One of the most technically accomplished and sophisticated movie musicals of the 1930's, Rouben Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight (1932) had a profound effect on the shape of the musical genre (especially the films of Vincente Minnelli), and remains a candidate for best movie musical ever made, some seven decades after its release. And that distinction is based entirely on its style and structure -- it doesn't even take into account a hit-laden score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, or a raft of delightful performances, several of them totally unexpected in their range and wit. The movie opens with an amazing double audio/visual montage sequence, in which the sleeping city of Paris awakens to a slowly rising chorus of sounds, street by street, house by house -- forming what the script describes as a "symphony" of sound -- which coalesces into a song. It is through the latter that we meet Maurice Courtelin (Maurice Chevalier), a young Parisian tailor who has just completed his first big job, an order of 15 suits for the Viscount de Varese (Charlie Ruggles), who has promised to pay him on delivery. He then discovers that the Viscount is little more than an upper-class ne'er-do-well who, among his other faults, has no money of his own -- being completely dependent on his crusty old uncle the Duke (Sir C. Aubrey Smith) -- and never pays his bills. In one of a half-dozen remarkable musical scenes, as Maurice's friend Emile (Bert Roach) ponders the matter of love in the new suit he has made for him, Maurice begins singing "Isn't It Romantic?", causing Emile to hum the tune as he strolls onto the street; the song is picked up by a taxi driver (Rolfe Sedan), and passed to his passenger (Tyler Brooke), a composer, who carries it aboard a train, humming it, where a group of soldiers hear it and end up singing it as they march across a field, where a young gypsy hears it and carries it to his camp on his violin, where the whole clan is soon singing. And the song is finally wafted across the surrounding fields to the estate of the Duke and the Viscount de Varese, where it is heard and sung by the Duke' niece, Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald). The two characters, Maurice and Jeanette, are linked for us in this way even before they meet, and the stage is set for the rest of the plot. For the Princess, living under her family's tradition-bound hand, romance is a source of unhappiness; there's no one at the chateau to interest her, and even if there were, she couldn't dare to be interested; already a widow from an arranged marriage at age 22 (her first husband was 75), she must marry someone of equal royal rank, and the only two known candidates in all of Europe are ages 85 and 12, respectively. Maurice journeys to the chateau with the clothes the Viscount ordered, hoping to confront him for payment, and is mistaken for one of the guests -- and he crosses paths with the Princess, and falls in love with her. Identified as the Count de Courtelin, he delights the rest of the guests with his joie de vivre and his way with a song, especially "Mimi" (which somehow managed to make it past the censors, despite some amazingly risque lyrics), getting the entire coterie of nobles singing it in his wake. But the Princess is resistant to his free and easy charm and flirtations, her staid upbringing and sense of station fighting her natural inclinations, while her other would-be suitor, the Count de Savignac (Charles Butterworth), is suspicious of this new-found rival. Also present at the estate is the Duke's other niece, Countess Valentine (Myrna Loy), who has a nymphomaniac interest in men under the age of 40, of whom Maurice is the only one at the chateau not related to her -- thus, he must fend off her advances while trying to woo a woman who wants nothing to do with him. Rumor soon spreads that Maurice is, in fact, a full-blooded royal prince traveling in disguise. And if he is a prince of the rank they think he is, then suddenly the Princess's marital and romantic prospects seem a lot more encouraging, especially as she begins to melt to his charm. Maurice wants to tell her the truth, but will she feel the same way about him, knowing that he is a commoner, a tradesman ... a tailor? Director Rouben Mamoulian had already jump-started the musical genre with the backstage drama Applause (1929), to great critical and financial success. In contrast to that movie's deceptively naturalistic approach to its subject, Love Me Tonight was highly stylized -- Applause had no actual musical numbers in complete form, while Love Me Tonight was filled with incredibly elaborate and subtle musical set-pieces that grow naturally out of the plot (adapted from a play by Paul Armont and Leopold Marchand) and advanced the narrative. Some of the scenes here helped set the stage for works such as An American In Paris and Gigi (one scene near the end, when Maurice's identity is revealed, seems to have been the model for "The Gossips At Maxim's" from the latter film) and Funny Face. Such is Love Me Tonight's reputation, that in the summer of 2007, 75 years after its release and more than five years after it showed up on DVD, the movie chalked up sell-out audiences when it opened the Mamoulian retrospective at New York's Film Forum.
by Bruce Eder synopsis