Beginning in November 2019, I embarked on the Old Hollywood Best Picture Challenge, where I will endeavor to watch all 270 films that were nominated and/or won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards between the years 1927-1969. For a list of all films and reviews, please see my original post.

*****

  • Film & Year: The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)
  • Standing: Nominated for Best Picture of 1931/1932
  • Type: Comedy, Romance, Musical, Pre-Code
  • Other AA Nominations: 0
  • Director: Ernst Lubitsch
  • Studio/Producer: Paramount Pictures / Ernst Lubitsch
  • Cast: Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert, Miriam Hopkins, Charlie Ruggles, George Barbier
  • Production Notes: Music by Oscar Straus, Lyrics by Clifford Grey, Cinematography by George Folsey, Art Direction by Hans Dreier
  • Viewing Order: 25 / 270

 

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Summary & Viewing Experience:

Lieutenant Nikolaus “Niki” von Preyn (Maurice Chevalier) is in charge of many horny soldiers stationed in Vienna; Niki himself is an unabashed playboy. Fellow soldier Max (Charlie Ruggles) is married, but enamored with another woman, Franzi (Claudette Colbert), a violinist. Max pleads with Niki to join him to watch her perform and the two men make a night of it, Niki at once realizing why Max took such a shine to Franzi. Both men pursue her, but Niki is the one who strikes her interest. The two coast into the next scene on a wave of sexual innuendo, ending up at the breakfast table (IF you know what I mean…)

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Colbert and Chevalier keeping the breakfast warm

Later, the visiting Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins) happens to ride by in a carriage just as Niki is winking at Franzi on the other side of the street and thinks the wink was meant for her. Seeing this as an insult, Niki is brought in to be punished, so to save his skin he convinces the princess that he winked because he was dazzled by her beauty. Consequently, the naïve princess falls for him, thinking he feels the same, while he returns to the arms of his love Franzi.

The princess has her heart set on marriage and Niki finds himself railroaded into an engagement, despite his protests. Franzi, realizing the situation has snowballed and can’t compete with a princess, leaves reluctantly. Niki and Princess Anna marry, but he is still angry about the forced marriage and steers clear of her, much to her dismay. Eventually, he goes in search of Franzi…

…but the princess finds out.

In the end, who will Niki choose to be with?

While Miriam Hopkins is quite likable and Maurice Chevalier displayed only a fraction of his usual creepiness with a character that had more morality than Chevalier was typically afforded in a Lubitsch picture, Claudette Colbert’s star shone brightest. She managed to display layers of emotion, energy, and adorable sweetness all at once as Franzi.

As musicals go, the film really should have just left that bit on the cutting room floor and stuck to Franzi’s violin and Princess Anna’s piano playing as the sole musical elements. The songs are corny to the point of embarrassment and Chevalier sings as if he has marbles in his mouth. One song in particular, that Niki and Franzi sing about their new love over (post coital) breakfast, includes the lines, “there’s paradise in every slice of bacon,” “you put glamour in the grapefruit, you put passion in the prunes,” and “with every bit of liver, I start to quiver.”

Yikes!

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Princess Anna trying out a wink

Behind the Scenes:

The film was written by Samson Raphaelson and Ernest Vajda, based on Oscar Straus’ operetta Ein Walzertraum, which in turn was based on Hans Muller-Einigen’s novel Nux, der Prinzgemahl.

Why was it nominated for Best Picture?

Audiences and critics seemed to have been dying for a repeat of the Lubitsch/Chevalier hit The Love Parade and they felt like they finally got it with The Smiling Lieutenant. Lubitsch was once again called a genius and Chevalier’s unique way of “singing” was praised.

How does it hold up today?

Lubitsch’s heavy-handed sexual innuendo is sure to hold up for modern audiences, especially when acted out by dynamic pre-code ladies like Colbert and Hopkins.

  • IMDb rating= 7.2 out of 10 (with 3,067 ratings)
  • Rotten Tomatoes rating= 88% fresh by critics (7 fresh votes vs 1 rotten) and 72% fresh user ratings (out of 450 ratings)

 

Would this be my pick for 1931/1932Best Picture?

Though I found it better than Chevalier and Lubitsch’s other 1931/1932 offering, One Hour With You, I can’t say it’s at the top of the heap.

*UPDATE: See my full 1931/1932 ranking here