Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Smiling Lieutenant

Update: To make the post more manageable I've replaced the embedded YouTube links with links to the clips.

My favourite film director -- my idol, I might say, if it didn't sound so... idolatrous -- is Ernst Lubitsch, and one of my favourite among his films is his 1931 semi-musical The Smiling Lieutenant. Since the film isn't available on DVD or even VHS, I thought I'd write a little bit about it and post some clips to give an idea of what it's like. If you ever get a chance to see this movie in a theatre, jump at that chance: I've seen it three times with three different audiences and the whole audience always laughs through the whole thing and bursts into applause at the end. It's one of the great crowd-pleasers among vintage movies.

The Smiling Lieutenant is based on Oscar Straus's Viennese operetta "A Waltz Dream", though Lubitsch relegated all the operetta's songs to background music and had Straus write a few new songs in a more modern style. As he usually did when adapting a play or an operetta, Lubitsch kept the basic outline of the story but changed everything else. The basic idea is that Niki (Maurice Chevalier), a Viennese lieutenant, is forced into marriage with Anna (Miriam Hopkins), princess of the tiny kingdom of Flausenthurm, and -- what's worse -- forced to leave his beloved Vienna and live in musty old Flausenthurm. Niki's real love is Franzi (Claudette Colbert), leader of a Viennese all-girl orchestra, who represents everything that's hip and up-to-date about Viennese fashion and music. In the end, Franzi takes pity on Anna and shows her how to attract Niki by switching to modern music and clothes.

What Lubitsch does with this material is to make a film about the intersection of music and sex, and the various ways in which music can be a metaphor for sexual intercourse. The script, by Lubitsch's great collaborator Samson Raphaelson, is full of suggestive music/sex jokes:

NIKI: You said she plays the violin?
MAX (Charlie Ruggles): Yes.
NIKI: I play the piano.

FRANZI: Maybe someday we can have a duet.
NIKI: I love chamber music.

ANNA: Tell me, father, girls like [Franzi] -- do they all play the violin?
KING: Not necessarily, but I'll tell you one thing -- they play!

Characters in the film often make music together before having sex; after Niki and Franzi's first meeting, we dissolve to them in his room -- playing a piano/violin duet. Making music is the prelude to sexual intercourse, and the better you are at making music, in this film, the sexier you are. Franzi saves Anna and Niki's marriage in the end by passing on to Anna the fact that pleasing someone sexually means pleasing him musically, so Anna first becomes attractive to Niki when he sees her at the piano playing jazz. It's a wonderful, funny, dirty-minded film -- probably the most risqué film even Lubitsch ever made.

The first clip is the opening scene of the film. Like many scenes, it's done like a silent movie: no sound equipment was used, and there's no dialogue, just visuals, sound effects and music. It sums up the essence of the way Lubitsch liked to use short, simple visual hooks to explain what was going on without directly explaining it. We see a sex scene play out with nothing more than a door, a lamp, and a time lapse; we haven't even seen Chevalier yet and already we know, from this scene, that he's sort of a wastrel (doesn't pay his bills) and that he's a rake.

Most of the music in this scene is from the first song in "A Waltz Dream," "Ein Mädchen, das so lieb und brav."

Click here to view the clip.

And another mostly-silent scene, which sets the plot in motion: Niki, standing on guard duty, winks at Franzi just as Princess Anna drive by, and Anna mistakenly thinks that Niki is laughing at her. There's not much I can say about this scene except that it's an example of Lubitsch's ability to convey a ton of plot information in very little time and with very few shots and gestures; it would take most moviemakers ten minutes to set up all of this.

Click here to view the clip.

Niki gets out of trouble with the Princess by claiming that he was really winking at her; he is appointed to act as the Princess's guide while she is in Vienna. But the Princess is now falling in love with Niki, and, believing that he likes her, plans to get him for a husband. This next clip has Niki returning to Franzi, and he carries her up the stairs and into her room -- to dance with her; music and dancing are inseparable from sex in this film, and Lubitsch makes a lot of teasing us with the fact that we never know if characters are preparing to make love or just to make music. The scene intercuts Niki and Franzi singing their song -- full of sexual innuendos -- with Princess Anna's pure-and-demure song about how she sees Niki. And no, Colbert and Hopkins can't sing particularly well, but they manage.

Click here to view the clip.

Anna asks her father for permission to marry Niki, and before Niki knows it, he's been named as Anna's chosen husband by both the King of Flausenthurm and the Emperor of Austria. In this scene, Franzi sits in Niki's apartment, waiting for him to come back, surrounded by all kinds of congratulatory gifts and flowers that have been delivered to Niki on the announcement of his engagement. When Franzi sees Niki, she realizes that he hasn't been able to get out of the engagement; so she leaves without letting him see her, and walks off into the night. This is another silent scene, with beautiful acting by Colbert and a favourite Lubitsch/Raphaelson device: having a woman give a man her garter as a token of her esteem.

Click here to view the clip.

