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This film is sheer perfection - the Lubitsch Touch is here in spades. This
must be one of the most charming films ever made, and it is technically
brilliant too for the early talkie era. A fabulous show-case for the
talents of three new Paramount stars - Maurice Chevalier has never been
better, Claudette Colbert is buoyant - and Miriam Hopkins is an absolute
marvel as the innocent princess. When will she be given the adulation she
deserves - certainly one of the best actresses of her generation. And
George Barbier is also brilliant as her father.
This film could only have been made in the pre-code days - it is very very naughty. The mating pillows is only one example of many sexual innuendos and symbols. But it is all too charming to be offensive to even the most prudish person. One of the best films of the early Thirties.
There is more real sexuality between male and female in five minutes of a Lubitsch musical than in two and a half hours of any average film you're likely to see today. Needless to say, there is no nudity. It's all done with innuendo and the extraordinary degree of energy and physical magnetism that Lubitsch manages to elicit from all his actors. For once in a film, you actually feel that these extremely attractive young people can hardly wait to go to bed with each other, and when they do (off-screen of course) the result is transformative. When they burst out in song, as they do on the slightest provocation in a Lubitsch musical, it is because they are full of emotions they can no longer contain. There's nothing dirty or smutty whatsoever in the Lubitsch Touch, as there is sometimes in the work of his disciple Billy Wilder. Lubitsch's characters explode with life, the joy of being young and in love. There are many great film directors, but not one has ever been able to create the kind of sexual energy that Lubitsch puts into all his films. Silly as the plots may be, mediocre as most of the songs are, his films bristle with the romance and humor of life.
Lubitsch's third great musical is perhaps his most immoral, along with
Hour With You". The screenplay by Ernest Vajda and Samson Raphaelson is
replete with the occasional Lubitschian double entendres and naughtiness.
The film often recalls the lilting grace of Lubitsch's "The Love Parade"
it also looks ahead to the ironic romantic triangle of Lubitsch's lauded
masterpiece "Trouble in Paradise".
Here, Chavalier's Lieutenant Niki is torn between an aristocratic princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins) and a working class violinist Franzi (Claudette Colbert), the same way Herbert Marshall's Gaston in "Trouble in Paradise" must choose either Kay Francis's wealthy Madame Colete or his fellow thief, Miriam Hopkin's Lily. But there is a difference. In "Trouble in Paradise", Gaston abandons Mme. Colete for Lily, but in "Smiling Lieutenant", Chevalier unconditionally accepts his forced romance with Anna. At first, Niki is happily fond of Franzi who is introduced to him by his friend Max (Charlie Ruggles, who played one of rejected suitors in "Trouble in Paradise"). But ultimately he is forced to marry princess Anna of the neighboring kingdom of Flausenthurm. The love scenes between lieutenant Niki and Franzi are incredibly charming and flavorsome, while the marriage of Niki and Princess Anna seems unpleasant and uninspired. But the film's charm or brilliance lies in its joyous musical numbers and songs, and its ironic immoral look at its characters. Irony and cynicism are key to understanding Lubitsch's art, especially his works of the early 30s, and "Smiling Lieutenant" is no exception. There is, for instance, an irony and immorality in the lovely number "Jazz Up Your Lingerie", as Princess Anna tries to emulate Franzi in order to look sexy for Niki.
"The Smiling Lieutenant" remains Lubitsch's most underrated musical. Not many people have seen it. It deserves to be seen and compared with Lubitsch's later works, particularly "Trouble in Paradise."
Beat until thick a highly libidinous young officer of the Guards. Sift
together and stir in a pompous little king and his dowdy princess
daughter. Whip in gradually a lovely female violinist. Gently fold in
some beautiful music and a liberal amount of highly suggestive
dialogue. Lightly bake in a mythical kingdom for 88 minutes. The
results - THE SMILING LIEUTENANT.
Director Ernst Lubitsch created a triumph in this scintillating pre-Code film which is as light and airy now as it was when first released. Replete with wonderful performances & an effervescent script, it is still sophisticated and remarkably frank. Lubitsch relied heavily on the intelligence of his audience. He knew that a delicate touch would be appreciated by those able to anticipate & understand the nuances of his humor. The fact that this worked so beautifully with both his dialogue and the film music - (songs and background music, which serve to move the plot right along) - only one year after Hollywood fully embraced sound pictures shows the genius of the director's craft.
