An enthusiastic fan of Ernst Lubitsch’s musicals after having seen only one – the divine, impeccable, hilarious One Hour With You (1932) – I recently watched The Smiling Lieutenant (1931). I was less impressed by the latter film, as many of its characters are patently dislikable stereotypes with very little relatability.
My most hated was the prim, frigid, virgin Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins) whose personality is so dry and boring she makes Kim Kardashian look like an intellectual. A very bland, predictable, insipid royal figure, Niki (Maurice Chevalier) is bullied into marrying Anna, despite being involved with Franzi (Claudette Colbert), because of her conservative, asinine father. Niki will not consummate his marriage with Anna–and I don’t blame him, with Franzi the alternative. Clearly fed up with her chastity, she is, in a non-stop riotous, energetic and very Lubitschesque finale, madeover by the more daring, salacious Franzi, whose zest for life (and romance) positively shines from the screen. Anna discovers her womanliness, her sexiness, develops confidence through clothing, hairstyle, all those things which are almost across the board catalogued as superficial materials, but are realistically all about the self. Everything listed can be used and applied for the aim of making oneself feel fantastic. Even though their basis is in materiality, such things are unavoidably, and I don’t think harmfully, linked to persona and identity. This being said, and although I love and approve of the makeover, I was worried that Niki would want to sleep with her only as a result of these material changes, and she would submit. What would that then say about coy women whose appearance did not conform to an ideal of ‘beauty’? It might suggest that all men care about it attractiveness and sensuality, and that a woman must become what is coded as a ‘slut’ for her to get a man. Anna didn’t just let him have her though, and Miriam Hopkins embraced everything that I know her capable of in her newly self-confident strength. She made him beg. She wasn’t giving herself away, she knew her power, the power of the woman.
The great thing about Lubitsch here is that he didn’t let Anna become coded as a ‘slut’. Nor was Franzi coded as one for entering into a relationship with Niki without the social acceptance of marriage. It was something that wasn’t really talked about, sure, but she wasn’t really punished for it – until, of course, he had to marry another woman, but that is another form of punishment known as heartache. Her primarily role was, and Anna’s became, that of a strong woman. And men prefer strong women, women who know what they are doing and are willing to fight for their desires, to women with neither emotional stamina nor independence. That is the message of The Smiling Lieutenant. And that is a great message, particularly for a major studio picture in 1931. One Hour With You maintains the presence of strong, independent women, women who are sure of themselves and are free from uninformed, double-standard type judgement that has plagued societies for so long. It’s such a shame that both men and women are still victim to such judgement.
I might just have to watch some more Lubitsch so I can forget all about it.