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The Smiling Lieutenant

The Smiling Lieutenant(1931)

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Home Video Reviews

Eclipse's Lubitsch Musicals DVD box pulls together the director's first sound films, four comedies that introduced new ideas to the movie musical. Lubitsch's characters break out into songs that relate to the characters and advance the story line. Sometimes the spoken dialogue rhymes, and at other times Maurice Chevalier's leading man addresses the camera directly, explaining to the American audience the 'Frenchness' of what they are seeing. Lubitsch leaves none of his silent comedy techniques behind; his sly visual tricks translate to sound without complications. These pre-Code wonders have a refreshingly liberated attitude toward sex, enshrining the bedroom as an affectionate playground for adults -- one of the films reserves a joyful close-up for a bed! Although the films tend toward the maxim that the male must dominate in amorous relations, they also throw conventional morals to the wind, to the point of condoning infidelity as essentially harmless. Chevalier smiles, shrugs his shoulders and asks, in song of course, "Wouldn't you do it too?"

1929's The Love Parade establishes the Lubitsch musical comedy format; the only thing slowing it down are a few too many unmemorable songs. Lubitsch paired Maurice Chevalier (in his second talkie) with Jeanette MacDonald, a fresh face and voice from Philadelphia. In the mythical country of Sylvania, Queen Louise (MacDonald) marries young Count Renard (Chevalier), a diplomat recalled from Paris for having too many notorious affairs. Renard is likewise smitten, but he rebels at being relegated to the powerless position of Queen's Consort. He withholds his presence at formal ceremonies until Louise breaks down and acknowledges his masculine rights.

Lubitch begins in Paris with an almost wordless sequence involving a jealous husband and a mock suicide attempt. Renard retains an amused 'French' attitude through it all, trusting that everything will work out. Back in Sylvania, Louise is badgered by her ministers to take a husband; she worries about spinsterhood until smoothie Renard arrives for punishment and stays for a seduction. As an added treat, the royal romance is mirrored by servants Lupino Lane (a clever music hall-type performer) and Lillian Roth, whose smiling eyes have hanky-panky written all over them. Lubitsch invests this trifle with delicate comic timing, emphasizing MacDonald's mischievous antics and Chevalier's relaxed self-assurance. MacDonald is frequently on display wearing elaborate nightgowns and filmy undergarments, an aspect of the film that surely attracted both male and female viewers. Hays Code? What Hays Code? Although not as saucy as the later films, The Love Parade delivers a new kind of screen entertainment.

1930's Monte Carlo must do without Chevalier, replacing him with Jack Buchanan, a refined Englishman with plenty of talent but little in the way of sex appeal. Buchanan is now known almost exclusively through his performance in Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon, over twenty years later. Lubitsch compensates by giving Jeanette MacDonald more sexy business (& lingerie) and much better music. MacDonald debuts the hit song Beyond the Blue Horizon in a speeding train. We're told that 1930 audiences marveled at the excitement generated when angles of the moving locomotive were edited in time with the melody.

The plot has Countess Helene Mara (MacDonald) bolting from the altar and fleeing to Monte Carlo, where she loses all her money at roulette yet takes a suite in an expensive hotel. Unable arrange a proper introduction, Count Rudolph Falliere (Buchanan) poses as a hairdresser to be near Helene, and soon replaces most of her servants. By the time the Countess's foppish fiancé shows up, Falliere is also accompanying Helene out on the town. Helene figures she'll have to give up Rudy for financial reasons, until her hairdresser reveals his true identity.

Double-entendres abound as Rudy finds excuses not to cut Helene's hair. Improved songs comment on the story with earthy wit: a chorus chirps the rude lyric, "He's a nas, he's a nas, he's a nasty-tempered brute!" Buchanan isn't as charismatic as Chevalier but he plays Lubitsch's visual gags to the hilt. Rudolph follows Helene to the casino's doors, claiming that if she rubs his hair, she'll have good luck. Helene ignores him and slams the door in his face. But when he turns back to signal failure, the door opens just long enough for Helene's hand to pop out and give Rudy's head a pat!

