The Smiling Lieutenant (Ernst Lubitsch / U.S., 1931):

Don Juan's capitulation, or perhaps the splitting of Eve, in any case a beautiful welter of symbols (bugle, violin, tea time, schnitzel, piano, checkers...). Maurice Chevalier is the eponymous roué, invited as a cohort to a married friend's (Charles Ruggles) attempted seduction of the charming fiddler in the park (Claudette Colbert). A single comment ("You know who she reminds me of? Your wife") throws Ruggles off his game, his finger-tapping disrupts Colbert's concert, she goes home with Chevalier. Ernst Lubitsch pays tribute to Mallarmé ("Breakfast Table Love"), then offers a marvelous encapsulation of the graceful, stifling pose that is his ongoing theme -- the visiting monarch (George Barbier) and princess (Miriam Hopkins) trying to keep up their royal bearing in a rattling train as the cattle wagon races past them. A scandal breaks out when Chevalier's wink for Colbert accidentally lands on the prematurely spinsterish Hopkins; she's offended at first but changes her mind after learning about this strange thing called flirting, Chevalier is summoned to the castle, a wedding is readily arranged. The bedroom is ceremoniously prepared, yet the honeymoon goes unconsumed. "Married people don't wink?!" the princess asks, still in bridal gown. "Oh no," the lieutenant answers. "Not at each other." Lubitsch's glissando rhythm is a thin veneer that never softens the essential cruelty of the story: What is harsher than to help give away the one you love? When Colbert teaches Hopkins about sexiness so she can snare Chevalier ("Jazz Up Your Lingerie"), it's like Maria helping create her own replicant in Metropolis. (Colbert's walk down the darkened corridor becomes Barbara Bel Geddes' in Vertigo.) The married couple is restored after silky peignoirs replace bulky bloomers, still it is the self-sacrificing violinist's lament that lingers, deepened later by Ophüls: "It was lovely while it lasted." With Hugh O'Connell, Harry C. Bradley, and Elizabeth Patterson. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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