Oozing Gallic charm, Maurice Chevalier lets his musical skills and highly facile face telegraph to the audience exactly what kind of an amorous rogue his character is. Madly in love with the beautiful Claudette Colbert, but forced to wed the (slightly) frumpy Miriam Hopkins, he is highly amusing as he watches his romantic house of cards come crashing down. The ladies also add greatly to the fun, with sleek Colbert advising pouty Hopkins in song to jazz up her lingerie if she wants to win Chevalier's attentions. (The idea that Hopkins must transform into a wanton woman to entice her husband to commence his connubial responsibilities is dubious at best.)
George Barbier plays the easily offended corpulent King of Flausenthurm. Wonderful character actor Charlie Ruggles is hilarious in the small role of the officer who wishes to woo Colbert first. Movie mavens will recognize an uncredited Elizabeth Patterson as the elderly baroness attending on the Princess.
Once more, thanks to TCM, we get the chance of watching this wonderful,
charming, early talkie by the master of sophisticated comedy and innuendo,
This is an absolutely entertaining and absorbing tale of a carefree, debonair Viennese Lieutenant, who falls for a violin player, thus finding his perfect sexual counterpart, but because of circumstances, becoming married to a prudish, mousey, princess.
Chevalier is the perfect "Smiling Lieutenant" of the title, singing in great from with his heavy trademark, french-accent. Colbert, in an early stage of her career, looks very different from her definitive trademark "Look", she acquired afterwards.....but is equally carefree, joyous and flirtatious. Miriam Hopkins is excellent as the princess, who falls madly in love with Chevalier, and who will do anything to have him!!
Just as it happened with "Trouble in Paradise", I really hope that this gem, as well as "Design for Living", "Monte Carlo", "The Love Parade", "Love Me Tonight", "One Hour With You", will become available on DVD, in decent form, as they deserve, as primary examples, of the long gone Pre-Code Era!!!
If you like cotton candy, or maybe a marshmallow sundae with sprinkles and a cherry on top, this picture will be among your favorites. What could be more appealing than a Lubitsch romantic comedy with its characteristic sly innuendos? Perhaps one that is set in a palace, with uniformed guards, ladies-in-waiting, and pageantry that no one takes seriously. More appealing than that? All of the above, with music. Want more? The casting is perfect: a flirtatious, mugging Chevalier; a young and nicely naughty Claudette Colbert; and most notably Miriam Hopkins effectively playing the extremes - a prim, virginal innocent who learns the ways of a vamp in order to hold her man. As her father, George Barbier contributes impressively, too. Great fun; one of Lubitsch's best.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The smiling Lieutenant begins as a sweet,funny and old fashioned
operetta and finishes as one of the most daring,surprising and
irresistible musicals of all time.I'ts Lubitsch at his best:a sort of
Ninotchka of his musical period.
The story is simple: a seductive lieutenant is in love with a musician,Franzi.When he smiled to her during the passage of a little country's princess,the princess interpret wrongly his intention and decide to marry him.Some months later,unhappy husband of a unhappy wife he find Franzi again...But spoilers herein and here is the most brilliant point of the script:Chevalier doesn't end with Franzi but his own wife after the musician gave her some "lessons" of seduction.
The actors are all quite good:Maurice Chevalier is as charming and funny as always.Claudette Colbert great in one of her earlier performance.And she shows a barely known talent for singing.But I think the first prize comes to the Miriam Hopkins,in the princess's part she is just magnificent.She's as convincing as the cute and old falhsioned dove as the femme fatale.I've already seen a bit of his comic talent in "Trouble in Paradise" in which she does an exhilarating naive secretary .She's even better there. Charlie Ruggles does a nice although too short demonstration of his comic talent.
There's not so much song in it but they're all great.The lieutenant "Ra-Ta-Ta-Ta'" acts as a pleasant leitmotiv."Breakfast is time for love" has the soft charm of One Hour With You.But my favorite stays "Jazz Up Your Lingerie"Certainly one of the greatest number of all time!
