The Early Days of the Movie Musical
Honestly, I'm not entirely sure why [i]Oklahoma![/i] gets so much press as allegedly being the first American musical. Let's even leave aside the [i]Show Boat[/i] debate. If the important issue is a combination of a cohesive story and relevant songs, Hollywood was making musicals long before [i]Oklahoma![/i] was even thought of. Of course, the origins of few art forms are traceable to a specific moment and a specific work, and there are often arguments decades after the fact as to whether certain works qualify or not. Definitions can be slippery things. In fact, there are people who will argue the definition of a movie musical. However, I will say that this only barely meets my standards for a "book musical," in that I don't think the songs are as well integrated as people keep telling me they are.
Count Alfred Renard (Maurice Chevalier) is a military attaché from the imaginary country of It Doesn't Matter. He is stationed in Paris, which he loves. This being pre-Code, it is a joke that he's sleeping around, and with married women to boot. His conduct is considered so appalling that the ambassador (E. H. Calvert) sends him home again. In part because one of the women he's sleeping with is the ambassador's wife. At home, Queen Louise (Jeanette MacDonald) is being pressured to marry by her advisors, as single queens generally are. However, she points out that few men are inclined to just sit around and let their wives run things. A man wouldn't marry a woman for a crown if the crown didn't come with any power. But she meets Alfred, and he seems like enough of a gadabout that he'd welcome a cushy chance to have no responsibility. He thinks he'd like that, too. But of course if he did, hilarity would not ensue. In that 1929 hilarity where it's vaguely uncomfortable to the modern perspective.
Arguably, this movie should hold a record or tie for a record or something for percentage of Oscars it was nominated for. This is because there were a lot fewer Oscars in those days; it was eligible for all of them. Jeanette MacDonald wasn't nominated for Best Actress, and the screenplay wasn't nominated, either. It didn't win any, but it was nominated for the remaining six. This year, there are twenty-four categories. The highest total number any given film is eligible for is eighteen, though no movie has ever been nominated for that many. If it had, that would be the same percentage, and maybe digging around would produce another film which managed to be nominated in three-quarters of that year's categories. It would have had to have been a long time ago, though, probably not long after this one came out. [i]Return of the King[/i] was nominated for fewer than half in its eligible year.
The film makes the point that Queen Louise is treating her husband like a wife. She schedules him bridge and tennis and tells him to take a nap in the afternoon. Her servants won't take any commands from him. They won't even bring his breakfast until she is there, and if I saw that right, he didn't get breakfast when it was established that she wasn't coming. What the film never considers is that maybe a wife wouldn't have been happy with that, either. Yes, it's a shame that his talents were wasted when he wanted to do more. He produces a balanced budget which won't require the loan the country is trying to procure from I think Afghanistan, and they refuse to even look at it. That's wrong. But would it be any better if Maurice Chevalier had refused to look at a budget Jeanette MacDonald had produced?
I will say that it's a lot more civilized than it used to be. When Alfred gets frustrated, he decides to move to Paris. He's going to get a divorce. Oh, it may well bankrupt her country--since they're ignoring that budget he produced--but it's still all he plans to do. Whereas This sort of thing brings to my mind the battle Mary Queen of Scots had with her second husband. He was declared king, but it seems there were two kinds of king in those days. He was king consort, but he wanted to be king regnant. She had excellent reasons for not giving it to him, though it still didn't buy her reign that much time. I think, though, that it was his desire for it and her desire for him which brought her down. I guess the main difference here is that Alfred wasn't as much of a petulant child. Adolescent, yes. A little more rightfully upset, honestly. But it would never occur to him to do all the things Darnley did to his wife, which is good for both Alfred and Louise and for her kingdom.