Lily’s an expert pickpocket.   This makes Gaston even more interested, and the happy pair decide to join forces for a life of romance and crime.

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They slip off to Paris, where they settle on petty theft for their next caper – prowling an opera house during the show and stealing some of the finery off the patrons.  The biggest score is a diamond-bedecked handbag they’ve stolen from Mariette Colet, the owner of a perfumery. They plan to pawn it along with everything else – but when Mariette announces the offer of a reward three times the pawn value, Gaston decides to play Good Samaritan instead. Mariette’s beauty turns his head when they first meet – but her inattention to her financial records intrigue him even more, and Gaston suggests – how about taking him on as a financial secretary?  And what luck, he knows a nice young girl named Lily who could do some office work for her as well, shall he call her?

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Gaston and Lily’s plan is to stay a few days, subtly transferring money out of Mariette’s bank account, then to break into the safe and take all the cash before running off.  But Gaston finds himself more and more taken in by Mariette, who makes it quite clear that she reciprocates his interest. Lily, looking on, finds herself getting more and more uneasy – just as uneasy as Gaston when he learns that one of Mariette’s other suitors is none other than Francois Filiba, who keeps wondering aloud that he thinks he knows Gaston from somewhere but can’t remember where just yet….

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It’s a deliciously fun film.  It’s actually a little weightier than what you think of from a screwball comedy – the pacing isn’t as silly and fizzy.  But instead of coming across as slow, it comes across as suave and sophisticated – and sexy as all hell.  Not that you see any outright sex – that was still a bit of a bridge too far for the 1930s – but in the days before the Hays Code put serious restrictions on sexual content, there is some serious innuendo.  Some of it is even wordless – during Gaston and Lily’s first meeting, after they’ve discovered the truth about each other, they start making out on a couch.  Gradually, as we watch, the scene crossfades to the same couch – now empty, implying that the pair have moved to the bedroom.  Another scene sees Mariette propositioning Gaston, purring that they two could be happy together for “weeks…months….or years.”  The camera jumps around the room as she speaks, catching their reflection in different mirrors – then finishes by catching their shadows falling across Mariette’s bed.

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Hoo boy.

Trouble in Paradise was one of the first big hits for director Ernst Lubitsch, a German expat who went on to produce several other wildly popular comedies, like The Shop Around The Corner and Ninotchka (which looks like it will turn up later for me).  Many of them feature the same kind of wit and sophistication that we see here – so much so that critics soon hailed films with his particular style as “having the Lubitsch Touch”.  However, the sexier bits in his later films had to be curtailed under the Hays Code a set of “moral guidelines” for filmmakers enacted by Hollywood studios from the 1930s through the 1960s.  Much like our modern rating system, the Hays Code set limits on what sort of content was acceptable viewing for general audiences; unlike our rating system, there was a much tighter rein on sexualized content, with rules about how long actors could kiss (timed out by the second), how they had to position themselves during love scenes, and the like.

Unfortunately for this film, the code also applied to films which were made before the Code’s creation.  It didn’t matter if the studio wasn’t enforcing the code back then – if you violated the code, your film couldn’t be shown to general audiences.  As a result, Trouble in Paradise was quietly shelved for many years after its initial release, and was rarely seen until 1968, when Hollywood relaxed its standards again.

Movie Crash Course: Boudu Saved From Drowning

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Boudu Saved From Drowning is sort of an Exhibit A for the adage “no good deed goes unpunished”.

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Edouard Lestingois is a respectable middle-class bookseller at the start of the film; polished, intelligent, erudite. He fancies himself a “free spirit” of sorts, but mostly all this means is he gives poor students a discount in the store, against the wishes of his wife; he also is conducting an affair with the live-in maid Anne-Marie (also, presumably, against the wishes of his wife).  In addition to adultery, he has a naughty habit of clandestine people-watching, using a spyglass to peer through the window at the crowds thronging the banks of the Seine just outside.

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Boudu, meanwhile (played by Michel Simon, who we last saw in La Chienne) is a tramp living in the Bois du Bolongue just outside Paris, with only his dog for company.  The dog runs away one afternoon, though, and after a frustrating search, Boudu decides to end it all, wandering to the Pont des Arts in the center of Paris to jump in and drown himself.  But as luck would have it, Lestingois – who had been watching him, and marveling at how “picturesque” a tramp he appeared to be – has seen him jump and decides to rescue him.  He even invites Boudu to stay with the family a while, to recover from his ordeal and get back on his feet some.

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But Boudu doesn’t quite behave the way they expect a grateful houseguest would.  He criticizes the food, and eschews the bed they give him in lieu of curling up on the floor. His efforts to simply polish his shoes destroy the kitchen.  He spits on the floor. Most hair-raisingly – he seduces Madame Lestingois – and seduces Anne-Marie.  Finally, an incensed Lestingois discovers that Boudu has spit inside some of the books and realizes he must either reform or evict his guest.

This is a bit of an archetypal story, and Boudu is an archetypal Free-Spirited Tramp, beholden to nothing and nobody, and much happier that way.  Director Jean Renoir (also from La Chienne) based the film on an existing play, which featured Michel Simon as Boudu.  Renoir immediately realized he needed to keep Simon – instead of the mild-mannered clerk he played in the previous film, Boudu is much more like the real Simon, who apparently hung out with anarchists and prostitutes, did some amateur boxing on the side, and reportedly had one hell of a collection of porn and didn’t care who knew it.

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I had the funny feeling, though, that this bit of true-to-life casting may have worked to the film’s detriment in a couple scenes. There’s a section in the middle, with Boudu blundering around doing a bunch of stuff while the other characters tut a lot and clean up after him, that feels a bit like Renoir took Simon aside before filming and said “okay, do whatever you want” and had the rest of the cast improvise around him.  There were some funny bits of schtick – like Boudu suddenly stopping in the middle of the hallway to do a handstand, presumably for no other reason than “I just felt like it”.  But it feels a little meandering and directionless compared to the rest of the film.  Things are stronger overall – the performances, the camerawork, the script – when there’s a tighter control on Simon, like when Boudu seduces Mme. Lestingois.

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The film has enjoyed a couple of remakes.  There was a straightforward 2005 French remake with Gérard Depardieu, but the real surprise was that this film was the inspiration for the 1986 film Down and Out in Beverly Hills, with Nick Nolte as “Jerry Baskin”, the tramp who tries to drown himself in the pool of a wealthy Los Angeles couple (Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler).  It feel strangely appropriate to note that this film, based on the tale of the earthy tramp Boudu, was the first R-rated film released by the Walt Disney studio.

Movie Crash Course: Love Me Tonight

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.