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Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

Life was always a blast in classic musicals set in the Europe of the 19th century, most of which were based on European operettas. It's no different in this Ernst Lubitsch precode for Lt Nikolaus von Preyn, better known as Niki, is living the high life for sure. He sleeps in, even when the bugle calls; he has a valet who understands the vocalising that passes for speech when he's half asleep; and best of all beautiful young ladies eagerly turn up at his apartment, knock their coded knocks to be let in, then leave later apparently highly satisfied with their visit.

He's played by French singer/actor Maurice Chevalier, who seemed to always end up in uniform in these old days. He was used to it though, having been an infantryman for two years during the war. He wasn't the prettiest leading man of the day but he was the personification of what Americans saw as European charm and daring. The fact that his eyes and mouth never stopped smiling could never hurt, making it almost impossible not to have your heart lightened by watching him, whether you appreciate his style or not.

Of course what Americans saw as European charm and daring translates to what Europeans would call a sly rogue. When his friend and fellow soldier Max, played by Charlie Ruggles, wants his help, he's happy to lend it, even if it's to help this married man seduce the leader of a girls band in a biergarten, later to be elevated to be the world famous ladies orchestra, the Viennese Swallows. Of course he means from moment one to steal her for himself, even before seeing her but especially afterwards, and he does so. She's Franzi, in the delightful form of Claudette Colbert, French born herself, and always a pleasure to watch. Lt Niki thinks so too and falls hard for her, as we find in the songs that they sing. She puts magic in the muffins and passion in the prunes, and there's dynamite in all her kisses. These lyrics are fun even to me.

And here's where we find the Lubitsch touch that sparks our real story. As a member of the Austrian royal guard, he's on duty in the street presenting arms to the passing royal family of the small neighbouring country of Flausenthurm, but being the rogue he is he winks at his lovely Franzi on the other side of the road right when the royal coach passes. Princess Anna sees him and so begins a royal outcry at such unforgiveable temerity, while she's privately thrilled at his forward behaviour. He's summoned to apologise and explain and in doing so merely cements her decision to marry him. Her father, King Adolf XV, is a little harder to convince but the fact that Niki can spell Flausenthurm and Anna threatens to marry an American if she can't have her lieutenant is more than enough.

The Smiling Lieutenant is as bubbly and infectious as the title character, even as he's thrust into a bizarre love triangle. Princess Anna loves Lt Niki, but Lt Niki loves Franzi the violinist. Even after he's forced into marrying her, he sneaks out to be with his girl who has followed him to Flausenthurm, telling the the King that marriage is as far as he'll go. 'You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink,' he says. As a precode, and this entire film couldn't have been made under the code, there's plenty of opportunity to dance around with morals.

It is delightfully naughty, perhaps epitomised by the first dialogue Niki and Franzi share after his marriage to the princess. He elicits the assistance of the Flausenthurm police to whisk her away to him where they quickly fall into each other's arms. She says, 'I shouldn't do this,' and he replies, 'No, you shouldn't,' all with a wink at the Hays Office. Naturally, it doesn't stop them doing this in the slightest and we're very happy for the freedom of the precodes to do things like that, and for our two leading ladies to meet, slap each other and fall about crying; and for Franzi to offer advice to her competitor in song: Jazz Up Your Lingerie.

Operettas were designed to be fluff, a lighter alternative to the more serious opera form, and they were very successful at that. Perhaps this film explains something important about my own taste in musicals that I've been trying to fathom for a long time. I don't tend to like the things, generally wishing that they either stay musical throughout or quit the singing and get on with the story. Perhaps what this boils down to is that I like musicals that are really operettas, playing fast and loose, staying fluffy and using comedic song to progress their stories; but don't like musicals that put on pretensions of grandeur and thus fail in their true comparison, to opera.

This is a peach, which I enjoyed far more than Lubitsch's more successful and far more frequently quoted The Merry Widow, partly because its so utterly infectious and partly because of the charm of the stars. Chevalier is a rogue and while I don't buy into the Gallic charm I buy utterly into him being an unmitigated skirtchaser. He plays well here with both Claudette Colbert, early in her career a full two years before It Happened One Night, which was until now the earliest I'd seen her, and Miriam Hopkins in only her second feature length film.

Apparently while everything on screen is bubbly, life on the set wasn't as everyone had their own troubles at the time. Lubitsch was going through a divorce, as his wife had been having an affair with a friend and colleague; Chevalier was mourning the death of his mother; and Colbert and Hopkins were making demands as to how they should be photographed. Thankfully all involved were professional enough that none of this shows on screen, and indeed all three of them also made a French language version, Hopkins being fluent in French through her privileged southern upbringing and both her co-stars actually being French.

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