Week 2: 1930s Musicals
Challenge: Watch an unseen 1930s musical
Film I Chose: The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), directed by Ernst Lubitsch
We’re totally in my wheelhouse doing 1930s musicals, so much so that I had to go much more obscure than the Fred/Ginger and Busby Berkeley films many other Challengers are doing (though if you haven’t seen those, that’s absolutely the way to go). Instead I went for a Pre-Code Lubitsch/Chevalier musical I hadn’t seen.
Chevalier plays Nikki, a lieutenant in the Austrian army who’s something of a womanizer (his opening song, sung direct to camera, talks about how it’s “toujours l’amour in the army” and how much the ladies enjoy his ra-ta-ta-ta-ta, a double meaning for a trumpet fanfare), until he meets Franzie (Claudette Colbert), a violinist who quickly dumps Charles Ruggles in favor of Chevalier. The plot thickens when Nikki winks at Franzie while on duty as an entourage from a neighboring country drives through and the princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins) thinks he was winking at her and soon wants to marry him.
The film is delightfully Pre-Code in a lot of ways, from Ruggles openly discussing his infatuation with Franzie despite his being married, to Chevalier pointing out that married couples don’t do THAT (meaning sex), at least not with each other, to Franzie giving Anna a crash course in sexy underwear and jazz. But it’s also the particular kind of sophisticated comedy that Lubitsch specialized in – very frank and knowing, but never raunchy. The way he ends the film is something probably only he could do and make work, as well.
Not everything about the film was a slam dunk – I usually love Miriam Hopkins, but her character for most of the film is intensely irritating, especially during the “I like him so much” musical number. It doesn’t help her that the number is intercut with Chevalier and Colbert, who have much better chemistry, reiterating their love for each other. Colbert is very charming (I’m pretty sure this is the earliest film I’ve seen her in). The songs in general are fairly unmemorable, little more than narrative interludes that add to the film’s overall light feel but aren’t much on their own.
It is interesting to compare this film to the 1932 Chevalier-MacDonald film Love Me Tonight, which is by Rouben Mamoulian but is one of the more Lubitschean films Lubitsch didn’t direct. Love Me Tonight is justly celebrated for its integration of music into plot, which is something this film doesn’t do well, but there are many other things that it seems Mamoulian pulled directly from Lubitsch here. Chevalier’s singing style, of course, is all him and goes across all his films (right up to 1958’s Gigi), but things like Charles Ruggles as the rather flustered plot McGuffin, the old biddies in the palace (at least one of whom I think is the same actress in both films), the plot device of a princess who needs loosening up, a lot of visuals of Chevalier running up and down palace stairs, etc. It just felt very similar, in a good, comfortable way.
Here’s how The Smiling Lieutenant entered my Flickchart:
The Smiling Lieutenant > Road to Rio
The Smiling Lieutenant < 35 Up The Smiling Lieutenant > Open Your Eyes
The Smiling Lieutenant > King Kong
The Smiling Lieutenant < Amadeus The Smiling Lieutenant < The Abominable Snow Rabbit The Smiling Lieutenant < Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix The Smiling Lieutenant > The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
The Smiling Lieutenant > Skyfall
The Smiling Lieutenant < The Matrix Reloaded The Smiling Lieutenant > Broadway Melody of 1936
Final ranking: #1081 out of 3533