Raise your hand if you know what “pre-Code” means. Did you get a little hormonal surge reading that term? If so then you really know pre-Code and all it implies and promises.
In the late 1920s, when sound came into motion pictures, the Hollywood studios began feeling their oats and things got very naughty very fast. All of a sudden, hookers, drug addicts, gangsters, murderers, cheating husbands and wives, and—egads—gay people started showing up in movies, and things got so supercharged that the morally righteous enforced a Motion Picture Code beginning in 1934 and heavily censored movies thereafter. Heavily, heavily censored them. But for an all-too-brief five years, movies were heaven—or hell, depending on your point of view.
Personally, I think it was the be-all and end-all time of the Golden Age, and I can only imagine the result if the Code hadn’t come in to tame your vintage libertines like Harlow, Lombard, Rogers, and then Lana and Rita—not to mention Gable, Cagney, and Flynn. Alas, we’ll never know.
The other day I watched a 1929 musical called The Love Parade that had a strange effect on my red blood. It’s a dreamlike operetta about a rakish French nobleman, Count Renard, assigned to the court of Queen Louise of Sylvania, a verging-on-spinsterhood proper young lady who, upon introduction to Count Renard and the reading of a report about his scandalous reputation back home in France, tries to surrender her virginity as quickly as possible.
They’re married before the end of the first reel and then things get predictably complicated when the proud and still naughty Frenchman grows restless as, basically, the do-less “first husband” of the land. A happy ending can only be achieved after the count has asserted his authority and the queen has given herself freely into submission to her man. The basic theme here: bad boys are the way to go!
Even though this thing was made 87 years ago in fading black and white; even though they hadn’t really figured out sound recording yet and one sentence is over-modulated and the next is muffled, I think this picture is incendiary.
Jeanette MacDonald was 26 when she made her motion picture debut here after finding fame on Broadway. I can’t say I know much about early Jeanette pictures, and I hope my learned readership can enlighten me. Was she always this sexy before the Code came in? I heard myself say aloud, “She’s HOT!” while watching The Love Parade, and Mary said in her most doubtful voice, “Really?” Yes, really. Later on Jeanette would be teamed with Nelson Eddy, and together they’d take their operatic voices on an odyssey through many successful MGM musicals, all of them fine for family viewing, so this earlier incarnation of vine-ripening Ms. MacDonald was, to me, a pleasant surprise.
Maurice Chevalier was 15 years Jeanette’s senior and making his second American picture with The Love Parade. These two Paramount Players enjoyed chemistry together that would propel them into more pictures as a love team. From a distance, The Smiling Lieutenant, Love Me Tonight, One Night with You, and The Merry Widow seem to have been cut from the same bolt of cloth as The Love Parade—is that right? I’m pleading ignorance here because I’ve avoided early musicals studiously over the years and only knew Chevalier as the farcical grandfather guy from pictures of the 1960s. And the one the Marx Bros. tried to imitate in Monkey Business.
I also had no idea Chevalier was wounded in World War I and a POW for two years. Having some grasp of how the Germans felt about the French, I can’t imagine life in a prison camp from 1914 to 1916 was much in the way of fun, and maybe this gave Chevalier the joie de vivre that marked his screen persona—after you’ve seen hell, everything that followed had to be gravy, especially romping through a land of make-believe with Jeanette MacDonald.
Broadway entertainer Lillian Roth, then 19, took on the role of a maid in The Love Parade and spent her time as comic relief observing the torrid goings-on between the queen and count. I’ve got a glamor shot of Lillian on my wall that serves as testimony to my affection for the pre-I’ll Cry Tomorrow Roth, this being her memoir of addiction and recovery. Here she is at 47 interviewed by Mike Wallace about her life, saying at one point, “I’ve never felt … quite … adequate.” She describes a lifetime of not believing she was good enough, pretty enough, or talented enough (thanks to an abusive, perfectionistic stage mother)—all of which led Lillian Roth to the bottle for solace.
The great Ernst Lubitsch directed The Love Parade, his first talking picture in a fantastic career that included crossing paths with two of my own biographical subjects, Carole Lombard (chronicled in Fireball) in To Be or Not to Be and James Stewart (covered in Mission) in The Shop Around the Corner. Lubitsch really did have quite the touch, a way of finding flesh-and-blood humanity, romance, and yes, deep sexuality in each and every picture. As detailed in Fireball, Gable referred to Lubitsch as “the horny Hun” and warned Mrs. Gable to stay away—you can imagine what sharp-tongued Lombard said to her husband in response. In I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Lillian Roth describes how the canny Lubitsch plucked her from the stage for Hollywood stardom in his first talkie with Chevalier, which led Lillian to assume she’d be the Frenchman’s love interest. But all along Lubitsch intended Roth and diminutive physical comedian Lupino Lane to play absurd counterpoint to MacDonald and Chevalier, and Lubitsch held fast to his vision even against Lillian’s tears and protests. The pain of this ego blow and its effect on her subsequent career comes through in the I’ll Cry Tomorrow narrative and served as one more factor in her descent into addiction.
The Love Parade was nominated for six Academy Awards, including an unlikely nod to the smug and self-satisfied Chevalier. Whatever, just watch and listen as Jeanette sings the haunting Dream Lover in that operatic voice and try to get it out of your head afterward. For good measure, here’s the instrumental waltz version. It’s a dreamy song for a picture about dreamy lovers.
Pardon me while I go panning for more pre-Code Hollywood gold. I’ve seen all the usual pre-Codes, but never thought to look under rocks labeled musical-comedy, where I shouted Eureka! upon discovery of The Love Parade.