Lubitsch Musicals
Four musicals directed by Ernst Lubitsch: The Love Parade (1929), Monte Carlo (1930), The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), One Hour with You (1932). Starring: Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Jack Buchanan and Claudette Colbert. Criterion/Eclipse. Four discs.

The Criterion Collection is widely considered the Tiffany’s of home video companies, both in quality and in price. Back in the days when laserdisc was the format of choice for cinephiles, Criterion essentially created the notion of the “special edition,” packing most of its releases with commentary tracks and lavish, well-assembled extras, often with price tags well over $100.

When the company moved into DVDs, it continued to set a high standard, although the prices thankfully dropped. Still, Criterion DVDs command a premium list price of $30 to $40 for releases that the major studios would price at least $10 cheaper.

For those who never get around to watching all the supplements — or who plain don’t much care for them — Criterion prices have sometimes seemed onerous. Even more troublesome, the company has had to pass on deserving films because the time and money to create a typical Criterion edition would have been prohibitive.

About a year ago, Criterion responded to this problem by launching Eclipse, a stripped-down “bargain” series. The first release included five early Ingmar Bergman films for around $70; the latest is Lubitsch Musicals, bringing together four of Ernst Lubitsch’s five musicals in a $60 package (available online for roughly two-thirds that).

It used to be conventional wisdom that early sound films were all stagy and stiff, hampered by unwieldy cameras and primitive recording equipment that stifled the beautiful visual style of silent cinema. While there’s no question the new technical issues caused challenges, there is also no question that genuinely creative directors quickly figured out how to adapt. And many really great silent directors not only barely broke stride, but also welcomed sound as another tool to broaden their aesthetic vocabularies. Fritz Lang gave the murderer in M a signature whistled tune that served as an omen of violence; in Hitchcock’s Blackmail, we share the heroine’s selective hearing, as she is tormented by certain words; and Lubitsch added the rhythms of music to the rhythms of movement he had already mastered.

His first sound film was The Love Parade, made in 1929, the first truly “talkie” year. His use of camera movement is only slightly constrained in this operetta starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. The following year’s Monte Carlo was another leap forward, with its famous “Beyond the Blue Horizon” number, in which train sounds set the rhythm, leading to Jeanette MacDonald’s vocal and the choral backing of farmers as the train speeds by their fields. The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) is similar in tone and subject to The Love Parade, with an even smoother execution. And One Hour with You (1932) — a remake of The Marriage Circle (1924), one of Lubitsch’s best silents — is arguably the greatest of the four.

The “argument” is largely a matter of casting. Chevalier was known as “the French Jolson,” and, like the American Jolson, his style and persona have (to be kind) dated badly.

In addition to his often impenetrable accent, Chevalier’s repertoire of rolling eyes, raised eyebrows, smug grins and jaunty chuckles make his whole act somewhere between irritating and intolerable. Monte Carlo benefits hugely by having Jack Buchanan (The Band Wagon) in what would otherwise have been “the Chevalier role.”

The Eclipse set has one film per disc, each in its own slim case. There are no extras beyond brief, informative liner notes. The video quality varies from OK to excellent, given the age of the films; the audio quality is less impressive, not surprising when you consider that the films are 75-80 years old. Given the snail’s pace at which Lubitsch movies have come to video, this is an invaluable addition to the catalog, and at a particularly attractive price.