Smiling Lieutenant (1931): Lubitsch’s Oscar-Nominated Musical Comedy, Starring Chevalier and Claudette Colbert

When Ernst Lubitsch made Smiling Lieutenant, musical romantic comedy, starring Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert, and Miriam Hopkins at Paramount, it became the studio’s most commercially popular picture of 1931.

Grade: A- (****1/2* out of *****)

The Smiling Lieutenant
The Smiling Lieutenant poster.jpg

theatrical poster


Made in the Pre-Code era, it was written by frequent collaborator Samson Raphaelson and Ernest Vajda, from the operetta Ein Walzertraum by Oscar Straus, with libretto by Leopold Jacobson and Felix Dörmann, which in turn was based on the novel Nux, der Prinzgemahl (“Nux the Prince Consort”) by Hans Müller-Einigen.

This was the first of three Lubitsch films starring Miriam Hopkins, which also teamed on the sublime Trouble in Paradise and the just decent Design for Living.


In Vienna, Lieutenant Nikolaus “Niki” von Preyn (Maurice Chevalier) meets Franzi (Claudette Colbert), the leader of an all-female-orchestra, and they fall in love.

During a parade honoring the visiting royal family of Flausenthurm, Niki winks at Franzi, who is in the crowd. But the gesture is intercepted by Anna, the Princess of Flausenthurm (Miriam Hopkins). The naive Princess shows offense, expecting the lieutenant to say that he slighted her because she is too beautiful. The Princess further claims to marry the lieutenant, or marry an American instead. The international incident is averted by their marriage.


The Lieutenant wanders the streets of Flausenthurm to find his girlfriend. The princess learns of this and decides to confront Franzi. After the initial confrontation, Franzi realizes the princess is in love with the lieutenant, and decides to save the marriage by giving the princess a makeover, while singing “Jazz up your lingerie!”

The Lieutenant follows his satin-clad, cigarette-puffing bride into the bedroom and closes the door, only to open it later and render a song and suggestive wink.

The movie was shot in Astoria studios in New York, which explains the limitations of the set and confinement of space.

Chevalier described performing, “smiles and cute winks of the eye” as a “mechanical display of technique” due to grief over his mother’s death.


Lubitsch was forced to play mediator between Colbert and Hopkins, who were determined to be shot from the same angle. Lubitsch encouraged their dispute that suited their characters on screen.

Critical Status:

The film was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar and was Paramount’s biggest box-office grosser of 1931.


It was also named the year’s “Best Ten” by The New York Times, along with Chaplin’s City Lights and Murnau’s Tabu.

Lubitsch was still in the process of mastering sound technology, but scholar James Harvey claims that “technically The Smiling Lieutenant is the most accomplished of Lubitsch’s early sound films. In sets, camerawork, background music, alternations of sound and silence, the film is better than The Love Parade or Monte Carlo.

For the major Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris, The Smiling Lieutenant stands between the “lilting lyricism” of Love Parade and the “tempered ironies” in Trouble in Paradise (the latter a much superior film)


Lubitsch Touch

There has never been a good empirical or precise definition of what exactly is “The Lubitsch Touch.” Instead, the concept has been used in a vague and general manner to describe the sophisticated visual comment or subtle joke that have become a trademark or signature of Lubitsch’s directing style.

Billy Wilder, an admirer of Lubitsch, defines the touch in relation to The Smiling Lieutenant: “It was the elegant use of the Super joke. You had a joke, and you felt satisfied, and then there was one bigger joke on top of it. The joke you didn’t expect. That was the Lubitsch touch.”  The Super joke here is that at the end of the film, “the wrong girl” gets the man.



Maurice Chevalier as Lieutenant Nikolaus “Niki” von Preyn

Claudette Colbert as Franzi

Miriam Hopkins as Princess Anna

Charles Ruggles as Max

George Barbier as King Adolf XV