One would never think that one well-placed wink would change the course of an entire life or be the basis for an entire film, but on both accounts it is true. Ernst Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant represents all that is good and right about one of his films. It’s light and airy with a dash of charm and a tune in its heart. It’s light on its feet with humor and somehow maintains its self-respect, much like the man at the center of this one (Maurice Chevalier).
In fact, this pre-code musical comedy is a lot more unassuming than it has any right to be. Lieutenant Nikki von Preyn (Chevalier) falls for the talented violinist named Franzi (Claudette Colbert) and cannot contain his excitement whenever he’s around her. Except one ill-timed smile followed by a suggestive wink lands him in some hot water with the recently arrived royalty who are making a sightseeing trip around the country.
Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins) is appalled by such a public act of indecency, but she also happens to be quite culturally naive. In other words, she hasn’t been outside the palace grounds much. In other words, she’s never known many dashing gentlemen before. Wink. Wink. You get the picture.
Nikki is beside himself but vies to take the most obvious option out. Professing his love for the princess — that’s why he winked. But she outdoes him threatening her father that she would wed an American (GASP!) if she is not engaged to Nikki. So daddy is all but obliged to follow through with the whole thing.
Of course, now we have a love triangle of unrequited love, with the Lieutenant’s smile turned upside down and his beautiful beau grief-stricken. She does the only thing she can, confront her competition and have it out with her. What follows is a slap-filled sob fest and our two heroines become real chummy real quick.
But Lubitsch’s final twist is completely out of left field and a completely comic inversion of what’s supposed to happen — capping off his oeuvre of song, suavity, and sensuality in high fashion.
Chevalier is the quintessential French crooner and his touch of comedy is perfectly measured by both Colbert and Hopkins. Colbert is a typical glamour girl of the 1930s, while Hopkins is also pretty, but with more outlandish tendencies. She also gives a brilliant turn on the piano!
In truth, I have long tried to put a finger on just what the Lubitsch Touch is, but it seems that everyone who has ever said anything about it comes up with a different answer. It began as a PR stunt to sell his brand in Hollywood and from thenceforth it took on a life of its own. As a filmmaker and auteur there is certainly no one quite like him in substance or style.
If I had to try and draw up my own definition of his Touch it would be something like this: His films convey sensuality in such a way that was palatable to the American audience, while simultaneously making romance something humorous. His sensibilities are such that he can be suggestive and still refined. The true irony here is that he’s in a sense winking at his audience by the end. The joke’s really on us.