Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Cast: Miriam Hopkins, Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert
I’ve commented numerous times on these boards on how much I dislike Mo Chevalier. I saw a thread the other day entitled “Celebrities you’d like to punch in the face” and the French actor came immediately to mind. So it is a measure of my devotion to the great Hopkins that I would sit through another musical with him as a headliner. And am I glad that I saw The Smiling Lieutenant last night! It was brilliant.
The movie’s setting is Vienna, early 20th century. Chevalier plays a young lieutenant named Niki who is a real wolf with the ladies. He joins a friend for an adult beverage at a local beer garden and comes across a beautiful violinist known as Franzi (Claudette Colbert). She is performing on stage with her band The Swallows and her playing is mellifluous. Even during the number Franzi and Niki are flirting via eye contact. The two strike up a scorching romance and it would seem that the lieutenant’s lecherous ways have been thrown aside. One day while attending a royal entrance as platoon leader, Chevalier’s character spots his sweetheart waving at him from across the street. Since he is standing at attention, he can only smile and acknowledge her with a wink. At that very moment, Princess Anna of Flausenthurm (Hopkins) is passing by in her carriage and she mistakenly takes Niki’s wink as a lewd gesture meant for her. She is outraged and impresses upon the king — her father — the importance of a punishment for this insolent military man.
When Niki reaches the Viennese royal home where Anna and her father are visiting for diplomatic reasons, his smooth charm and excessive compliments toward Hopkins’ character slowly win her over. Forget punishment, the princess wants Niki all for herself. Without consulting the lieutenant himself, Anna demands that the king let her marry the lowly military man “… or I’ll marry an American!” Our lead is railroaded into a marriage he never wanted and he is heartsick for his beloved Franzi. Chevalier’s character is miserable with his new bride and despite her advances, he fails to consummate the marriage. Beside herself with grief, Franzi goes to the Flausenthurm castle to appeal to the princess. When she sees Anna, Colbert’s kind character sees how sweet and really naive the young girl is. The princess bears her soul to Franzi about Niki’s lack of sexual interest in her. Since this is a Lubitsch musical, the two girls have a bonding experience through their mutual love of music culminating in the wonderful tune “Jazz up your Lingerie.” The ending involves a selfless gesture and such an original twist that it could only have come from the Pre-Code era.
The Smiling Lieutenant is by far the best example I know of “The Lubitsch Touch.” There is an opening scene where a taylor seeking payment rings Niki’s doorbell several times and leaves when the door goes unanswered. Immediately afterword a beautiful young woman clandestinely gives a secretive knock on the same door and the lieutenant lets her in at once. There is a pause and then Lubitsch’s camera pans to an overhead light that suddenly illuminates. There’s also some clever business about the location of the pillows on the royal bed. Another hilarious sequence captures Niki as he is hounding Franzi for sex. She playfully suggests that they play checkers and she sets the board on the table. Chevalier’s character tosses it on the floor. She then sits next to the game board patiently waiting for him to join her. This flirtaiton continues around the room until the lieutenant brazenly tosses the board onto the bed. After a holding closeup shot of the bed, the two lovers look at each other with big grins.
If I were to rate this film it would be in my top five Hopkins pictures. As good as Chevalier and Colbert are, Hopkins is unbelievable as Princess Anna. Her transformation at the end of the picture is unforgettable and it is pure Lubitsch. See this great musical and you won’t regret it.