Welcome to a new Film Friday and the start of a new series of posts on the Pre-Code work of the naughty Miriam Hopkins (1902-1972). We’ll be covering some of her most delightfully Pre-Code films (all released by Paramount) over these next five weeks, and you don’t want to miss a single one! Today, we’re beginning the series with…
The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)
A misfired flirtation lands a young lieutenant married to a princess instead of the one he loves. Starring Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert, Miriam Hopkins, and Charles Ruggles. Based on the novel by Hans Muller. Based on the operetta by Leopold Jacobson and Felix Dormann. Screenplay by Ernest Vajda and Samson Raphaelson. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
It is fitting that the first post in our series on “Hot Pre-Code Hopkins” should cover a film that literally sees the Hopkins character go from frigid (old world) to scintillating (modern). How does she do it? With a little help from Claudette Colbert as her husband’s mistress. Add in the always charming Maurice Chevalier, a couple of inconsequential musical numbers, plus the Lubitsch touch, and you’ve got an amusing way to spend 90 minutes of your time.
“Lieutenant Niki of the Austrian royal guard has a new girlfriend, Franzi. He’s crazy about her and is smiling at her while on duty in the street. King Adolf and his daughter Princess Anna from the neighboring kingdom of Flausenthurm drive by, and Anna intercepts a wink meant for Franzi. She falls for Niki, marries him (he has no choice in the matter), and whisks him off to Flausenthurm. Franzi follows and enjoys a brief affair with Niki before Anna finds out. Franzi, much more experienced in the ways of the world, gives Anna lessons on how to win the affections of her husband.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of IMDb.)
Adapted from an operetta that was itself adapted from a novel, the effervescent hand of director Ernst Lubitsch is felt throughout the entire picture — from the whimsical motions of the camera to the bouncy nuances instilled in the performances. The entire picture is fluff — not trivial or inconsequential — but light, airy, and aware of its objective: amusement. The narrative climax of the piece (of which I was aware before I viewed the film) is a scene in which a mistress gives her lover’s wife tips on how to keep her man. (Hint: it’s all about the underwear.) Could that get any more Pre-Code? Interestingly, the film veers away from embracing amorality by having Chevalier’s character meet and fall for his mistress (Colbert) BEFORE his marriage to the princess (Hopkins), which, we should also note, is arranged. Thus, the Chevalier character is allowed to remain as likable as his portrayer, and we don’t condemn Colbert either.
Unfortunately, given how invested we are made to become with Chevalier and Colbert, we don’t root for Hopkins to win the man. We prefer the wise and straight-shooting musician to the naive and whiny princess. And that’s no fault of Hopkins’; that’s the way the story and the script presents the two women. So when [SPOILER ALERT] husband and wife end up in each other’s arms at the fade out, it does feel bizarre — like one big Lubitsch joke. And what does this say about the film’s claim to being saucily Pre-Code? Well, although he does end up with his wife, it’s not the “better woman,” and that in itself goes against traditional narrative forms. Especially since, the only way that Hopkins could win back her husband is to cut her hair, wear skimpy gowns, play jazzy music and act hyper-sexual. (Ah, a woman of today!)
The scene between the two women is the film’s most memorable, garnering the most ear-catching of the film’s musical numbers. (Although, I must admit, hearing Colbert and Hopkins, two non-singers, belting the tunes out is more novelty than audibly pleasing.) But they’re all in good fun — just like the entire film. All in good fun, and recommended for those in need of a few Pre-Code giggles. Colbert fans: this is a goodie. Chevalier fans: ditto. Hopkins fans: our girl is a stick-in-the-mud for most of the film, but she comes around by the end — once she “jazzes up her lingerie”!
Come back next Friday for another Pre-Code Hopkins film! And tune in on Monday for a new week on That’s Entertainment!