The Smiling Lieutenant – Paramount’s Rollicking, Audacious, Happiness Super-Production

The Smiling Lieutenant is a divisive picture. For those expecting an out-and-out musical, it will disappoint. Retaining the elemental contours of the Strauss operetta and a good deal of its music, it presents songs few in number and definitely American and vulgar in character. (Can you name another operetta with a song like “Jazz Up Your Lingerie?”) Its demonstration of Paramount panache is mixed: the sets are obviously expensive, but always maintain an accent of Astoria—slightly claustrophobic, presenting reasonable depth while never quite airy enough. As a pre-Code picture, The Smiling Lieutenant is thoroughly adult in sensibility and register, but lacks for moments of wincing depravity or bad manners to be quoted by admirers. What’s more, seen in an off light, its sexual politics—mysterious and intuitive, enacted rather than contemplated—can look rather conservative and, more important, emotionally unconvincing. Even Lubitsch’s generally sensitive biographer Scott Eyman complains that “the wrong girl gets the man” and judges the thing “too ooh-la-la by half.”

Suffice it to say, these are all among the film’s minor strengths, as well as elements that mark it as memorable and distinctive next to its more conventional contemporaries. There’s not much story and what of it there is is told at a deliberative, luxuriating pace. No mistaken identities or games of deceit here, just a man falling in love with one woman and then learning to accept another. Within this slim treatment resides a universe of feeling.

Maurice Chevalier begins as a roguish lieutenant in name only—with no wars to fight, his social position arises chiefly from conforming to sexual expectation. And yet his first number, “Toujours L’Amour in the Army,” betrays a prickly entitlement that amounts to a rote, unattractive sexuality, as if a bevy of European beauties at Chevalier’s call was a socially-mandated burden. There’s a volatility in the performance, too, an angry awareness on Chevalier’s part of how little legitimate emotion resides under the schtick, of how simple American audiences want their French heartthrobs to be.

Claudette Colbert is entirely different—no prevarications, no public pressures or presumptions. She plays a violinist who leads an all-girl band that’s apparently good enough to tour the European beer garden circuit as The Viennese Swallows.  It’s a concept that never comes off as twee—there’s nary a nod, the possibility of such a career taken casually enough that Lubitsch and screenwriter Raphaelson never labor under conventions. (There’s no big performance, no back stage drama, it’s all treated as a lightly factual, none-too-interesting way of making a living.) Colbert’s profession allows for a sexual metaphor—chamber music, as the private realization of public flirtation—so perfectly integrated as to almost single-handedly demarcate the line between being witty and being dirty. Their scenes together are marvelous and inventive, expressing sexual frisson in any available materials, memorably muffins and grapefuits. That number, “Breakfast Table Love,” is a genuine oddity, but also more than that—an irrepressible, untroubled ode to post-coital bliss that succeeds seriously in pop terms.

Fittingly, their union ends when Chevalier’s overflowing, exergonic sexual desire inadvertently snares Miriam Hopkins, a visiting princess from Flausenthurm. A dishonorable wink becomes the basis of an international incident. It is a credit to both Lubitsch and Hopkins that this character comes across as clearly and sincerely as she does. We never laugh at the virgin’s expense. Strikingly, she projects her own innocence onto Chevalier, “so mild, he’s a sweet child…so modest and so gentle, so sentimental.” Hopkins’s inexperience is moving and human because she so clearly wants things that she cannot describe, tentatively unsure whether she has even been denied affection at all before resigning herself to a lifetime of winkless marriage.

The wrong girl gets the man, but not without each character learning something about themselves they previously denied. (This turn of events is not in the least a surprise—the whole film moves with such a deliberate inevitability that it cannot help but be understood and felt most immediately as a character study of three people facing an impossible situation.) Most extraordinary is Colbert, facing the destruction of her love affair with a stoic compassion towards Hopkins that is entirely unexpected and mature. She becomes the author of her own obsolescence.

Film historians have long cited the opening “Beyond the Blue Horizon” number in Lubitsch’s previous effort Monte Carlo—naturalistic sound effects giving way to music, fused to dictate a very definite cutting rhythm—as a creative milestone, supposedly the first artistic moment in talking pictures. It’s more fashionable these days to acclaim Rouben Mamoulian’s imitation-Lubitsch musical, Love Me Tonight, as a repository of liberated and liberating camera tricks—songs recited roundelay-style between unrelated characters in a dozen locales, horses galloping backwards or was it in slow motion? Unlike The Smiling Lieutenants, their tiresome virtues are technical rather than emotional.

