Maurice Chevalier has a girlfriend but is ordered to marry the Princess of Flausenthurm.
This year I borrowed my friend Laura’s idea of choosing 10 Classics to see, and we thought it would be fun to watch and discuss some of them at the same time, especially this one since we both put it on our lists.
There’s a lot going on in The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), but the main thrust is romance, a love story told through a clever use of metaphors involving music, food and juvenile playthings. Director Ernst Lubitsch so efficiently and naughtily communicates the most adult things with surprising sight gags, playful suggestions and recurring motifs, so that these images and devices become like musical notes arranged by a master, bouncing along to create the perfect, catchy melody performed by a trio of fine players.
Maurice Chevalier plays the titular Lieutenant, who we learn in the first song “Toujours l’Amour in the Army” is a “boudoir brigadier,” a ladies man and expert charmer. He’s smitten with violinist Claudette Colbert, who he met when acting as Charlie Ruggles’ wingman. Ruggles can’t get this girl because he doesn’t play (an instrument), but Chevalier does, so he and Colbert hit it off, communicating through an exchange of a familiar melody, and going to his place to continue playing. Just like Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, where artful thievery stood in for every aspect of romance and attraction, here we have music and music-making set down early on as the code for courtship, love and romantic experience.
The other code, food, is established in the next song, “Breakfast Table Love,” where the lyrics have the pair negotiating the time and order of the next meal, specifically how soon they’ll have breakfast together, and how food never tasted this good before–now there’s “magic in the muffin.” Having established that motif, when you next see them having breakfast, you know exactly what’s gone on, just as you know what it means when a blonde acquaintance of Chevalier’s says she’s having dinner with the King. I guarantee you my descriptions don’t begin to capture how delightfully frisky and funny this all is on film.
While those lovers are playing and eating, we change setting to meet the King of Flausenthurm, that neighbouring land with an inferiority complex. His daughter is the princess Miriam Hopkins, a rather spoiled and sheltered young lady whose every whim is indulged. During the Royals’ visit to Vienna, Chevalier’s smile to Colbert is misinterpreted as an insult to Princess Hopkins and he’s summoned to the court to explain himself. When this master of flattery tries to wriggle out of the mess and butter up the King by saying he was indeed smiling at the Princess’ great beauty, she’s smitten with Chevalier and demands to have him.
Despite his efforts, the spontaneous Chevalier is soon swept into a micromanaged world of the royal court where everything is strictly structured and scheduled, where there must be talks about talking before the actual talking, and rules on who may speak to whom and regarding which subjects. It’s a world where the wedding night includes official figures who must oversee, prepare and approve every detail from spritzing the room with perfume to removing the bedspread. Chevalier protests all this by turning off his charms, saying “good night” and leaving Hopkins to play checkers with the King.
With the King and Princess now in a position of trying to please Chevalier, they order him a delicacy from home, Weiner Schnitzel, but as he did on the wedding night, he refuses the schnitzel they’re serving. After going out to the Flausen Follies (to see the Flausies!) he happens upon Colbert giving a concert and they reunite. He exclaims, “now that’s what I call schnitzel!”
The euphemisms don’t stop at music or schnitzel; there’s the time Chevalier is asked to spell Flausenthurm and the older ladies in attendance are in suspense wondering if he’ll last through the whole word and then, almost swooning, note what a good speller he is. There’s the song that so cleverly tells us what Chevalier is to the two women, as well as their understanding of him and love in general. In Colbert’s passionate lyrics, he’s a “son of a gun” to grab and fondle, but in Hopkins’ part of the song he’s meek, mild and sweet, and she really, really “likes” him. She has no idea what he’s about or what to do with a man like him. She sees him as a possession, a toy, “my Lieutenant,” leaving Colbert heartbroken and leaving Chevalier with her goodbye note and one of her garters as a souvenir of the romance that was “fun while it lasted.”
Hopkins is marvelous, starting out as the brittle, uptight, inexperienced girl who doesn’t even know how to react to a charmer’s smile, and has to ask what “stepping out” means. When she’s told a man likes a girl who can play (music), she tries to impress him with her piano skills but her tune is so cold and lifeless he just walks away. When she finally meets her rival Colbert, the two fight and then bond over their mutual admiration for Chevalier’s charms. With Colbert realizing the marriage must be given a chance, she teaches Hopkins the way to play (music), with “just the right note;” modern, lively, loosened up. The song “Jazz Up Your Lingerie” leads to a complete makeover, which Lubitsch conveys brilliantly through a montage including Hopkins burning her baggy pantaloons, getting sexier shoes and lingerie, and letting her hair down. “Be a good girl,” says Colbert, to which Hopkins replies, “I won’t!” The lesson is learned, and when Chevalier next sees her, she’s transformed into an attractive schnitzel who so confidently pounds out a tune on the piano that she blows his mind. I laughed out loud at her triumphant finale to the performance; I was a Hopkins fan already and this is just top notch work from her.
Colbert is every bit as delightful, whether she’s a tease, a heartbroken girl, a direct realist who comes to understand her place, and finally a mentor who wants to pass on her musical knowledge and best recipes to Hopkins. “Girls who start with breakfast don’t usually stay for supper,” says Colbert in the end, understanding that she was a diversion, a fun affair. With one more letter she lets go of their shared souvenir, giving Chevalier the other garter and breaking their connection. Chevalier is so devilish, a believable object of all these women’s attention, and in the songs and dialogue is great at putting across all those double entrendres without looking ridiculous.
The Smiling Lieutenant is a fabulous picture, so downright naughty and hilarious and at the same time so magical and sweet. It’s such a perfect piece of pacing, imagery, tone and music, and ties everything together so neatly, so that we end where we began in spirit, with Chevalier bubbly and singing the very same tune (“Toujours l’Amour in the Army”), but he has also arrived at a higher level, where romance, playfulness and spontaneity find their rightful place within a marriage, like a checkerboard on a bed. This man of extravagant tastes, who at the beginning couldn’t pay his tailor’s bill, now lives in comfort. The man who loves love now has a wife who can play his type of music.
Laura shares her thoughts on The Smiling Lieutenant here, and I’m not surprised they’re very similar. She appreciated the same things about the suggestive but somehow innocent comedy, the performances and the lightness of the movie. I love the description of it being like “candy;” it’s like a sweet tart!