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SMILING LIEUTENANT, THE (director/writer: Ernst Lubitsch; screenwriters: Henri Bataille, Samson Raphaelson, Ernest Vajda/from “The Waltz Dream” by Oscar Straus and Hans Muller’s novel, “Nux der Prinzgemahl”; cinematographer: George J. Folsey; editor: Merrill G. White; music: Oscar Straus; cast: Maurice Chevalier (Lt. Niki), Claudette Colbert (Franzi), Miriam Hopkins (Princess Anna), Charles Ruggles (Max), George Barbier (King Adolf XV), Hugh O’Connell (Orderly), Janet Reade (Lily), Con MacSunday (Emperor); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Ernst Lubitsch; Criterion Collection: Eclipse Series 8; 1931)
“Charming lightweight musical.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Adapted from the 1907 operetta The Waltz Dream by Leopold Jacobson and Felix Doermann with music by Austrian composer Oscar Straus and Hans Muller’s novel “Nux der Prinzgemahl”, which was made into a silent German film also titled The Waltz Dream in 1926. Ernst Lubitsch (“The Love Parade”/Design for Living”/”The Shop Around the Corner”) shot it at Paramount’s Astoria, Long Island, studios. The charming lightweight musical, with only five numbers, is more a romantic comedy loaded with Lubitsch’s trademark sexual touches. This minor film scored big with the Depression-era audience.

It’s set in Vienna, where Max (Charles Ruggles), a married soldier, tells his single womanizing lieutenant buddy from the Viennese guards, “Niki” von Preyn (Maurice Chevalier), that he’s fallen in love with beer garden cutie violinist Franzi (Claudette Colbert), who conducts an all-girl-orchestra, and asks him to accompany him to hear her play. The randy lieutenant promptly steals the sexually liberated Franzi from Max.

Problems arise for Niki when King Adolf XV (George Barbier) and his daughter, the sexually repressed Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins), of the fictional kingdom of Flausenthurm, visit the king’s cousin, the emperor, in Vienna. Passing by in a parade, Niki is caught smiling at Franzi but it’s misinterpreted as being a slight on the princess. Called before the king to explain himself, Niki uses his charm to lie his away out of the jam by saying he was smiling at how pretty is the princess. This wins her heart and he’s forced into marrying her, and moving to Flausenthurm. The story becomes a dull farce, as Niki refuses to romance Anna and instead continues to romance Franzi when she turns up in Flausenthurm with her orchestra. Upset that her marriage isn’t consummated, Anna orders Franzi to visit her in the palace. The two ladies hit it off, and Franzi sits down at the piano and tunefully instructs Anna to “Jazz Up Your Lingerie.” This is the showstopper piece and brought the film at the climax back to life. The lingerie idea works, and Franzi splits town saying before she exits “girls who start with breakfast don’t usually stay for supper.” Meanwhile Anna and her smiling lieutenant now find ways to enjoy themselves in the boudoir.

No great shakes of a film for the much acclaimed Lubitsch (though it was nominated for Best Picture), but Hopkins and Colbert handle their comedic lines with graceful ease; while Chevalier’s joviality seemed mechanical and failed to do much for me.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”