Niki von Preyn (Maurice Chevalier) is a Lieutenant in the Austrian Royal Guard. One night, Max (Charlie Ruggles) asks Niki to join him at the beer garden to see Franzi (Claudette Colbert), a violin player, perform. Even though Max is married, he’s got a thing for Franzi and thinks that having Niki along will make their date seem more legitimate. But as soon as Niki sets eye on Franzi, he instantly falls in love with her and convinces Max that she is all wrong for him so he can have her all for himself. Niki and Franzi’s relationship turns very passionate very quickly.
A wrench gets thrown into their relationship when the King of Flausenthurm and his daughter Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins) come to Vienna. Niki joins his fellow soldiers for their procession into town and Franzi watches on across the street from Niki. Niki can’t resist giving Franzi a smile and a wink, but he does it just as the King and Princess Anna pass by. Anna notices and since she isn’t the prettiest princess ever, assumes Niki is mocking her. The incident makes all the headlines and when Niki is brought in to be disciplined, he tries to get out of this mess by saying that he was just so in awe of Anna’s beauty that he couldn’t help himself. Flattery will get you everywhere with these royals and all is forgiven. In fact, the King even arranges it so that Niki will be close to them for the rest of their visit, much to Anna’s delight.
Niki continues to secretly see Franzi, but Anna has developed very strong feelings for Niki. In fact, she even goes as far as getting permission to marry him. When Niki finds out about this, he is shocked and can’t figure out a way to get out of this mess. With his relationship with Franzi now over, he goes ahead with his marriage to Anna. But Anna is so uptight, dowdy, and dull that when he finds out that Franzi is in town, he starts seeing her again secretly. When Anna finds out about this, she is very upset and wants to meet with Franzi. Although Anna initially wants to kill Franzi, she realizes that Franzi would be a great person to get advice from on how to make Niki happy. The two of them end up hitting it off and Franzi gives Anna some tips on modernizing her look and their visit ends with them singing a song called “Jazz Up Your Lingerie” together. Franzi’s advice proves to be a big success and Anna and Niki live happily ever after.
The Smiling Lieutenant is another one of those delightful Ernst Lubitsch pre-codes. Super stylish, sophisticated, witty, and well acted. The whole movie is so much fun to watch, but it’s worth seeing if only for the wonderful scene where Anna goes to confront Franzi, the sing their song, and Anna has her makeover. It’s just so outrageous in the best possible way. This is the kind of thing you could only get away with in the pre-code era. Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins are such a riot together! I love Miriam Hopkins in just about anything, but she was never better than when she was in Ernst Lubitsch comedies.