The Smiling Lieutenant is never so obviously experimental—though it is, too, in its way, daring for its season if not for the history books. More or less the only musical produced and released in the immediate aftermath of the genre’s apparent demise and its nearly de jure banishment from studio production schedules (a market overcorrection in response to discouraging price signals, as it were), The Smiling Lieutenant is a model for a different kind of musical made in a different kind of way.  Short on songs but long on underscoring, it sounds nothing like any other 1931 film. Scores had recently been banished from the screen, too, as unrealistic embellishments, assuring that talkies would have to make due with profound silences between dialogue business. (In fact, many managed it better than their reputations suggest.) The Smiling Lieutenant continuously returns to the melody of “Breakfast Table Love,” and the arrangement and tempo perfectly complement the emotional progression of Colbert and Chevalier’s romance, not least the plaintive and tragic reprise over the end title following an apparently happy ending. Many scenes are shot without any sound effects, allowing the music to carry the entire scene—simultaneously a back- wards glance at the technique of the part-talkers of 1928- 1929 and a glimpse of something more deliberately ethereal. It is, in no small way, a model of construction for the fully-integrated musicals that would follow.

Shot in Paramount’s Queens studio, The Smiling Lieutenant was also something of a test for large-scale, good-as-Hollywood East Coast production, obviously bigger and aiming higher than something like Stolen Heaven or previous Colbert vehicles such as The Lady Lies. Astoria presumably economized the use of Broadway talent and The Smiling Lieutenant indeed used several forgotten contemporary stage actors for bits, including Hugh O’Connell, Robert Strange, Janet Reade, Elizabeth Patterson, and Harry Bradley.

Industry hostility to Astoria production was palpable. Reading the Los Angeles Times’ coverage of The Smiling Lieutenant suggests a very definite and wide-ranging policy of squelching any further East Coast feature production—an understandable position on its own, though a tad absurd as Paramount had effectively shuttered Astoria by the time of the film’s release.  New York correspondent Norbert Luske’s notice at the time of its highly successful Broadway opening in late May 1931 spoke of a generally vulgar production, hampered by “wise cracks by Broadway experts.” When The Smiling Lieutenant opened in Hollywood, the Times reviewed it again; Edwin Schallert was rather more sympathetic but still could not fail to note “[s]ome of it is in hopelessly bad taste (possibly due to New York influences on the director) and fragmentary portions are even crude.” The very next day, Schallert, in a column on the fortunes of the film musical, toed the party line and held up The Smiling Lieutenant as an example of the genre’s ‘Inverse Ratio Progress.’ The gratuitous snares continued the week following, with Schallert damning the picture with faint praise (“Ernst Lubitsch has, of course, made better films…”) before reassuring his company town that New York ‘merely succeeds in exerting a mild stimulus from time to time on activities here.’ ‘WEST RECLAIMS LUBITSCH’ trumpeted the Times upon Ernst’s return to the movie colony, joyfully noting that ‘the New York vs. Hollywood question reaches an answer, perhaps a permanent one this time.’

Any cursory look at the reception of The Smiling Lieutenant shows the wariness of the Los Angeles Times to be an outlier. Critics gushed everywhere that it opened.

Luske had warned of “scenes and implications that cannot be published in a newspaper …. Here nothing is left to the imagination, but as dutifully recorded, the picture is a popular success. Nevertheless, one wonders how it passed the censors and if it will be shown without protest in smaller communities.”

If small town audiences resisted its charms (as Richard Barrios suggests very cursorily in A Song in the Dark), I can find no contemporary evidence of it. It even received a rave review in the Telegraph-Journal and Times-Herald of Dubuque, Iowa! (“After seeing this film,” wrote the anonymous Iowa reviewer, “one cannot help wondering if it isn’t high time for sound pictures to get back a few songs or a dash of music…”) Another rave in The Spokesmen-Review of Spokane, Washington, cautioned that “the story is not recommended for children or folks who do not appreciate the continental humor of Ernst Lubitsch.” Still, the Spokesmen-Review advised that it “doesn’t make any difference if folks don’t know how to pronounce [Chevalier’s] last name, they will revel in his ingratiating portrayal.”

