The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) Review

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) Director: Ernst Lubitsch

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The “Lubitsch Touch” strikes again! The Smiling Lieutenant is a delightful musical-comedy, it is both light-hearted and sentimental as well as clever and at times even absurd, but its sunny disposition makes for a lovely film. With the story borrowed from an Oscar Straus opretta, and based on a German novel, The Smiling Lieutenant was the first of three films directed by Ernst Lubitsch starring Mirian Hopkins, the others being Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Design for Living (1933). The plot for The Smiling Lieutenant closely mirrors Lubitsch’s earlier film, The Love Parade (1929).

In Vienna, a French officer meets and falls in love with a beautiful young jazz orchestra performer (stealing her affections away from another Viennese officer). While standing at attention during a welcome parade for the king and princess of Flausenthurm (a fabricated small European kingdom that no one seems to be able to spell correctly), he winks at his lover just as the motorcade for the princess passes by. However, the princess sees his smiling and winking, and she becomes gravely offended, causing a national uproar. Thus the French officer is called up to explain himself at the palace. Nervously, he claims that the princess is beautiful hence why he was smiling and winking, so she falls in love with him and he is forced to marry her (out of national and political necessity). However, he remains true to his jazz band lover. After a period of struggle, his lover comes to the palace, unbeknownst to him one day, and she helps the princess loosen up (“jazz up your lingerie”), and in the end it works, the young french officer becomes attracted to his wife. He winks at the audience as he closes their bedroom door. The “Lubitsch touch” in this film is that in the end, the film is a joke –the wrong girl gets the man (the audience keeps anticipating a reunion with his jazz band lover).

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Nominated for Best Picture, lead actor Maurice Chevalier explained that there was high tension on set for this film, and that his regular smiling and winking were coping mechanisms for the recent death of his mother.

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