Pre-Code Crazy: The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)
If you know anything about me at all, you might know that I’m not a huge fan of musicals. Oh, don’t get me wrong – I definitely have my favorites, like Golddiggers of 1933, 42nd Street, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Singin’ in the Rain and, of course, The Wizard Oz. But as a rule, plopping down in front of a musical is not one of my preferred things to do.
So when I went to the TCM film festival last year and learned that one of the few pre-Codes being shown was a musical – The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) – I felt duty-bound as a pre-Code lover to see it, but my hopes were not high.
Boy, was I in for a surprise!
When I think about it, I actually should have known that I would fall in love with this film, as it’s connected with two of my cinematic crushes – it co-stars Miriam Hopkins, who can do absolutely no wrong in my book, and it’s directed by Ernst Lubistch – really, what more do I even need to say?
The title role of the film is played by Maurice Chevalier who, before this movie, I’d only seen in film clips singing “Every little breeze seems to whisper ‘Louise.’” Imagine my amazement, then, when I saw him in The Smiling Lieutenant as this adorable young man with an infectious smile and a decidedly devilish gleam in his eye. I was hooked from the first note!
Also featured in the film is Claudette Colbert – and I must confess, I’m not an enormous Colbert fan. However, like the film itself, Colbert’s performance turned out to be a delightful revelation. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say it’s my favorite Colbert performance!
Until I started working on this post, I hadn’t viewed The Smiling Lieutenant since I saw it in March 2015, but as soon as I saw the word “Vienna” appear on the screen and heard the strains of Chevalier’s opening number, I realized I was smiling in anticipation.
The picture begins with a visit by a tailor to the home of Lt. Nikolaus “Niki” von Preyn of the Royal Guard, played by Chevalier. The tailor – with a hefty overdue bill in his hand – is unable to gain entrance, despite ringing the doorbell several times. Minutes later, though, after the tailor gives up, a pretty young girl arrives at the home, gives a special knock, and is instantly admitted. We aren’t privy to what goes on behind the closed doors, but we know by the gaslight that she’s there until morning, and when she departs, we see by the Cheshire cat-like smile on the face of the lieutenant that they weren’t exactly playing tiddly winks all night. If you know what I mean.
Niki receives an early morning visit from his best pal, the very married Max, played by Charlie Ruggles. Max tells his friend that he’s become infatuated with a beautiful young woman by the name of Franzi (Colbert), who plays the violin in an all-girls band at a beer garden. Although they’ve never met, Max is quite taken with the young musician: “What a figure she has – mmm!” he raves. “And, Niki, you should see her fingers!”
Max wants Niki to accompany him to see the young lady’s performance – and then slyly slip away, leaving Max alone with her. Niki initially expresses outrage: “You think I would lend myself to such an intrigue?” he asks, and then mischievously adds, “Let’s go!”
But once Niki spies her, all bets are off – like Max, Niki is drawn to the talented, sweet-faced fiddler, and his charm, sex appeal, and sheer moxie combine to leave Max literally holding Franzi’s violin case, but not much else. Niki and Franzi, meanwhile, only have eyes for each other. One minute, they’re playing a duet on the violin and piano, and the next, they’re a coo-some twosome.
When I spoke earlier of the enjoyable surprise this film represented for me, one of the many scenes that comes to mind is where Franzi prepares to leave Niki’s home after their first meeting. Following a passionate kiss, she decides that it would be best for her to depart (“I like you too much,” she says). She suggests that they meet the following evening for dinner, but Niki objects: “Oh, don’t make me wait 24 hours,” he says. “I’m so hungry!” (Wink, wink.) Franzi then suggests tea the following afternoon, to which Niki counteroffers, “What about breakfast tomorrow morning?” They kiss good night, and then we cut to the next day, where the two are sitting down to breakfast – and Franzi has on the same dress she had on the night before! (Whoa dere!) There’s nothing like pre-Code, I tell you.
Incidentally, while I – as I previously stated – am no lover of musicals, the musical numbers in The Smiling Lieutenant are a joy to watch and just as yummy as the rest of the film. Case in point is the song that Niki and Franzi sing to each other over breakfast, which offers lines like: “You put kisses in the coffee, such temptation in the tea – I get a thrill that sends a chill right through me when you pass the toast to me.” I’m not 100 percent positive, but I think that Colbert is doing her own singing, and the fact that she’s no Jeannette McDonald makes the song that much more enchanting.