The visual, verbal and sexual invention continues in 1931's The Smiling Lieutenant, a fast-moving farce that constructs a romantic triangle by bracketing Chevalier with two new sweethearts. Viennese Lieutenant Niki Von Preyn (Chevalier) falls madly in love with Franzi (irresistible Claudette Colbert), a violinist in a popular beer garden band. Their romance is blissful until Niki inadvertently winks and smiles at Franzi just as a carriage carrying foreign royalty passes between them. Naíve Princess Anna of Flausenthurm (Miriam Hopkins) concludes that Niki has slighted her, and her furious father demands satisfaction. Anna instead makes Niki her companion during their Viennese visit. The two countries eventually decide that Niki must marry Anna, and Franzi is crestfallen when Niki departs for his new home. In Flausenthurm castle, the new husband refuses to perform his matrimonial duty. 'Stepping out' on the town, he discovers that Franzi and her band have followed him to this new country. When Anna finds out, the two women come to a surprisingly original solution to the problem.

The Smiling Lieutenant builds to a bittersweet ending, which it undercuts with more frivolity. We can imagine young screenwriter Billy Wilder studying this film in hopes of understanding 'the Lubitsch touch.' Colbert and Chevalier are inflamed with passionate abandon; after the Code restrictions were enforced most of the fun of sex was leeched out of Hollywood filmmaking. Hopkins is genuinely amusing as the backward belle from Flausenthurm (Geshundheit!). We can tell she's in serious need of enlightenment by her unfamiliarity with sexy underwear!

The Smiling Lieutenant was Lubitsch's first collaboration with writer Samuel Raphaelson, with whom he later made many of his most famous comedies. Anna's stuffy papa quickly consents to her marriage with a foreign Lieutenant after her simple threat: If the King doesn't say Yes, she'll marry an American!

Lubitsch finalizes his naughty musical comedy formula in 1932's One Hour With You, a movie that begins with Dr. Andre Bertier and his wife Colette (Chevalier and MacDonald) happily married and in love. If it plays out like a silent sex farce, it's because it's a remake of Lubitsch's own 1924 The Marriage Circle. Colette's wicked best friend Mitzi (Genevieve Tobin) plots to seduce Andre while leading Colette to believe that another woman is responsible. Things come to a head at a dinner party. Mitzi entices Andre to join her in the garden, and then finally to come home with her, at 2:30 in the morning. The big surprise is that the film tosses off Andre's flagrant infidelity as no big deal when compared to his commitment to Colette. Colette accepts and forgives Andre, while Andre doesn't believe Colette's confession of a midnight kiss with his best friend, the ardent fool Adolph (Charles Ruggles).

With nothing on its mind but lovemaking, the elegant, impeccably turned out One Hour With You completes these four musical fairytales on a high note. The film is partly credited to George Cukor; Eclipse's liner notes tell us that Lubitsch was originally set to only supervise, but stepped in and redid all of Cukor's work when he felt that the dailies weren't good enough. Most sources still credit Cukor as a co-director.

Eclipse's Lubitsch Musicals collection sports wonderful restorations of these early talkies; I believe I saw only one minor incidence of frame damage. Some of the transfers are on the grainy side but the B&W images are clean and the audio cleaner, even on the 1929 The Love Parade. For all the touting of MGM films as Hollywood's glossiest, Paramount's seem more artistic even when they make do with fewer resources.

The Eclipse series has no extras save for brief liner notes on each title, but these are expertly written and highly informative. We learn that both Lubitsch and Chevalier weathered various personal problems while these musicals were in production. It's difficult to believe that the makers of these light-hearted comedies ever had a sad day.

For more information about Lubitsch Musicals, visit Eclipse. To order Lubitsch Musicals, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson