Bright Lights Film Journal

Brokeback Lubitsch

Hurrah for the Criterion Eclipse Lubitsch musicals DVD set! Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald look even weirder and more menacingly sexy than they ever have on a good digital master and there’s extra winsome sadness in seeing more clearly the ornate pomp and ceremony which would all soon be gone with the wind. What you see beginning in movies set in Shakespeare times, all the royal gallantry and guffaws, the servant systems and serfdoms, reaches its zenith in the Lubitsch froth, then is crushed out under the fascist heel of the Nazis and then the House of Unamerican Activities. Before all that though, we have time to laugh and sing. Lubitsch enters the age of sound with high European style, money and good humor. The wittiest and most decadent traits of silent cinema are brought along, with grand castles, marching soldiers, attending maidens and matrons, Eugene Pallette and accompanying fathers, singing dogs and their bitches, and canons!

The first one in the Criterion Eclipse set is “The Love Parade.” wherein Chevalier sneers and serenades; he’s in the moment! The second in the set, “Monte Carlo” suffers from Chevalier’s replacement, a grinning British stage crooner named Jack Buchanan. While Chevalier coasts into the modern age on his instinctive sense of absurdity, the by-the-numbers Lavenderhood of Buchanan comes off as BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN-style repression. When Chevalier leered, it was with a heterosexual Frenchman’s genuine sense of sexual ease. Watching the outmoded mannerisms of Buchanan – his ghoulsih smile plastered on as if permanently painted – is to see leering at its most closeted-dysfunctional, the sort of persistent closeness he exhibits–leaning in until he seems like he’s about to bite or make out with whomever he’s talking to– is the stuff of restraining orders in these more enlightened times.

Chomping at the misogynistic bit, Buchanan seems to pursue Jeanette’s countess only to prove himself “a man” to his two buddies, Tyler Brooke and a doe-eyed hairdresser hunk (John Roche). When this gay threesome sings “Trimmin’ the Women,” the double entendres become triples, and the fun leaks out. It’s more Neil LaBute sexual cruelty than feel-good Broadway since these three clearly regard women as little more than easily knocked over conquests to get out of the way so they can go back to slapping their male friends on the backs–and elsewhere–in triumph.

Jeanette MacDonald survives though. She shines with the Criterion cleaned, Klieg-lit goddessliciousness. Lubitsch never lets a shot of her go to waste – she’s always framed Mouscha-like around long drapes and ornate bedposts. The MONTE CARLO plot has her fleeing a rich suitor played by jovial twit and coded queer Claud Allister, and that would be fine but it’s out of the frying pan into the fire. At least Allister seems to be “out” somewhat, Buchanan seems sworn to try and pass. Meanwhile, the stoic MacDonald can only sing her love convincingly to the drapes and night table.

Though the film is fine in and of itself, it suffers the way a family suffers when the father lives a lie. Imagine Edward Everett Horton crossed with Lon Chaney Senior in THE MAN WHO LAUGHS – fine as a a horror icon, but not so much a romantic lead. We in the audience might titter occasionally, but we can’t relax, anymore than the families of the repressed cowboys in BROKEBACK can.