Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Smiling Lieutenant


This one stars Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert, and Miriam Hopkins. I wanted to see it mostly because it was directed by Ernst Lubitsch. His combination of wit and humor and sophistication was so unique and dependable they had a name for it: The Lubitsch Touch. I’ve seen seven or eight of his films, and he’s never let me down. And he doesn’t here, either, despite having Chevalier. I’ve never been a big fan of Maurice Chevalier. I’ve been trying to put my finger on it, and the best I can come up with is that he’s too French. Now, don’t start calling me a Francophobe. I love many things that are tres French: Belmondo, Jacques Tati, Truffaut, brie, snails and frog legs, fellatio, Piaf, my old diesel Peugeot, French dip sandwiches and French fries. Hell, I played the French horn in my high school band. But there’s just something about that protruding lower lip of Chevalier’s, his impish expression, the jaunty angle of his straw hat … he just looks too damn pleased with himself, as if he knows he’s the cutest thing in the world. And, damn it, he’s just so goddam French!

So what do they cast him as here? Why, a Lieutenant in the Austrian army. He’s about as Viennese as a Hottentot, but he does look good in that uniform. And it doesn’t really matter. This is comic operetta, the uniforms are mandatory, and it doesn’t really matter if they’re Austrian or from the little made-up principality of Flausenthurm (spelled with an H!) that figures in the plot. Maurice is in his element here, and I have to say he does a damn good job with the very, very silly songs in the very silly plot. The fun comes in the satire of royals and royal customs, flummery, idiocy. This is Lubitsch’s element, and he is perfect in every scene.

In the story, both women are in love with him (naturally), one a naïve princess, the other his long-time live-in lover (Colbert). He wants to stay with his old flame, but due to comic circumstances he must marry the princess. Now, at the beginning of this TMC broadcast Robert Osborne told us that the Production Code was being enforced laxly at this time, so they could show two people shacking up. But parts of it still reigned. Due to extremely unbelievable but funny circumstances, Maurice ends up loving the Princess (or at least coveting her with his roving Gallic eye), and poor Colbert gallantly rides off into the sunset. After all, she is a sinful woman, and as she says at one point, “Girls who start with breakfast don’t usually end up with supper.” In other words, guard that virginity, maidens!