Among some movie buffs, there is a line of thought about Gene Kelly that he comes off as an unlikeable and smug jerk. Those people have never seen a film starring Maurice Chevalier. Kelly might stalk you until you fall for him, and a little more creepily than Fred Astaire would, but at least you know he'd probably stick around afterward. Chevalier, not so much. Behind that gigantic smile lies a snake. His thick French accent may have been sexy back in the day, but hearing it now just ups his jerk percentage higher and higher. Honestly, though, I love the guy. He's such a goofy character. He may be a cad, but he's an entertaining one. I shake my head at how naughty he is, but always with a grin on my lips. Chevalier is at his most delightfully awful in The Smiling Lieutenant, playing a philandering Viennese officer currently courting violinist Claudette Colbert. During a ceremony honoring royalty visiting from postage stamp-sized Flausenthurm, Chevalier smiles, laughs and winks at Colbert. The princess of Flausenthurm (Miriam Hopkins) catches it, thinks its for her, and demands that something be done about it. Queue the shotgun wedding, and Maurice is in hot water, now wedded to a wet blanket and in love with a hot tomato. The movie is pretty raunchy by 1931 standards. Unsurprisingly, the film was considered lost for many years. I'm sure the Hayes Code enforcers would have been quite happy with burning every print. There's a ton of sex being had by the characters, and there's a whole song dedicated to women's underwear. Seriously. Claudette Colbert teaches Miriam Hopkins about modern fashions in "Jazz Up Your Lingerie", easily the best number in the film and, in my mind, one of the weirdest and most entertaining in cinema history. I'd have to do some extensive looking into all the musicals I've ever seen, but I'd estimate that this is top five material. Hopkins completely steals the movie. The liner notes in the Eclipse Lubitsch Musicals set claims that it is her first film, but IMDb lists at least one earlier feature. The plot is very silly; one wouldn't imagine that it could contain any real emotion. But I actually did feel for Hopkins after Chevalier refused to sleep with her on their wedding night. This is where you can't help but hate Maurice. I also liked George Barbier, who plays Hopkins' father. And one of my favorite character actors, Charles Ruggles, appears very briefly at the beginning.
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.
"The Lubitsch touch" was all the rage at the start of Hollywood's Talkie era, which is why musical trifles such as this one or the preceding THE LOVE PARADE (1929) skilfully made and pleasantly risqué though they might be ended up being major Academy Award contenders for a spell. In fact, the film under review got its sole Oscar nod for Best Picture an achievement which would become virtually impossible in a decade's time. Popular Continental crooner Maurice Chevalier plays his typical role of a Viennese roué who steals the girl (an almost unrecognizably young Claudette Colbert appearing as a concert violinist) of his comrade-in-arms (Charles Ruggles, who unaccountably disappears from the film after the first few scenes!); standing guard at the ceremony of visiting royalty, he creates a diplomatic scandal for seemingly winking at the naïve princess (Miriam Hopkins) when in fact he had been making eyes at Colbert who was watching the parade from the sidelines! To make amends, he is forced to marry Hopkins but he is not about to be tied down to a life of luxurious boredom and slips out in the commoner's uniform of straw hat and tuxedo for a night on the town every chance he gets; in the meantime, the flustered King comforts his lonesome daughter by playing chess in her boudoir! Colbert and her bandmates give a recital in Chevalier's kingdom and she finds herself invited to the Palace but it's Hopkins who summoned her to seek advice on how to ignite Chevalier's passion! Curiously enough, Chevalier had been unusually loyal to Colbert instead of his usual roving self and it is only on the latter's advice (and her involvement in Hopkins' jazzy makeover) that he finally abides willingly to his marital duties. As is customary for Lubitsch, what is left unsaid is about as important as what is spelled out and THE SMILING LIEUTENANT provides the director several instances wherein to indulge his subtle wit: the very opening sequence showing a tailor, who had called at Chevalier's to demand payment, leaving when the door is unanswered while a girl is ushered inside soon afterwards by the accomplice-butler; the sequence showing Ruggles trailing behind Chevalier and Colbert and carrying her violin case; Colbert's indoctrination of the stuffy Hopkins into what the modern woman wears and which music she plays, etc.
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