But not movies. While I've been at home recovering, I've watched tons of old movies and have a stack of notes on my desk. So, let's brighten up this dry spell with the above marquee announcement of my return (OK, I'm stretching) with the delightful "The Smiling Lieutenant," a 1931 musical from director Ernst Lubitsch starring Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins.
While "Lieutenant" isn't quite as good as "The Merry Widow," the 1934 Lubitsch-Chevalier-MacDonald MGM film that I blogged about last summer, this is a charmer. Chevalier plays the title character, Niki, a lieutenant with an eye for the ladies. He falls in love with Franzi (Colbert, above), a violinist in an all-female band. However, while on duty, Niki flirts with Franzi, and Princess Anna (Hopkins), a dowdy visiting dignitary, misinterprets his flirting as a joke. In order to save his life, Niki lies to her father, the King of Flausenthurm, that he finds his daughter delightful. Anna expects nothing less than marriage, so the king arranges for Niki to marry her. This breaks his heart and Franzi's. However, their affair doesn't end, which causes the princess to wonder why her dashing husband doesn't care about her.
Lubitsch brings his usual style and lightness to the material, emphasizing the quick wit and sexual interplay. In fact, despite the creation of the Production Code, it wasn't fully enforced yet (that would come in 1934), because the studios knew what sold tickets. So, there are some racy scenes in this movie. It's clear that the unmarried Niki and Franzi live together. At one point, when she realizes that Niki must leave her to marry the princess, Franzi sneaks into his apartment to pick up her things, including a negligee. And, one of the best songs comes toward the end. When Anna confronts Franzi about her ongoing affair with Niki, Franzi responds by criticizing Anna's drab wardrobe. Then together they sing "Jazz Up Your Lingerie"!
Chevalier, still under contract to Paramount, brings his usual charms to this film. At this point in his career, I don't think Chevalier cared about doing much else than a variation on his music hall persona. And, frankly, when it's done this well, why should we care? It's fun to see that same persona on display nearly 30 years later in "Gigi."
Colbert is great fun, but the one that surprised me was Hopkins (above). This was one of her first films and it shot her to the top ranks at Paramount. I've always found her style monotonous. However, this film -- combined with strong work in "The Heiress," which I reviewed last year -- gave me a new appreciation for her. She is headstrong and funny -- very funny. She mines the humor in the script for what it's worth.
What I really admire about "The Smiling Lieutenant" is how well it's held up with the passage of time. I find many early sound films to be static -- either they lack movement or are too talky. Lubitsch moves us through the story with ease, and it feels light and fun. It's also of note that the three stars filmed a French language version of this film. In the early years of sound before dubbing or subtitles took place, the studios would make foreign-language versions of their films.
"The Smiling Lieutenant" received one Oscar nomination, and it was for Best Picture, and in retrospect nicely deserved. It's a winner and an early sound film worth seeing. Trust me, it will make you smile.