When writing about the first two movies in the Eclipse Lubitsch Musicals boxed set, I noted a common thread in those movies of the independent woman having to give up at least some of her independence in order to be in a happy relationship. As it turns out, movie #3 goes in a different direction, proving that the whole goose and gander cliché holds true even in frothy romances.
In The Smiling Lieutenant, Maurice Chevalier returns to Ernst Lubitsch's stage to play Niki. Niki is a guard in service to the palace in 18th-century Vienna, and he's a rapscallious playboy. It takes us no more than one scene to suss out Niki's character. The movie begins with a tailor knocking on his door, bill in hand, only not to have his inquiry answered. As the tailor walks down the stairs, a gorgeous dame passes him on the way up. She is ushered right in. In a sly bit of business, the light outside the door brightens, and then dims in a slow fade, letting us know that this young lady stayed for quite a while.
The swinging bachelor is enlisted by his married cohort to be his wingman in an illicit affair. The married man has fallen for a beautiful violinist named Franzi. Things don't go quite as planned at the nightclub, however. Claudette Colbert looks like a milky piece of European candy on stage, and Niki becomes determined to gobble her up. Except she's not so easily consumed. Though he asks her to stay over and have breakfast with him, she says first he should start by meeting her for tea, and then dinner, and then maybe breakfast. The treat that can't be obtained is all the sweeter.
A passionate love affair blossoms, and the Don Juan only has eyes for his Franzi. Ironically, now that his wandering eye has ceased wandering, a stray wink gets him in trouble. While serving duty at a parade for the visiting king of Flausenthurm (George Barbier), the look of love that Niki tosses at Franzi is accidentally caught by Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins in her third film, and the first with the director). A national scandal erupts, and when Niki tries to charm his way out of trouble, it works a little too well: he ends up being forced down the aisle with Anna.
Most of the songs in The Smiling Lieutenant are romantic, though occasionally cheeky, duets between Colbert and Chevalier. Yet, in his third musical in as many years, Lubitsch is finding new ways to stretch the genre he all but invented. One of the most memorable numbers is when an oblivious Niki returns to Franzi, and as the pair sings of their lusty affection for one another, we also cut back to the palace and Anna's girlish declarations of her first crush. It's the most sophisticated number yet in the Lubitsch Musicals set, adding more conventional storytelling skills to the performance numbers.
It's also 1931, and so some of the music (composed by Oscar Straus with lyrics by Clifford Grey) also reflects the jazz age, somewhat anachronistically given Lubitsch's almost fairy tale reconstruction of Europe. In perhaps the most memorable number, Franzi naughtily schools Anna in the ways of the bedroom. After comparing Anna's shin-length bloomers to her own knee-baring undergarments, Franzi tells the princess that she must "Jazz Up Your Lingerie" if she wishes to seduce Niki. A haircut and a wardrobe change later, and the dowdy royal is now a flapper!
This is the most delicious gender twist in The Smiling Lieutenant, making it more than the simple comedy of errors it appears on the surface. The happy-go-lucky bachelor's accidental marriage is karmic retribution for his previously easy-come, easy-go love life. Just when he is ready to settle down with one woman, the consequences of his loose morals catch up with him. On his wedding night, he uses fast-talking to keep himself out of the conjugal bed when previously he had applied the same skills to getting girls to jump in it. Once Franzi lands in Flausenthurm, he maintains his devotion to her, but only at the expense of his wife. One commitment betrays another.
The "Jazz Up Your Lingerie" sequence is essentially a vote of confidence for the liberated female and oddly affirms Niki's love of strong women who can be sexual without being submissive. It's the free-living lady that Niki wants to take home, and so when Franzi teaches Anna to be more like her, it's new feminism winning out over old-fashioned morality. The anachronistic setting suddenly makes sense: the Victorian Age must give way to the Jazz Age.
With all the fun twists and crafty innuendos, The Smiling Lieutenant is pure joy to watch. The fact that there is a little added kick just under the surface is the cinematic equivalent of the garter belt under the skirt: you know it's there, you hope it's there, and what a delight it is to find it!
This is part 2 of a 3-part review of the boxed set Lubitsch Musicals - Eclipse Series 8.