“The Love Parade” (1929)
by A.J. Hakari
Potent is the charge that arises when the cinema of generations past connects with modern audiences. Naturally, this all depends upon the film, but it’s always wild to see something speak to viewers so strongly even decades down the road. Certain themes, situations, and stories bridge the gap like nobody’s business, especially sex, a subject undergoing such constant societal exploration and evolution that one might assume its big-screen portrayals would age the least gracefully. Yet here we are, going on ninety years since 1929’s The Love Parade first marched into theaters, and its grasp on romance and its many complications has scarcely eased up. With the soundtrack’s propensity for fluff, it’s easy to imagine this picture getting lumped in with the slew of inconsequential musicals that cropped up during the talkie’s infancy. But the wit that The Love Parade comes to proudly place on display proves that it’s anything but a simple lark, even if its execution can be regrettably rocky at times.
Throughout the picturesque land of Sylvania, love is in the air. Marriage is all that seems to be on anybody’s mind, yet not in regards to themselves. As fair and fine as her reign has been, Queen Louise (Jeanette MacDonald) remains single, with no man willing to concede authority by becoming her royal consort. While her advisers fret about how the absence of a husband makes Sylvania look on the world stage, Louise is peeved for entirely different reasons, until one potential suitor instantly captures her curiosity. Into her life schmoozes Count Alfred Renard (Maurice Chevalier), a military attaché who flirted up a scandal in Paris and happily accepts his queen’s marriage proposal. But it isn’t long before the lap of luxury’s charms begin to wear on the count, who learns too late that despite being royalty, he hasn’t any influence on affairs of state. The country jumps only on Louise’s command, and as he’s viewed as little more than another of her subjects, Alfred plots to assert his dominance wherever possible, be it in the public eye…or in the bedroom.
The Love Parade was among the first sound efforts from director Ernst Lubitsch, as skilled a purveyor of romantic fables as Hollywood ever saw during its Golden Age. Kicking off a trend he’d carry on in later years through the likes of Ninotchka and The Shop Around the Corner, his objective here is to create a sort of fairy tale for grown-ups, marrying fanciful storytelling elements with weightier thematic undertones. This film being so early an entry into the burgeoning musical genre, greater emphasis is put on developing song-and-dance spectacle, yet Lubitsch devises numerous means to help it stand out against its more rigid and primitive contemporaries. Outside of its tinkering with editing techniques and the inclusion of some wonderfully-staged physical comedy from co-stars Lupino Lane and Lillian Roth, The Love Parade‘s greatest asset is the wicked streak lurking just underneath its otherwise mushy façade. There’s a wink behind nearly everything this movie does, be it in the form of Chevalier’s fourth wall-breaking nods to the camera or the many examples of wry social satire at work. Lubitsch takes real delight in sticking it to the institutions on his list, with poking fun at the male ego’s fragility of particular interest, if not his top target. On more than a few occasions are the pretensions of masculinity yanked away, as when Louise’s blustering advisers are shown to be no better than a group of giggling gossips as they keep tabs on her first date with the count.
As the picture strives for equal opportunity amongst the sexes, it only makes sense that The Love Parade take the queen herself to task, as well. In doing so, though, more harm than good comes about, as Lubitsch fails to make as compelling of a case for Louise’s dressing-down as he does for Alfred’s. Seeing the serial ladies man get his just desserts is one thing, but after witnessing what little cruelty there is in the way Louise regards her new hubby, that the last act seems to wag its finger at her as strongly as it does is downright confusing. For a spot, it appears as if The Love Parade is more concerned with taking shots at the aristocracy’s most outdated customs, what with all the focus cast on royal red tape curtailing even the smallest shred of Alfred’s personal freedom. Unfortunately, the story exaggerates the size of Louise’s role in this (as well as in a hastily-cobbled subplot about Sylvania needing a loan), leaving the movie to wrap up with that most tired of suggestions: no matter how much power they yield, all women “really” want is a man to show them what’s what. This leaves a bitter taste that The Love Parade‘s charms can’t entirely wash out, though that doesn’t stop the otherwise sharp script and very appealing leads from giving it a go. MacDonald brings equal parts grace and fire to her character, transforming Louise into a kind ruler who can still cut through the baloney surrounding her on a constant basis. Though it’s a shame she’s not allowed to cut as loosely as her co-star is, her chemistry with Chevalier remains fittingly playful, with the latter’s rascally charisma consistent from scene to scene.
While lacking the same timeless quality as future Lubitsch productions, The Love Parade is fascinating to take in as a kind of first draft, one introducing both themes that would spring up in those later films and the manner in which he’d tackle them. Where other musicals of the era were skittish about how much their actors could move and what taboos could be tested, this movie goes with the flow, having its actors bound across the screen and trade in as much sentimentality as they do double entendre. Not all of its choices have withstood the test of time, but on the whole, The Love Parade still serves as a master class on the heights of naughtiness similar stories can reach while hanging the most innocent of smiles on their mugs.