The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Writer: Samson Raphaelson and Ernest Vajda; Uncredited: Ernst Lubitsch; French dialogue: Jacques Bataille-Henri; Based On: Nux der Prinzgemahl (novel; 1905) by Hans Müller-Einigen; Operetta: Ein Walzertraum (1907) by Leopold Jacobson and Felix Dörmann
Cinematography: George J. Folsey
by Jon Cvack
Here’s a great pre-Code film from the rom com master Ernst Lubitsch, involving a Viennese Lieutenant Nikolaus “Niki” von Pryn (Maurice Chevalier) who falls in love with violinist Franzi (Claudette Colbert), after his friend and married military colleague introduces the pair, professing love at first sight. However, when King Adolf XV of Flausenthurn (George Barbier) and his daughter, Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins), take the train into Vienna, and parade through the streets on the way to meet the King, Anna looks over at Niki, who although on duty, has a big grin on his face, winking at Franzi across the street. Anna, though, thinks that the gesture was directed at her, complains to her father, which then makes national headlines, possibly leading to a complete breakdown in relations between the two countries. Niki is called in to apologize, but unable to admit that he was flirting with his girlfriend, and not wanting to risk additional damage, he ends up going on a date with Anna, soon getting engaged to the woman.
Perhaps some might say I grabbed the pre-Code trivia from Wikipedia, but it’s when watching the film, and hearing the highly suggestive lines that you’ll understand the difference. For instance, in one musical number, Franzi mentions how she wants Niki for at least twelve hours a day, after his eight hours with Anna, which might sound innocuous enough, but with how the two are dancing, it breaths sexuality. Or how even after getting married, Niki and Franzi still meet up, with Niki having Franzi arrested during her performances every night so that the two can meet up in their quarters. Or how after King Adolf and the Queen inspect the room, in one of the most heated scenes, Anna winks to Niki and goes as far as propositioning him to take her virginity as you possibly could in a film from the 1930s. Even the final scene, after Franzi makes over Anna, Anna now has hair down, wearing a tight dress, with her cleavage out, using a chessboard as foreplay to finally lure Niki over to her.
There are other suggestion, some a bit less direct, but for anyone interested in understanding what the Code did to films, watch this movie. While there are some films such as Baby-Face (‘33) that leaves you gaping with what they suggested, the The Smiling Lieutenant's beauty is that it takes more explicit, and even by today’s standards, progressive content and places it within a very simple romantic comedy structure. For instance, Franzi has no concern that Niki’s now a married man, welcoming their late night rendezvous, and it seems as though nearly all of the characters understand the situation. Yet counter to the rom-com structure, and in a move that must have - in some way - inspired She’s All That (‘99), Franzi eventually gives in, realizing that he if she provides Anna with a makeover, that she’ll likely be - and is - more attractive than Franzi herself. Thus, although most films like this leave you expecting the traditional Hollywood Ending - where Niki someway/somehow ends up back with Franzi, Lubitsch completely flips our expectations. As said in the end, “The wrong girl gets the man”, and yet during the concluding sequence, as the chessboard is moved across the room, we kind of understand why Niki might not be too concerned with Franzi. For a popular film, I was left in awe of how far it pushed the boundaries, all while providing us with a few musical numbers to boot.
I haven’t seen Maurice Chevalier in many other films. His ability to turn on the smile and charm, using it to get whatever he wanted out of a situation is near perfect. As all the great players in these types of roles often provide, although he’s a slimeball, betraying his best friend, cheating on his wife, and then ditching his mistress because his wife’s now smoking hot - we still find ourselves rooting for him. It’s always exciting to put on a film, nervous if you can take such a colorful and pompous personality, and in the end, you’re disappointed it ended all too soon. Hopkins provides an equally deep and nuanced performance, and counter to She’s All That where Rachel Leigh Cook only had to remove her glasses, Anna never looks terrible, but is disguised enough to leave us bug eyed in the concluding scene. It’s attributed to her ability to play an uptight, privileged daughter who’s never had to worry about anything, and yet never having got to experience her own sexuality. Thus, when Niki enters her life, and although only 89 minutes, we watch as her lust overwhelms her, putting the blinders on as she soon becomes desperate for sex. Come the end, both characters are selfish - Niki with simply pursuing whatever he wants, and Anna for discovering the power her looks can provide, which when combined with the country, kind of leaves you laughing knowing that there was no way Flausenthurn could have lasted much longer. It’s a great film, leaving you wondering what else could have come about if the code was never implemented. Cause what this contains, having been made nearly 85 years ago, I can’t imagine what would have come about by today on the same trajectory.
BELOW: Bob Osbourne on the film
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