This scene, on Niki and Anna's wedding night, starts by showing what a musty, old-fashioned place Flausenthurm is by showing that the wedding night can't begin until it's officially pronounced to be "fitting and proper." Then we get the scene with Anna and Niki, who (as in the operetta) refuses to consummate the marriage. Lubitsch pulls off one of his funniest (yet kind of sad) door gags, involving the King emerging from behind the door with something that really can't satisfy his daughter in her current predicament.

Click here to view the clip.

When Franzi and her band show up in Flausenthurm, Niki rekindles his affair with her. In the climactic scene of the movie, Anna tricks Franzi into coming to the palace, and confronts her. But just as it looks like they're going to fight, they break down crying instead, because they're both miserable for different reasons: Anna because Niki doesn't love her, and Franzi because Niki can never really be hers. The two commisserate, and Franzi decides to help Anna attract Niki. In assessing what's wrong with Anna, she once again makes the connection between music and sex: unexciting tastes in music are an indicator of an unexciting approach to sex. And in the song "Jazz Up Your Lingerie," Franzi teaches Anna that sexy clothes are music: "Choose snappy music to wear." As Anna gets "hotter" in her musical tastes, she also gets "hotter" in her taste in clothes and everything else, and by the end of the montage (a trick Lubitsch used often: show a change in someone's life by dissolving from her wardrobe "before" to her wardrobe "after") she is a changed woman.

Click here to view the clip.

(Personal trivia time: I once wrote a screenplay based on Richard Strauss's opera Der Rosenkavalier (it never got any further than an honourable-mention list at Scriptapalooza, and didn't deserve to), and because Lubitsch wanted to make that opera into a non-musical movie, I tried write it in the style of Lubitsch and Raphaelson. And for a scene between the two female leads, I drew on this scene as the inspiration, including a somewhat similar slapping scene. Somebody who does it better than me really ought to do Rosenkavalier as a non-musical comedy and do it as the Lubitsch movie Lubitsch never got around to making.)

And in the closing scene, Niki (having just learned that Franzi has left Flausenthurm) sits alone drinking, when he hears hot-jazz music coming from Anna's room. Again, there's almost no dialogue here, and what makes it great, apart from the very funny gags (like Niki running all the way across the palace just to check whether there's anything wrong with what he's been drinking -- and then later on running back to drink more of it, because he likes what he's been seeing), is that it's not a sexist scene where the woman just gets the man by acting and dressing the way he likes: by becoming more free and frank in her sexuality, Anna gains power, going from Niki's demure doormat to the one who calls the shots in their relationship. And in keeping with Lubitsch's love of quick visual hooks and running gags, this scene brings back the checker board from Anna and Niki's disastrous wedding night, except now she's using it to turn the tables on her husband.

Click here to view the clip.

The only commercial release for The Smiling Lieutenant was on a briefly-available laserdisc set, The Lubitsch Touch. It may come on television occasionally, and Lubitsch retrospectives (at film societies and such) often include this film. Again, if you can see it, see it; you won't be disappointed. Except maybe with the quality of Colbert's and Hopkins's singing, but their performances are so good in this film (Hopkins would go on to give two more fantastic performances for Lubitsch, in Trouble and Paradise and Design For Living), what does it matter that they can't sing?


VP19 said...

Who owns the rights to this film? Whomever does is missing out on some nice profits...especially if it can be packaged with some of Lubitsch's other films from that early-talkie era. (If Universal, which owns a lot of Paramount product from the early thirties, owns the rights, I would hope that the apparently strong sales of the "glamour collection" DVD sets of Lombard, Dietrich and West might spur them on to do something for Lubitsch.) Jazz up your lingerie!

dtn said...

Thanks for the clips , but now I really, really want to see the rest of the film ! What a shame that it's not available on DVD . Has it ever played on Turner Classic Movies ?

Anonymous said...

I saw it on TCM - and loved it, I might add. I do wish that whoever owns the rights would do a package of early-talkie Lubitsch.


Anonymous said...

In addition to "The Smiling Lieutenant", I would very much recommend most of Lubitsch's other early sound musicals, "Love Parade", "One Hour With You", "Monte Carlo" (a little creaky and with Chevalier replaced by the inadaquate Jack Buchanon), and the easily findable "The Merry Widow" which Lubitsch did for MGM.

Along with those Lubitsch musicals I would also heartily recommend maybe the greatest musical of all time, "Love Me Tonight" which was directed by Rouben Mamoulian with music by Rodgers & Hart and starring Jeanette MacDonald, Maurice Chevalier, Charles Ruggles, Myrna Loy, Charles Butterworth, & C. Aubrey Smith.

Universal owns the rights to the Lubitsch films with the exception of "The Merry Widow" and I wish they would put out a boxed set comaparable to the great laserdisc package they put out in the mid-90s.

I keep emailing Criterion about trying to get the rights to the Lubitsch Paramount films. So far they have managed to put out "Trouble in Paradise".