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Lieutenant Niki of the Austrian royal guard has a new girlfriend, Franzi. He's crazy about her and is smiling at her while on duty in the street. King Adolf and his daughter Princess Anna from the neighboring kingdom of Flausenthurm drive by, and Anna intercepts a wink meant for Franzi. She falls for Niki, marries him (he has no choice in the matter), and whisks him off to Flausenthurm. Franzi follows and enjoys a brief affair with Niki before Anna finds out. Franzi, much more experienced in the ways of the world, gives Anna lessons on how to win the affections of her husband. Written by
John Oswalt <firstname.lastname@example.org>
In that era we rather misleadingly call "pre-code", infringements against the production code (which was fully in existence, just lacking in enforcement) came in all shapes and sizes. While some producers titillated their audiences with tentative nudity or shocked them with frank portrayals of infidelity and prostitution, others used delicate but potentially more flagrant transgressions of innuendo. It was at Paramount studios, in the pictures of Ernst Lubitsch, that innuendo was taken to astounding new heights of creative expressiveness.
Of course, Lubitsch was and still is known for his tact in implying the unspoken, but he did not operate in a vacuum. The Smiling Lieutenant was his first collaboration with screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, and while Lubitsch was no doubt the driving personality behind his famous "touch", it seems Raphaelson (who would have a hand in most of the director's subsequent hits) thought enough along the same lines to make the pictures he wrote by far the most "touched". So while Lubitsch gives us visual clues such as the young lady using a secret knock to get into Maurice Chevalier's room, followed by a close-up of a light going on and off, it was probably Raphaelson who contributed some of that witty wordplay that adequately sets the tone. My favourite example of this has to be Chevalier's reply to Miriam Hopkins asking if married people winked; "Oh they do, but not at each other!" And then there are Clifford Grey's lyrics, which playfully delve into some of the more inventive innuendo, most memorably in "Breakfast Table Love".
Chevalier is the perfect star for this kind of understated ribaldry. He has a "touch" of his own, in the way he smiles and raises his eyebrows, that curiously yet alluring treads the line between lecherous and charming. His appearance here, after the disappointing Monte Carlo with Jack Buchanan, demonstrates how important the right kind of actor is for such a role. If Jack Buchanan invited you to breakfast, you'd think he was making a polite offer to pop round in the morning for tea and toast. When Maurice Chevalier invites you to breakfast, there is absolutely no doubt that he wants you to spend the night, and frankly doesn't care what you fancy eating the next morning! Claudette Colbert makes a great screen partner for Chevalier. She is not quite the talented singer that Jeanette MacDonald is, but she has a slinkiness to her that suits the story's undertones, and would later be exploited by Cecil B. DeMille in Sign of the Cross and Cleopatra. This may be one of her earlier roles, but she shows a great confidence and maturity about her that is perfect for the part. The third corner of The Smiling Lieutenant's love triangle is Miriam Hopkins. Hopkins is sometimes mistaken for a bad actress. This is not the case. She is in fact an excellent ham, as were Charles Laughton and John Barrymore, by no means a subtle or realistic player, but nevertheless utterly captivating in the right role. She is excellent here as the naïve and frumpy young princess, displaying her finest comedic sensibilities.
The Smiling Lieutenant contains only five songs, far fewer than previous Lubitsch musicals. With the exception of "Jazz Up Your Lingerie", the numbers also seem far less integral to the narrative than they were in Monte Carlo (which by the way is the best in terms of musical direction and integration, albeit the worst in every other respect). And yet this is a very consistently musical production. In 1931 it was still unusual for pictures to feature incidental music, and ironically the early talkies were often genuinely silent whenever the actors stopped talking. The Smiling Lieutenant however is scored almost from its first minute to its last. Contrary to the later practice of writing all music after filming wrapped, I suspect the incidental scoring may have been prepared beforehand and even played on the set. In particular Claudette Colbert's poignant abandonment of Chevalier seems almost choreographed to its sweeping string arrangement.
When such backing scores became commonplace, they sometimes actually spoiled a picture's integrity, blaring out emotional cues for each scene when none was required. But for The Smiling Lieutenant it is a positive bonus, providing a light and lyrical setting for the many wordless moments. And this of course is all the better for those neatly constructed vignettes of unspoken innuendo, sly winks at the audience that are so fabulously clever they are a delight in themselves.
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