by Allan Fish
(USA 1931 88m) DVD1
Just like a melody
p/d Ernst Lubitsch w Ernest Vajda, Ernst Lubitsch, Samson Raphaelson operetta “A Waltz Dream” by Leopold Jacobson, Felix Doermann ph George J.Folsey ed Merrill White m Oscar Straus, Clifford Grey md Adolph Deutsch art Hans Dreier cos Travis Banton
Maurice Chevalier (Lieutenant Niki), Miriam Hopkins (Princess Anna), Claudette Colbert (Franzi), Charles Ruggles (Max), George Barbier (King Adolf XV), Elizabeth Patterson (Baroness Von Schwadel), Hugh O’Connell (Orderly), Robert Strange (Adjutant Von Rockoff), Janet Reade (Lily),
It’s time to once more take a journey back to one of the favourite times and places in movie history, that carefree Vienna before the wars where biergartens and dance halls alike reverberated to the sound of Strauss waltzes (in actual fact, here the waltzes of the unrelated Oscar Straus, but it makes little difference). Like Von Stroheim and Ophuls, Lubitsch loved that old Vienna and The Smiling Lieutenant is his greatest cinematic remembrance of those times as well as being the peak of his series of operettas of the early talkie years.
Like all such operettas, the plot is dispensable, focusing on a young lieutenant with an eye for the ladies who falls for a female band leader and violinist. However, an etiquette faux pas sees him brought before the princess daughter of the visiting king of Flausenthurm, who promptly falls in love with him. Our lieutenant thus has to choose between a marriage to a princess and the real love of his life.
Such things can, of course, only end unhappily for someone, yet that very underpinning note of sadness is vital to films set in Vienna. Imagine, for example, The Wedding March of Letter from an Unknown Woman if they had ended happily? Operettas such as this may be intrinsically dated in parts of their dialogue, but the dialogue is secondary to the music and visual feel. Even so, choice exchanges do shine through, such as when Chevalier and Ruggles eye up Colbert and Chevalier says “do you know who she reminds me of? Your wife.” Ruggles looks aghast and replies, “oh, wait a minute, this girl is beautiful.” Or even more memorably the exchange between Hopkins and Barbier as impoverished royalty travelling to Vienna bitching about Austria’s imperial status (“it’s only in the last 700 years that they’ve gotten anywhere”).
The most memorable aspect of Lieutenant, though, is its wonderfully pre-code atmosphere. Here’s a film happy with its lovers not just discussing dinner, but breakfast, too. Happy to revel in the subtleties of sexual innuendo and even explain them (“when we like someone, we smile. When we want to do something about it, we wink.”). You certainly couldn’t have had a song such as the delightful “Jazz up your Lingerie” post 1934, let alone seen Hopkins doing just that and transforming from giggling young girl with a knowledge of life learnt entirely from a Royal Encyclopaedia (with all the interesting bits left out) to a glamorous, sexy young woman. Chevalier, for his part, is at his peak here, seemingly relishing the change of being without Jeanette MacDonald and getting two for the price of one. There is truly no other man who could get away with singing a line such as “you put glamour in the grapefruit, you put passion in the prunes.” Hopkins, too is quite a delight, showing how the Hays Code lead to the onset of brittleness that would blight her later career. Yet in many ways it’s Colbert you most remember, quite intoxicating in her only musical role, made before the onset of stardom that gave her the right to be only photographed from one side, and before de Mille vamped her up in asses milk. Her mournful waltz theme haunts the entire film, and when she drifts away into the darkness, it’s not without a tinge of sadness that she does so.
Lieutenant remains Lubitsch’s greatest musical, irritatingly unavailable to home viewing but always ripe for rediscovery. And if Mamoulian’s Love me Tonight may now seem a richer film, this is still a delicious soufflé in its own right.
How The Smiling Lieutenant made the ‘Elite 70’:
Allan Fish’s No. 7 choice
Pat Perry’s No. 37 choice
Sam Juliano’s No. 49 choice
Judy Geater’s No. 60 choice
Greg Ferrara’s No. 61 choice