While Niki and Franzi are falling in love, we’re introduced to Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins) and her father, King Adolph XV, of the small, proud country of Flaustenthurm. King Adolph is a bit of a blustering blowhard, but he means well, and Anna, with her golden tresses tightly wound around her ears like a Viennese Princess Leia, is sheltered and unsophisticated; she herself admits: “I don’t know very much about life. I got all my knowledge out of the royal encyclopedia. A special edition arranged for Flausenthurm. With all the interesting things left out.” The two are paying a visit to Vienna, and their paths intersect – literally – with those of Niki and Franzi during their royal procession into the town. Niki and his fellow guardsmen are standing at attention on one side of the road, while Franzi is on the other side, along with the townspeople there to catch a glimpse of the visiting royals. Franzi is far more interested in Niki than the procession, and she blows kisses at her lover, mouthing, “I’m crazy about you.” In turn, he smiles broadly, waggles his eyebrows, and gives her a wink. It just so happens that the princess passes by at that very moment and thinks he’s laughing at her.
The princess and her father are mightily offended by Niki’s action, and order him to report to the palace where they are staying in Vienna. It’s not long, though, before Niki’s charms turn the princess’s frown upside down, and she falls under his spell, which sets up the action for the remainder of the film. For those of you who’ve never had the pleasure of seeing this picture, I wouldn’t dare spoil it by telling you what happens, but I do have to point out another of the standout musical numbers, which vacillates between Princess Anna sharing her feelings about Niki with her matronly ladies in waiting, and Franzi and Niki singing about their love to each other. Princess Anna sits surrounded by the older women, as she giggles like a schoolgirl with a first crush: “He’s so mild, like a sweet child. His conduct shows him as such. I like him. Oh, I like him! I like him so much.” Franzi, in contrast, burrows into Niki’s arms, grabbing at his clothes and ruffling his hair: “I’ll thrill you ‘til I kill you, you son of a gun!” It’s really something to see.
The music and the stellar cast are far from the only recommenders for this film – its first-rate screenplay the dialogue is fairly bristling with wit. For example, in one scene, Princess Anna tells her father that she’s in love with Niki. “Papa, you may not realize it, but I’m desperate. I’m not responsible. I’m capable of anything. If you don’t let me have my lieutenant, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to marry an American!” (Har!)
I don’t want to give away anything, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention what was, to me, the best scene in the movie, in a movie fairly brimming with standout scenes. It’s when Princess Anna and Franzi come to face-to-face. You’ll have to see if for yourself, but let me just say that it’s got slapping, crying, laughing, some great snarky lines, and another musical number that’s guaranteed to leave you grinning.
In addition to The Smiling Lieutenant, TCM is showing a number of outstanding pre-Codes this month. One of the best is Don’t Bet on Women (1931), which I also saw for the first time at the TCM film festival last year. I couldn’t choose it as my pick, because I don’t have a copy of it – YET – and I really couldn’t do it justice without seeing it again. Be sure to check it out, though – it’s airing on January 12th. Other standouts are Mandalay (1934) and Design for Living (1933).
Speaking of Design for Living (1933), it’s the third of the three films in three years that teamed Miriam Hopkins with director Ernst Lubitsch. The Smiling Lieutenant was the first, followed by Trouble in Paradise (1932).
One of Princess Anna’s ladies in waiting was played by Elizabeth Patterson, who you might remember as Lucy Ricardo’s upstairs neighbor and babysitter Mrs. Trumbull, on I Love Lucy. Patterson made her film debut in 1926 at the age of 51. During her 35-year career in Hollywood, the never-married Patterson lived at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel (which, incidentally, is ground zero for the TCM film festival). (Have I made enough references to the TCM film fest in this post?) She died at the age of 91, and is buried in her hometown of Savannah, Tennessee.
The Smiling Lieutenant was Paramount’s top grossing picture of the year, and the 10th highest of 1931.
The film was adapted from an operetta called A Waltz Dream, which was inspired by a short story called “The Prince Consort.” According to the TCM website, there are those who believe the short story was based on the real-life romance between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
If you like Ernst Lubitsch, or Miriam Hopkins, or musicals, or good movies in general, mark your calendar for January 28th and be sure to catch The Smiling Lieutenant. You. Will. Not. Be. Sorry.
When you’re finished over here, be sure to pop over to Speakeasy to find out what Kristina has selected for her Pre-Code Crazy pick of the month!