Saturday, October 6, 2012

THE SMILING LIEUTENANT | 1931 | Challenging to Spell, Challenging to Watch, but Mostly Worth the Effort

I'm a pretty good with the spelling, but the word lieutenant always catches me up.  It doesn't help that the Brits pronounce it leftenant.  It's challenging.  For me.  (Thank goodness the main character of this film isn't named St. John).

THE SMILING LIEUTENANT is also challenging.  Patience-wise, I'm pretty hard-core when it comes to old films, but I barely made it through the opening scene where Chevalier sings directly to the camera.  He's super winky and smirky, and the material isn't that funny.  It never is when you're that sure of it.  Or rather, it reveals how unsure the material is when a performance is pushed to be so...  big.

(Yeah, that's right, the schlump who can't even update her blog regularly is questioning Lubitsch's material.  The material is likely strong, and, empirically, Chevalier is talented, but this opener - it's a hurdle).

The folks over at Turner Classic Movies claim this is "as exemplary as an Ernst Lubitsch opening can be."  I see their point, it is efficient and witty storytelling - the bit with the hallway light tells us at least two scenes worth of information.  Outside of that, I'm not convinced this is even in the Top Five Lubitsch Openers.  But I'll start paying attention now, and start my own ranking.

After the opener, things don't improve too much.  For most of the first act, the actors appear to be close to busting out laughing, incredulous that they're being asked to play any given scene straight. All of that said, in the end the story is charming and the film is worthwhile.

What happens is this:  Manwhore/Soldier Lt. Niki (Chevalier) becomes a one gal guy when he falls for Franzi (Colbert). But, while formally greeting visiting royalty, Niki gives Franzi a wink that gets intercepted by the visiting Princess (Hopkins).  Initially Princess Anna is insulted, but then she falls for Niki.

The soldier is then forced to choose between severe punishment for insulting the Princess, or marriage to...  the princess.  He marries the Princess.  But he also continues to carry on with Franzi.

After some time, Franzi is summoned to the palace, and she shows up because she thinks Niki has invited her.  Instead she is greeted by Princess Anna.  First they fight.  Then they cry.  Then Franzi recognizes that the girl loves Niki, and so she falls on her sword and helps pure, wholesome, clueless Anna out by giving her a sort of make-over.  The princess catches on quickly (see clip below).


(LOVE Miriam Hopkins!)

Niki returns home to hear the palace piano getting a workout.  He cracks open the door to see Anna hammering away at a lively, jazzy number, her hair cut shorter and moving freely, a cigarette hanging from her mouth, her posture no longer prim and reserved.

The next, and final, bit could have been as annoying as the opener, but somehow this one works - Niki runs upstairs and checks his liquor bottle, seeing that he's not likely drunk, he runs back downstairs and sees that Anna is still transformed,  he then runs back upstairs for a belt o' liquor before he returns to her.

 Yeah, I could get down on the fact that learning a new song or two and changing your clothes won't mean a thing for the long-haul of marriage, but I'm not sure this transformation was as superficial as it appears.  (See above re: Lubitsch's efficient visual storytelling, i.e. what happened means more than what happened).  Princess Anna had been sheltered by palace life, but she absorbed the education that Franzi offered so fully that - the kid's gonna be ok. 

Probably more than ok.  I suspect she'll be giving Niki the boot sooner than later.  After all, instead of taking the time to see if he could open Anna's world, he pouted and threw tantrums until his ex-girlfriend did all the work...

Released: 1931
Director: Ernst Lubitsch (Best Picture Nomination)
Leads:  Claudette Colbert, Miriam Hopkins, Maurice Chevalier
Writer:  Hans Muller-Einigen (novel), Leopold Jacobson and Felix Dormann (operetta), Samson Raphaelson, Ernest Vajda and Ernst Lubitsch (screenplay)
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Plot Summary and reviews of The Smiling Lieutenant @ Rotten Tomatoes