Of the four films on this Criterion Collection disk, I intend to discuss THE SMILING LIEUTENANT (1931). It is another risqué film from famed German-born Hollywood film director Ernst Lubitsch, he of the acclaimed light touch that just made it under the wire before Hollywood's repressive Hays Code was enforced. It is an 89-minute, black and white musical/romantic comedy, based on the operetta EIN WALTZERTRAUM ("A WALTZ DREAM"), by Leopold Jacobson and Felix Dormann. The screenplay was written by Ernest Vajda and Samson Raphaelson. Although the movie was Oscar-nominated, and was the biggest grossing film of 1931, it was not permitted to be re-released once the Hays Code began to be enforced. It was, in fact, considered lost until a print was discovered in Denmark in the 1990s.The picture has an all-star cast, including several actors with which Lubitsch frequently worked, that excelled in delivering these gossamer Lubitsch valentines. And the movie is set in that gemütlich, glamorous Mitteleuropa city, Vienna, which I have finally managed to visit recently that here, looks lovely and decorative as a wedding cake.
Winsome Lieutenant Niki of the Austrian royal guard has a new girlfriend, the pretty and charming musician Franzi. He's crazy about her and is smiling at her while on duty. Just then, King Adolf and his daughter Princess Anna from the neighboring kingdom of Flausenthurm arrive for a state visit, and Anna catches a wink directed to Franzi. She falls for Niki, marries him (he has virtually no choice in the matter), and whisks him off to Flausenthurm. Franzi follows them and enjoys a brief rekindling of the affair with her handsome lieutenant before the Princess finds out. Franzi, who is much more experienced than Anna in the ways of the world, gives the princess tips on how to make herself more attractive to her husband.
Lt. Nikolaus `Niki" von Preyn is played by the invariably charming French crooner Maurice Chevalier (Gigi
). Franzi is played by the equally charming French actress Claudette Colbert (It Happened One Night
). Princess Anna is played by Lubitsch favorite Miriam Hopkins, in the first of three movies she would make with the director, the others being TROUBLE IN PARADISE
and Criterion Collection: Design for Living
. Niki's batman Max is played by perennial comic favorite Charles Ruggles (TROUBLE IN PARADISE, Bringing Up Baby [DVD
].) The rhythmic underscoring of the film comments on the characters' moods; it was orchestrated by Conrad Salinger, who had been a pupil of the English composer Frederick Delius.
The film's got its share of witty lines. Princess Anna tells Franzi, "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." And at one point, after King Adolf and Princess Anna proudly serve Niki the Viennese favorite dish veal schnitzel, and boast that they got the cow, as well as the recipe, from Vienna, Niki laments, "Poor cow. To have been born in Vienna, and die in Flausenthurm."
Lubitsch is also known for the comedies Ninotchka
, THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER,The James Stewart Hollywood Legend Collection
, and To Be or Not to Be
. His films are suffused with subtle, subliminal sexuality: no nudity, done with innuendo, and the great deal of magnetic energy the topnotch director was able to draw from his actors. His acclaimed "Lubitsch touch" is a light one. It is best seen here, I think, in the arrival of piles of boxes to Princess Anna's palace, all bearing the names, one feels sure, of the most chic shops in Vienna. And all containing clothing, the viewer will feel sure, recommended by Franzi, that is guaranteed to make the formerly dowdy Anna look good to her new husband. And then there is the new sheet music, to the jazz tunes of the day. It's no wonder Princess Anna will soon become irresistible to her formerly inattentive husband. Viewers are likely to find this film irresistible too.