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Miriam Hopkins was one of the bright hopes of Hollywood in the 1930's. She made just 34 films in a forty year career, with her star rising quickly in the 30s (a decade that put her in 23 features) and falling off drastically in the years that followed. Critics and fans alike found her unrestrained acting style "an acquired taste," noting her great talent but feeling little warmth from her on screen. Still, Hopkins had enough going for her in 1931 to triumph over Paramount's reigning actress Claudette Colbert, both on and off screen, in The Smiling Lieutenant.
The film was based on a popular 1907 operetta called A Waltz Dream by Leopold Jacobson and Felix Doermann with music by Austrian composer Oscar Straus. The original source material had been a short story called The Prince Consort, which many believe was inspired by the real life romance between Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert. A silent film version of the tale would be made in Germany in 1926. But The Smiling Lieutenant was to be the first sound adaptation, and as such, with "talking pictures" still a very new phenomenon in 1930, the film features a minimum of dialogue scenes. Still, the operetta's songs remain intact, with upstart Miriam Hopkins (in only her second film) swapping tunes with stars Colbert and Maurice Chevalier.
Colbert and Chevalier had already starred in The Big Pond (1930) and would appear together in Make Me a Star in 1932. The Smiling Lieutenant was Colbert's ninth film. Nonetheless, when she and Hopkins both stated they only wished to be filmed from the right side, the newcomer Hopkins won out. As his biography Laughter in Paradise tells it, "Lubitsch liked Miriam Hopkins; he may have been the only person in show business who did. Certainly, she was the right physical type to attract him, but it would seem that Hopkins managed to simultaneously entice him and keep him at arm's length." And for Hopkins this partiality made for quite an advantage. "She was as pleased as a kitten with a new ball of yarn," it was said of Hopkins after winning her right profile dispute with Colbert. Lubitsch also went on to cast Hopkins in two more films -- Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Design For Living (1933).
Colbert wasn't fazed by Lubitsch's attentions to Hopkins. She would always call him her favorite director and the two would work together again on Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938). And it seems Colbert was able to laugh off the incident with Miriam Hopkins and bore the actress no ill will. But others in Hollywood were less tolerant of Hopkins' ways. As photographer John Engstead recalled unfavorably, "you should have seen how cute she was with Ernst Lubitsch. And [::tcm::OB]he[::tcm::CB] never saw through [::tcm::OB]her[::tcm::CB]." Not only did Hopkins become known for her narcissism, but also for being tardy on sets and poorly prepared - all of which apparently led to a public reprimand by the usually tactful Edward G. Robinson. And when Hopkins settled at Warner Bros. in 1939, the studio played up (what was probably a real) feud between Hopkins (reduced to playing second fiddle) and Bette Davis for publicity purposes. The two actresses were teamed in The Old Maid (1939) and Old Acquaintance (1943), and thanks to the studio's strategy, the scene in Old Acquaintance where Davis finally gives Hopkins a good shaking was eagerly anticipated by the audience.
Hopkins' second victory over Colbert in The Smiling Lieutenant occurred on screen, where her character and Colbert's go after the same man. It may feel to audiences like the wrong girl (Hopkins) gets her man, but at least the more worldly Colbert gets in a good, pre-code line with, "girls who start with breakfast don't usually stay for supper." The Smiling Lieutenant would go on to be nominated for Best Picture, losing out to Grand Hotel (1932). Hopkins most memorable role came in 1935's Becky Sharp, the first film made in three-strip Technicolor and Hopkins' only Oscar nomination. Colbert would, of course, win the Oscar in 1934 for It Happened One Night, as well as receive two more Best Actress nominations. So it's easy to see who came out on top in the end.
Producer: Ernst Lubitsch
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Henri Bataille, Ernst Lubitsch, Samson Raphaelson, Ernest Vajda
Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Film Editing: Merrill G. White
Art Direction: Hans Dreier
Music: Oscar Straus
Cast: Maurice Chevalier (Lt. Niki), Claudette Colbert (Franzi), Miriam Hopkins (Princess Anna), Charles Ruggles (Max), George Barbier (King Adolf XV), Hugh O'Connell (Orderly).
by Stephanie Thames