Sunday, April 25, 2010

Smile Smile Smile

Has it really been since April 5 since I've posted an entry? Shame on me. But between work, teaching and a lingering illness from which I am improving each week (I can't divulge all of my secrets, can I?), the blog got away from me.

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.


  1. Glad you're back! Missed you! Q.

  2. I saw this not too long ago and liked it too, as I have everything directed by Lubitsch that I've seen so far. I definitely agree that it's a cut below "The Merry Widow" but still worthwhile. One thing I really enjoyed was Chevalier mugging and singing directly to the camera, a link between the music hall and cinema. I love Colbert, and this was one of her best early roles I've seen. She's so sophisticated and funny, and her duet with the mousy Hopkins about jazzing up her lingerie to make herself more sexy was for me the high point of the film. Hope to see you write more about Lubitsch in the future.

  3. I enjoyed this film alot also. Like you I never cared for Miriam Hopkins, but that's mainly through seeing her in Warner Bros. films, where I found her very brittle, stirdent and a chore to watch.

    She may be Errol Flynn's worst leading lady. They look so uncomfortable together in "Virginia City." She's about as convincing as a Confederate spy as John Wayne would be as 007. Their romantic scenes together are tough to watch.

    But she's great in "Smiling Lieutenant", and "Trouble in Paradise" and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." She's heartbreaking in "These Three." So watching those 1930s films really changed my opinion of her.

    "Jazz Up Your Lingerie" has to be one of the greatest song titles of all time. Nice song too.

  4. Hi RD, Thanks for the compliments. Hopefully I will write about Lubitsch more. He is a favorite of mine. Kevin, agree with everything.