The Smiling Lieutenant

Screening on Film
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
With Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert, Miriam Hopkins.
US, 1931, 35mm, black & white, 93 min.
Print source: Universal

In an alternate prewar universe where marrying Americans is unthinkable sacrilege and fellow soldiers sing to one another of their carnal desires, a libidinous lieutenant from Austria (Maurice Chevalier) casually winks at the prudish princess (Miriam Hopkins) of neighboring country Flausenthurm and unwittingly seals the deal on a marriage. Rather than scold him for unfaithfulness, however, the lieutenant’s charismatic violinist girlfriend (Claudette Colbert) befriends her competition and offers an education on sexual desirability, which includes the instruction to “jazz up your lingerie.” This is the mischievous world of The Smiling Lieutenant, among the most startling of Lubitsch’s pre-Code farces. Though grieving from his mother’s death during the shoot, Chevalier turns in one of his sprightliest performances as the Vienna ladies’ man with a preternatural knack for nonverbal flirtation, but the film’s real appeal is the contrasting energies of Colbert and Hopkins, which collide in a third-act piano duet that features such evocative Lubitschian imagery as a shot of stuffy undergarments going up in flames to signify the extinguishing of puritanism.

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