Maurice Chevalier

Pre-Code Essentials: The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

The Smiling Lieutenant

Plot

Austrian Royal Guard Lieutenant Niki von Preyn (Maurice Chevalier) is madly in love with violinist Franzi (Claudette Colbert), but when the royal family from Flausenthurm comes to town, Niki winks at Franzi as the royals are moving through town and Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins) sees it and thinks it was directed at her. She is insulted and the whole incident causes quite the scandal. But when Niki convinces Anna that he couldn’t help himself because she was so beautiful, she insists on marrying Niki right away and he is forced to go along with it.

Being a married man does nothing to make Niki forget about Franzi and they continue to see each other in secret. When Anna finds out what’s been going on, she plans to confront Franzi about it. But when Franzi realizes how much Anna loves Niki, she gives Anna a makeover to make her more appealing to Niki.


My Thoughts

Ernst Lubitsch is one of those directors whose movies never seem to completely let me down and The Smiling Lieutenant is one of my favorites of his. It’s just so…Lubitsch. It’s extremely witty, sophisticated, and has that unmistakably lightness that was Lubitsch’s trademark. Chevalier, Colbert, and of course, Hopkins are just so perfect for his style of direction and the movie’s sharp writing. It’s a really wonderful, delightful little comedy.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

The Smiling Lieutenant is easily the most fun I’ve ever seen a movie have with the subject of marital infidelity. Only in the pre-code era could you get away with making a comedy that involves a wife confronting her husband’s other woman and the two women end up singing a song together about jazzing up their lingerie.

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

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.

Love Me Tonight (1932)

Viscount Gilbert de Vareze (Charlie Ruggles) is a huge fan of Parisian tailor Maurice Courtelin (Maurice Chevalier).  Not because he’s a particularly big fan of his work, but because he’s the only tailor in Paris who will let him buy suits on credit.  After Gilbert buys several suits from him on credit and skips out on the bill, Maurice isn’t about to sit back and take this, so he heads out to his family’s estate to collect on the debt.  Gilbert lives with his uncle Count de Savignac (Charles Butterworth), the Count’s daughter Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald) and niece Countess Valentine (Myrna Loy).  On his way to the estate, Maurice runs into Jeanette on his way to the estate.  It’s love at first sight for him, but Jeanette isn’t as easily won over.

When Maurice arrives at the estate, he refuses to leave until Gilbert pays his bill.  Unable to pay, Gilbert goes ahead and invites Maurice to stay for a few days until he can get the money.  He tells his family that Maurice is really a Baron and  even though Maurice thinks this scheme is ridiculous, he decides to go along with it when he realizes that Jeanette lives there.  Some of the family questions his background, but ultimately, he wins them over.  They even throw a costume ball in his honor.  Valentine in particular has taken a shine to Maurice, but he still loves Jeanette and Jeanette can no longer deny that she loves him, too.

But Maurice’s cover is blown when one day he sees Jeanette’s seamstress working on a new riding habit for her and he thinks he could do better.  First he rudely dismisses the seamstress, but then the family is scandalized when he is caught with a semi-dressed Jeanette.  At last it comes out that he’s a tailor, not a Baron, and Maurice catches the next train out of there.  The only person not outraged by this revelation is Jeanette, who hops on the fastest horse she can find and chases him down.

I really enjoyed Love Me Tonight.  I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favorite movies, but it is very light, charming, and witty.  The cast is wonderful and you’ve really got to see its incredibly lavish sets.  Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald may be the stars, and they’re great, but Myrna Loy is a total scene stealer.  Myrna’s character is very man crazed and one of my favorite moments of the movie is when Gilbert asks her if she could go for a doctor and she says, “Yes!  Bring him right in!”  Her delivery of that line is classic.  She says it in total Myrna Loy fashion and it’s perfect for this movie.

What’s on TCM: September 2010

I Hope everyone had fun with Summer Under the Stars 2010!  I know I sure did.  I saw a lot of great stuff for the first time and I’ve still got lots to catch up on.  September feels a little slow in comparison, but there’s still some great stuff coming soon.  Vivien Leigh is the star of the month, so you know there will be lots of great movies featuring her this month.  In addition to Vivien, fans of Kim Novak and Mickey Rooney will have a lot to look forward to.  Thursday nights are dedicated to looking at films with the theme of revenge.  Anyone with an interest in Mexico or Mexican films will be interested in TCM’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Mexican revolution.  All of this month’s TCM Import selections for this month come from Mexico, plus a night of movies about Pancho Villa, in addition to a few other selections.  Now, onto the highlights:

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