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Monday, April 13, 2009

THE SMILING LIEUTENANT (1931)


This chamber-sized musical (shot in Astoria, Queens - note the toy trains) is the least known of the early ‘Talkie’ operettas Ernst Lubitsch made @ Paramount between 1929 & 1932. But it’s a total charmer and would be better known if only Oscar Straus had come up with some better tunes. Maurice Chevalier is the lieutenant whose smile, though meant for Claudette Colbert, is intercepted by passing Princess Miriam Hopkins. State honor requires marital satisfaction, but Maurice refuses to consummate the deal. The laugh-lines in the script occasionally hang fire, but the situation turns into something terribly real and tinted with tragic hues in a miraculous scene between the two lovely ladies. Will the needs of the State trump the needs of the heart . . . or is there yet another road to happiness? But happiness for whom? And can a stiff gal learn to ‘Jazz Up Her Lingerie?’ Everyone shines, but Claudette is primus inter pares here and fully deserves the extended exit shot Lubitsch cooked up for her. The Criterion DVD has reclaimed and polished up a near-masterpiece that’s antique in all the best ways.

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