The Smiling Lieutenant

The Smiling Lieutenant

When we like someone, we smile. But when we want to do something about it, we wink.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about pre-Code films. Sometimes, they can be a certain kind of magical, where everything just lines up perfectly and it all seems to work. Then, sometimes… well, sometimes it doesn’t. Everything that’s supposed to work ends up being too on-the-nose, delivered with such a massive wink to the audience that one has to roll their eyes and groan in response at the perceived condescension, and everything that’s supposed to line up perfectly instead ends up overshooting the target to such a wide degree that one has to duck and cover from the errant gunfire. Such is the case with The Smiling Lieutenant, an Ernst Lubitsch film, and thus another film advertised with ‘the Lubitsch touch’. Such a ‘touch’ has never been clearly defined in cinema, as far as I’ve found, and with films like The Smiling Lieutenant, it’s easy to see why; because sometimes it just works, and sometimes it just doesn’t. In my case, with The Smiling Lieutenant, it doesn’t.

Maurice Chevalier once again headlines this Ernst Lubitsch film, this time as a Viennese lieutenant who ends up trying to help a fellow officer woo a young violinist. Being the romantic lead, however, he ends up wooing her himself, and they soon fall in love. However, in an attempt to express his love in a subtle wink and smile to her during his standing at attention during a diplomatic parade, the gesture is taken the wrong way by the visiting princess, who ends up falling for him in turn. Now, the lieutenant must try and juggle the affections of both women, or end up potentially inciting an international incident; or, at the very least, ending up in quite a considerable jam. If you didn’t like how that plot summary ended, with its corny attitude about humor and a wink to the audience so great it might have its own gravitational force, then you had best stay the hell away from The Smiling Lieutenant, cause that’s all that this film has to offer. Like, to such a degree that, after the film was over, I went through my notes and found I had written nothing regarding the technical aspects of the film at all, instead focusing on the film’s very oddball sense of humor and how much it wasn’t working for me. I think that it was that the film chose to focus entirely on this that made it as annoying as it was, instead of passing under the line of bearable. The script was okay, but it was largely because of it that the film made the decisions it made. There are moments that work, however, such as when Claudette Colbert’s character struggles to leave her apartment without going back for Chevalier, because it didn’t play to the fourth wall so rigorously. I also did get a good laugh out of the official pronouncing the royal bedchamber “a royal bedchamber” during the couple’s wedding night, but that was the only time I genuinely laughed.

This ended up being Paramount Studio’s highest-grossing film of the year, and I had mixed feelings about that; given the sensibilities of the moviegoing public of the time, I can understand it, but at the same time, I kinda wish it hadn’t been; I felt that it didn’t fully deserve it, with how much it directly played to the audience instead of focusing its energies and talents on smartly-written comedy. Maybe it was just the success of Lubitsch and Chevalier in their past, better works, and the need for more of them that prompted producers to push for more films of them. Eh, whatever. This is a hard film to recommend, not because I didn’t really care for it, but because anybody could either care or not care for it, pretty much depending on how they get out of bed that morning and little else. Lubitsch and Chevalier have another one coming up as well, so I can only hope my particular mood that day is a fresher one; otherwise, the whole pseudo-genre of pre-Code films is going to wear pretty thin for me fairly quickly.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

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2 thoughts on “The Smiling Lieutenant

  1. I didn’t hate this, but I didn’t love it that much. It’s a trifle, so I understand your being a little upset at how successful the film was. I’d watch it again if someone insisted but I wouldn’t choose it. There are better choices for Claudette Colbert, Maurice Chevalier, and Ernst Lubitsch.

    It’s harmless, but pretty unsatisfying.

    • I didn’t hate it either, but I especially didn’t see the need for it. I also especially didn’t like how unquantifiable the film’s merits seemed to be, hence my “either it works, or it doesn’t” quote; I like being able to clearly see and define what it is about films I like or dislike, so when films like this one come around, advertising themselves as having ‘the Lubitsch touch’, I get wary, as I have yet to find an adequate and/or semi-concrete definition of the Lubitsch touch, and I’ve done some looking on it. It’s kinda like the definition of a planet, which was never formally defined until recently, but instead of defining an aspect of science, you’re trying to define an aspect of art, a wholly subjective topic. Trying to say how this film either works or how it doesn’t work is grasping at clouds.

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