Given that this film was thought lost for decades (I read conflicting stories of where and when it was rediscovered), it’s scrubbed up remarkably well. Similarly, just as it bears comparatively few scars from decades of disappearance, it shows few signs of having been the not entirely happy production it apparently was; both Lubitsch and Maurice Chevalier were having off-screen problems, and there were “issues” with the film’s two leading ladies, the reasonably established Claudette Colbert and newcomer Miriam Hopkins. (The latter was apparently not a popular figure in Hollywood, and Lubitsch was one of the few people who got on well with her.) It does, however, show signs of the abrupt decline of the musical genre after its equally abrupt birth with the sound film; by 1931 American audiences had tired of the hundred-odd musicals Hollywood had unleashed in the previous two years and many films shot as musicals found themselves being released minus their songs. The Smiling Lieutenant kept its songs, but they’re noticeably fewer in number than in the last two films. This time we’ve got a love triangle again, this time with Chevalier as the victim; he’s the Viennese lieutenant of the title, who falls in love with Colbert’s violin-playing women’s orchestra leader, but who inadvertently insults Hopkins’ princess when she and her father the Kaiser of Flausenthurm (with an “h”, most definitely) are visiting Vienna, and winds up married to her rather than the actual love of his life. I see other reviews of the other two films we’ve seen sigh about them ultimately ending by reasserting traditional male dominance of the relationship and similar attitudes, etc, and Smiling Lieutenant kind of does that, but it’s interesting to see the love rivals uniting in the end as Colbert shows Hopkins how to modernise herself to retain “their” man. It’s a markedly more bittersweet ending than I’d anticipated.
The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)