This is an image from 1:00:00 into the light, fun, frivolous delight Love Me Tonight. It was directed by Rouben Mamoulian, who was on a roll in the early ’30s, making virtually nothing but pre-Code masterpieces like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Queen Christina. Love Me Tonight belongs to the same wonderful proto-screwball tradition as many of Ernst Lubitsch’s early Paramount films, where the battles of the sexes and classes intersect through song and mistaken identity. Like several of the Lubitsch works, it also stars Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald – along with a host of aristocratic buffoons to act as their foils.
It’s one of the beauties of the studio system, after all, that a place like Paramount would have a reliable company of contract players to liven up even minor scenes. Here it’s Charles Butterworth and C. Aubrey Smith as the Count and the Duke respectively. Smith was in his late sixties at the time, and had been acting since before the birth of cinema. The two of them, along with Charles Ruggles as a spendthrift nephew, act as a little sideshow to the film’s main story, which is Chevalier’s wooing of MacDonald. Their comical interplay, as they’re duped again and again by Chevalier’s charismatic tailor, makes up the film’s atmosphere; we’re in the domain of the born nobility, yet their behavior makes noblesse oblige appear ignorant and ridiculous. Love Me Tonight, like many Depression-era comedies, is a socially egalitarian film.
These blue-blooded Frenchmen could hardly look more ridiculous than they do in this shot. The stiffness of the Duke’s armor reflects his personality, but it also impedes his movement and accentuates his age. Later in this scene, the armor’s visor slams shut and as Smith fumbles to open it again, he’s laughed at – his attempt to be regal just emphasizes how preposterous the aristocracy really is. The Count’s Napoleon outfit has a similar effect, especially since he plays such an ineffectual character. He tells the Duke that he can’t entertain, explaining, “I fell flat on my flute!” It’s a recurring joke with, like many of the film’s visual and verbal cues, vaguely phallic connotations, the point of which seems to be that the upper-class men are essentially dickless. The tailor concealed among them, however, is bursting with virility.
The framing of the shot expands this accusation of impotence. These two men have repeatedly been set up as leaders of the nobility, and their position at the doorway to the ballroom confirms this. They’re surveying the event, they can see who enters and exits, and through a sort of visual synecdoche, they’re also identified with the dancers behind them. By locating this scene here, Mamoulian makes it clear that decisions made by this doorway will have consequences for the rest of the house. However, when Ruggles and later a seductive Myrna Loy appear, it becomes very apparent that the Duke is not the one in charge. One of the film’s main themes is the struggle between the old/aristocratic/order and the new/common/chaotic, and the representation of the Duke here makes ironic use of his armor to suggest petrification rather than strength. He’s a pillar of his family, but he’s immobile and powerless.
It’s worth noting the divide between order and chaos as well. The film isn’t just about a conflict, but about the synthesis that results, and how the princess ends up in terms of class and gender at the end. One of the major ways it resolves the tension between the princess and the tailor is through the absurd. This film was made while the Marx Bros. were also raising cain at Paramount, and it has a lot in common with Horse Feathers or Duck Soup. Chevalier never goes so far as to pelt the Duke with fruit – Love Me Tonight is far less overt – but he does cast doubt on the family’s authority through his enchanting yet subversive music. And the film’s finale ascends into sublime absurdity as the princess rushes to rendezvous with her true love. So while this image may be comparatively low-key, it’s still a very quiet Bronx cheer at the moneyed classes, and more evidence of why we should love a poor tailor.