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Year: 1931

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.

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1932

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Cast: Miriam Hopkins, Herbert Marshall, Kay Francis

Since Valentines Day is tomorrow I tried to brainstorm on which films I’ve seen that best exemplify aspects of both romance and cinema from Hollywood’s Classic Era. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen it recently or the fact tha I just completed a Miriam Hopkins countdown on another website, but Trouble in Paradise hits the sweet spot. The acting, direction, and narrative thread for this film are such a potent combination that Lubitsch’s great comedy is considered among the best movies ever made. But enough of that already, lets get to the romance: you get two great love stories for the price of one here. Although Marshall and Francis never consummate their attraction physically, the perfume heiress and the thief share several moments where you swear they are making love mentally. It is Hopkins’ grifter that holds the key to Marshall’s heart, however. They were made for each other and when Hopkins lets out a squeal of joy upon hearing Marshall’s commitment, it is an affirmation that romance isn’t dead. If you’re looking for a good Valentines Day movie to watch this weekend, look no further. This is the picture.

Here’s a review of Trouble in Paradise that I wrote on January 15th of this year:

This movie is a scream.

It is said that this is Lubitsch’s favorite of all the films he made and boy, you can see why. If someone were to ask me what the best example of a Pre-Code comedy is, Trouble in Paradise comes immediately to mind.

MH (Lily) plays a jewel thief who poses as a visiting aristocrat in Venice. She meets Gaston Monescu — played wonderfully by Herbert Marshall — the greatest jewel thief in the world who is pulling the same charade. He arranges for a private dinner in his suite. As the two discuss the banalities of being a baron or countess of the aristocratic class, Lily confesses that she found out he really is the great Monescu and not only is she not disappointed, but she is proud of her chosen profession. What follows is a show of affection and then, in my opinion, the best scene of the film. Each thief starts to reveal what they’ve stolen from their counterpart in a strip poker-esque, escalating exchange culminating in a coup de grace for Gaston. These two thieves were made for each other.

The lovers quickly establish a grift partnership and the road eventually leads to Paris. They seek out the recently widowed Mariette Colet (Kay Francis) whose deceased husband left her the largest perfume manufacturer in France. Gaston scams his way into Mariette’s circle via his considerable charm and hutzpah. Having already stolen her diamond-encrusted purse, Marshall’s character returns it only after a reward is offered. So impressed with his “honesty” and candor, Mrs. Colet hires him as her personal business secretary. To set the con in place, Gaston brings Lily onboard as his assistant. When our protagonist learns that his boss keeps $100,000 French francs in her house safe, the prize is in sight.

To really sell the scheme, the jewel thief does more than just flirt with Mariette. He rolls his sleaves up and discovers some improprieties that have occurred under current management. It is clear that Francis’ widow has strong sexual urges where her new secretary is concerned. While Gaston starts out encouraging her behavior as a necessary part of a successful heist, he becomes quite attracted to the perfume magnate. Hopkins’ assistant is quite jealous of all the unprofessional attention this woman is showering on her man. Yet like a pro, she keeps her eye on the ball and gains Mariette’s confidence. When a previous theft victim recognizes Monescu and then the firm’s chairman of the board accuses him of embezzlement, the thieves fear the jig is up. Amazingly, Madame Colet defends her secretary and they are in the clear even if the window of opportunity has shrunk.

Gaston and Lily agree on the big night, one where Francis’ character will be out on the town for a social commitment. But Marshall’s thief, so smitten with his target’s appeal, can’t resist arranging to consummate their mutual attraction. When Lily finds out about this impending tryst, she is furious and steals the safe’s valuables herself. When Gaston discovers what his partner has done out of jealousy on his behalf, he decides to come clean (sort of) with his employer. He claims to have stolen the $100,000 francs himself, confesses that he is really Monescu the notorious jewel thief, reveals that he can prove her chairman of the board has been embezzling funds for years, and that despite all that’s gone on, he still loves her. Lily comes clean and strikes a bargain with Mariette: she’ll give permission to Gaston for a conjugal visit if she can keep the money she stole. At that moment, Monescu realizes there is truly only one woman who possesses his heart. He tastefully declines the proposition and joins his beloved enroute to the next paradise of their choosing.

Right from the opening scene — Lubitsch’s camera establishes we’re in Venice via a medium shot of a trash-laden gondola — we find moments throughout where this great German emigre is winking at the audience. Even the opening title credits begin with “Trouble in…” and you see a picture of a bed before a pause and then the word “Paradise” comes into view. The dialogue sizzles with sexual innuendoes, double entendres, and very adult, intelligent banter. The three primary players are awesome all around. Marshall is especially effective as the handsome rake and irresistable con man. What to say about Hopkins? She’s cute as a button in this great film. To hear her squeal w/ happiness in the final frame when she knows that Gaston is hers, is to experience a slice of heaven. Avoiding Trouble in Paradise is to miss out on arguably the best comedy of the Pre-Code era.

by James White

Year: 1932

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Starring: Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis, Charles Ruggles, Edward Everett Horton, C. Aubrey Smith

Lubitsch was a brilliant director who had a way with stylish, sophisticated, sexy comedies. His films were living, breathing innuendos, winking to the audience slyly. He did his best work with this type of film during the pre-code era where he had more freedom. His most high class and lush comedy of the era is Trouble In Paradise, a clever story about thieves in love.

The most important thing to note about Lubitsch’s films is that the sexuality is mature. Unlike so many films about sex today, the story and characters are sexy because they’re sophisticated and behave with dignity, even when they’re lying and breaking the law. The think so highly of themselves, and even of each other, that everything they do, including sex, is done with respect. These people are adults, and it’s nice to see the subject handled in a mature and adult way.

Because Lubitsch was so sophisticated, his films had very littel physical or slapstick humor. The film is constantly funny, but the humor comes from the people, the situations, and the dialogue. Lubitsch could craft a film around words and dialogue like no one else could. He could make a sentence sound physical, and that kept the films from feeling too dull and ‘talky’.

And, of course, Lubitsch had a gift for picking a cast, and Trouble In Paradise has one of his best. The chemistry captured between the trio is strong and inimitable. Heading up the cast is the always classy Herbert Marshall as the master thief. He’s great with Kay Francis, the wealthy woman he romances with plans to rob, until he falls for her. But as great as Francis is with Marshall, his true match is Miriam Hopkins. Their class and unmatchable chemistry turn the thieves into a pefect duo in love and crime. Even though Francis is great, and her scenes with Marshall are excellent, when you see him with Miriam Hopkins you know that Francis doesn’t have a chance.

While the films certainly deals with themes of sex and attraction, in the end it’s about companionship and love. Francis is just a lonely woman looking for companionship, and even though she’s charming, sweet, and has all the money Marshall could ever want, his match, his soulmate, is Hopkins. Love can’t be bought, and Marshall and Hopkins realize that money isn’t worth risking their relationship, and they come to the conclusing that nothing is better than them together.

By: Katie Richardson