That The Smiling Lieutenant skirted rural rebuke is a testament to its construction. Indeed, The Smiling Lieutenant is a fabulous whole, one where the naughty suggestions are so thoroughly part of the texture that not a single moment can be singled out for censor’s censure. Consider the wedding night exchange between Chevalier and Hopkins. Realizing that Chevalier has no interest in deflowering her, Hopkins desperately winks at her new husband, the only dirty gesture she knows.

CHEVALIER: “Oh no. Oh no. Married people don’t do that.”

HOPKINS: “They don’t?”


HOPKINS: “Married people don’t wink?”

CHEVALIER: “Yes, they wink…but not at each other!”

HOPKINS: “Well, what’s the use of getting married?”

CHEVALIER: “All the philosophers, for three thousand years, have tried to find that out.”

Broken down to constituent parts, the dialogue is incredibly delicate. Nothing indecent is directly spoken or shown, but conjugal frigidity, extramarital sex, and the kernel of a feminist critique of the institution are all quite obviously conveyed in a handful of words. In its way, The Smiling Lieutenant was something of a bellwether for a more responsible type of sex comedy. The picture had even been announced at the April 1931 exhibitors’ convention in Atlanta where Paramount exec George Akerson proclaimed that “clean pictures which cover incidents in the every-day lives of the average person are the only ones which live and continually hold interest.”

Clever and elliptical as The Smiling Lieutenant is, the mind still reels at a contest sponsored by the Chicago Daily Tribune wherein Second City kids could write in with letters describing why they wanted to see the picture. The hundred best entries would be treated to a summertime party and screening by Trib columnist Sally Joy Brown. The air conditioning was a coequal part of the bargain (vide the headline, ‘Chevalier to Help 100 Lucky Children Keep Cool, Laugh’), but Sally did her best to sell children on Chevalier’s latest:

The action takes place in Vienna where the young lieutenant gets in and out of all sorts of scrapes with princes and princesses and finally finds himself whisked into matrimony with the daughter of the royal house. Now in most pictures and plays and stories the plot ends here and the hero and heroine live happily ever after. It’s not the case in “Smiling Lieutenant,” I can assure you, for it just marks the beginning of the young officer’s troubles.


(It’s worth noting that, in Chicago at least, The Smiling Lieutenant was not advertised as an ‘Adults Only’ picture, while contemporary attractions like The Public Enemy and An American Tragedy were.)

Speaking of Chicago, The Smiling Lieutenant had a hearty run here. It opened on Thursday, July 2 at Balaban and Katz’s 1,696-seat United Artists at Dearborn and Randolph, where it did great business for the better part of a month. It was the first engagement of The Smiling Lieutenant at popular prices. (The New York opening was $2 a seat and advanced tickets for the first month sold out immediately.) Shows ran continuously from 9 AM onwards at the United Artists. By the end of July, 300,000 Chicagoans had seen the film. After it left the United Artists on July 28, it played simultaneously at three B&K second-run houses—the Paradise, Tivoli, and Uptown—until August 20. From there, it was scattered between the third- and fourth-run neighborhood houses before petering out in mid-September. The Punch and Judy, “Chicago’s German Theater” at Van Buren and Michigan, promised the French-language version in October 1931, but it’s not clear whether it was ever screened as scheduled. (The Portage, then a low-tier double feature house, never played The Smiling Lieutenant in its original release, though other theaters in its Sheridan chain did.)

The Smiling Lieutenant was a popular success on a massive scale—winding up Paramount’s highest grosser of 1931 and garnering a Best Picture nomination from the Academy (Lubitsch’s third). For reasons not entirely understood, it all but disappeared for decades afterwards. This was a fate shared by many pre-Code pictures, of course, but how many others circulated exclusively in a single Danish-subtitled 16mm copy well into the 1980s? Due perhaps to this lack of reissue interest, the original camera negative survived (a rare thing for Paramount nitrate) and served as the basis for a gorgeous restoration by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. (KW)

The Northwest Chicago Film Society will be screening The Smiling Lieutenant in a 35mm print from Universal Studios at the Portage Theater on April 27. Please see our current calendar for more information.