Monday, December 26, 2016
Ernst Lubitsch | The Smiling Lieutenant
the wrong woman for the right man
by Douglas Messerli
Samson Raphaelson, Ernest Vajda and Ernst Lubitsch (screenplay, based on the novel, Nux der Prinzgemahl by Hans Müller-Einigen and the operetta Ein Walzertraum by Leopold Jacobson and Felix Dörmann), Ernst Lubitsch (director) The Smiling Lieutenant / 1931
Based on a novel from 1905 and an operatta, Ein Walzertraum, from 1907, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant has a plot that borders of the ludicrous, centering on love triangle between the Lieutenant of the work’s title (Maurice Chevalier), a conductor of an all-female orchestra (Claudette Colbert), and a naïve princess (Miriam Hopkins) of the nearby kingdom, Flausenthurm. Yet, like the winking and smiling Lieutenant, audiences found that they themselves could not stop from enacting those same gestures, and the film was a huge success, despite its appearance on the cusp of Great Depression.
Much of that success was achieved through Lubitsch’s wry direction, particularly in the ways that he made Chevalier’s constant bedding of pretty women even more naughty than the actual events. Once more, the director suggests far more than we ever see by focusing on doors, large and small, behind which we have to imagine what’s actually going on (Mary Pickford, not an admirer, called Lubitsch “a director of doors”) and through the suggestive lyrics of songs such as “Breakfast Table Love” and “Jazz Up Your Lingerie,” as well as focusing his camera time and again on empty beds. At one point, after the marriage of the Lieutenant and Princess, two servants, woman and man, variously prepare the bridal bed, swearing to its readiness in a mock-ceremony of wedding vows. In the final scene of the film, in which the Lieutenant is finally ready to take his new wife to bed, after she keeps handing him a checker board, he tosses it on the bed, hinting that they can play, but in a side-by-side recline.
One of the movie’s finest assets, moreover, is Colbert, playing Franzi, who in her sassy wit and knowledge of the sexual game (“No. No. First tea and then dinner - and then - maybe - maybe breakfast,” she purrs at one point) is the perfect match to the Lieutenant Niki, who has clearly fallen in love with the conductor-violinist at first sight. Even their names, with their, diminutive endings, correspond.
With Colbert’s absence, the film actually lags, particularly in the Flausenthurm scenes, where, instead of inviting his new wife into bed, Niki says “Good Night.” But Lubitsch livens up his ending by having Franzi follow her ex-lover to that country. When Anna discovers that Niki is again seeing the violinist, she orders her brought to her for punishment. Upon seeing how much Anna is in love with Niki, Franzi demands to see her opponent’s underwear, creating a whole new level of possibly lesbian puns, until, running to the piano, she belts out a few bars of the jazz-inspired “Jazz Up Your Lingerie,” transforming the somewhat dowdy blonde into a kind of 1920 “It” girl who can finally draw Nicki into her bed.
Obviously the Lieutenant winds up with the “wrong” woman, but at least, as he ponders, he will no longer have to work and will never lose his pension! Besides, Anna is now a different woman than she was, a kind of imitation Franzi, and now all she really wants from Niki is sex. It’s only the two women of this film who have shown each other any real love.
Los Angeles, December 26, 2016