An explosion of big names: Lubitsch (just off Trouble In Paradise) and Ben Hecht (between Scarface and Twentieth Century) adapting playwright Noel Coward, starring a young Gary Cooper, the great Miriam Hopkins, and Fredric March (The Best Years of Our Lives). Not actually a pre-code movie, but I guess the code wasn’t too strict in its early days, because it certainly plays like one. So it’s a saucy, delightfully-written love-triangle movie – and I enjoyed it but didn’t love it, trying to remember the whole time where I read that quote saying the art of cinema died when sound was invented and movies became stagey dramas featuring actors standing around talking to each other.

Playwright March and painter George awaken in their train car to find beautiful advertising designer Miriam, who decides she likes them both and comes to live with them (all these aspiring American artists in Paris reminds one of An American In Paris). The arrangement stays semi-platonic until March gets a play produced and moves away, so now Miriam is with Gary. Then she ends up with March somehow, I forget, but at some point she leaves them both for dreary E. Everett Horton, then ends up in her March and Cooper threesome again at the end. It’s really a four-person movie – fifth-billed is Preston Sturges regular Franklin Pangborn, who only has a few lines as March’s producer.

Remarkably well-restored, exciting little hour-long comedy, with a distinctive look and memorable performances – much, much better than anything I expected with such a boring name. I don’t know what I thought, maybe a Little Mermaid type thing, but the girl comes from a family who made their wealth in oysters, and agrees to marry down-and-out royalty to get herself a title, hence “oyster princess.”

The hyper-rich Oyster King, Mr. Quaker (Victor Janson, whom I liked so much in this role, I’ll try to forget that he appeared in “the key film in Nazi popular culture” in 1942) is disturbed from smoking a cigar the size of his head by a report that his daughter (Ossi Oswalda, “the German Mary Pickford”) has torn up her room upon hearing that the Shoe-Cream King’s daughter has married a prince, so Quaker hires the local matchmaker to procure a prince.

Handsome Prince Nucki (Harry Liedtke, title star of The Grand Duke’s Finances) lives in a ramshackle apartment with his roommate/assistant, bald jokester Josef (Julius Falkenstein of Dr. Mabuse The Gambler, The Haunted Castle). The matchmaker pays a call, and the prince sends Josef to check out the girl. But she’s in a hurry, marries Josef immediately, and holds a wedding banquet (Quaker: “Excuse me for introducing you to my son-in-law”). A split-screen “foxtrot epidemic” ensues (above) and Josef gets giddily drunk, while Nucki goes out drinking with his friends. This ends with my favorite shot in the movie, the group staggering down the road, depositing a man on each bench along the path.

Nucki stumbles blindly into “the multi-millionaires’ daughters’ association against dipsomania” (alcoholism) where he’s beaten up by Ossi, who falls for him and takes him home. It’s a setup for heartbreak, since Ossi is in love with a man who isn’t her husband, but then Josef says he got married in the prince’s name so the other two rush off to bed together.

Something like Lubitsch’s 30th movie (they were prolific back then), released a decade earlier than anything else I’ve seen by him.

I guess this movie gets lots of credit for being a Hollywood anti-nazi resistance comedy released soon after U.S. entry into the war. Not a lot of funny Hitler movies going around back then, and reportedly it pissed off some audiences that German-born Lubitsch would try bringing his trademark lightness to such a heavy situation. But if anything, today it suffers from being not enough of a comedy. I couldn’t watch half the scenes without flashing back to The Great Dictator or Inglorious Basterds. Not that it has to go as far as Basterds, letting a couple of Jews machine-gun Hitler at close range as the whole theater explodes, but it came off closer in tone to 49th Parallel than Great Dictator.

One of the things that stood out about Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant a decade earlier was its pre-censors sexual frankness, and now this one gets away with having Carole Lombard (Twentieth Century star in her final role – she died in a plane crash) cheat on her husband with young bomber flyer Robert Stack (House of Bamboo, Written on the Wind – very early in his career) and get away with it.

Jack Benny (about to ditch the movies for a long TV career) leads an acting troupe along with wife Lombard and also Felix Bressart (Shop Around the Corner), Lionel Atwill (lots of Frankenstein movies) and Tom Dugan (bit player who averaged a movie per month in the 40’s). The play they’ve been rehearsing is censored by the nazis on the eve of its opening, so they go back to performing Hamlet, during which Robert Stack keeps leaving the audience at the start of Benny’s big soliloquy, brushing past everyone in the second row to meet Lombard backstage (why doesn’t he get an aisle seat?). Later at the height of the war, the theater troupe has joined the Polish resistance and Stack is fighting in the UK when a spy (Stanley Ridges of Canyon Passage, heh) with critical information about the resistance makes it into Poland and wants to meet with Lombard to inquire about the “code” he’s been given for her, “to be or not to be”. Stack flies into Poland and fills everyone in, so now the actors have to do their best impressions of nazi officials (Benny: “So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt?”) to get back the secret papers.

The premise got away from me towards the end, when I thought Benny and his gang, having Hitler and a thousand nazis rounded up in a theater, aimed to do some damage. But of course, that’s Basterds talking again – I think they were just trying to get away from occupied Poland by stealing Hitler’s personal plane. Remade in the 80’s with Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft and Christopher Lloyd for some weird reason.

“The class of people who comes here seems to get worse every year… and this year we seem to have next year’s crowd already.” Lubitsch movies always have such great dialogue, but he didn’t write ’em and English wasn’t his first language, so why is it?

It was a bad week for staying awake all the way through movies. Shout out to Gold Diggers of 1933 (I hardly remember anything) and Ninotchka (some awful Russian spies who reminded me of the encyclopedaeists in Ball of Fire were cashing in when I checked out), both of which Katy finished after I’d fallen asleep, and Hollywood Canteen which she didn’t feel like finishing after it got repetitive (army man and buddies are fawned over by actors, including huge star Joan Leslie (who? the girl from Yankee Doodle Dandy?)). I liked this one the most, at least its first half, so I came back the next day to watch the ending.

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Opens with a racy scene about sleeping in and out of pajamas. Bank owner, cheapskate and stickler for everything Gary Cooper meets Claudette Colbert whose father the marquis is trying to hold onto his status despite being flat broke. CC falls for Gary and they’re to be married when he confesses he’s had seven ex-wives. Angry as hell, she signs a lucrative pre-nup agreement, marries Gary then spends his money while trying her best to provoke a divorce. Hilarity ensues.

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Gary Cooper’s gruff phonetic pronunciation of French words adds to the humor. He’s actually not bad as a comic actor. Apparently a remake of a Gloria Swanson silent film. That’s David Niven on the beach above as Colbert’s friend (and a bank employee) whom Colbert sets up as a fall guy in her divorce plot. And the great E. Everett Horton as the marquis. Great looking movie with a perfect cast.

Another early Lubitsch musical. This one starts promisingly with wonderful shots of a wedding which the bride has abandoned (her dress deflated on a chair, the groom traveling under a row of umbrellas) and proceeds to a decent song (the foppish groom – Claud Allister – informing his guests that he will retrieve the girl). Alas, it’s to be the last decent song because after heroine Jeanette MacDonald (of Love Me Tonight) is introduced, she’ll do all the singing in Snow White screech-falsetto.

Zasu Pitts looks wary: madame could start singing at any moment.
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We quickly abandon the abandoned husband to follow Jeanette, escaping by train with loyal maid Zasu Pitts (Greed, Lazybones) to Monte Carlo, where she meets many hopeful fellows and hires 20 assistants – all on credit since she has no money. One especially hopeful fellow is smiley, overconfident Jack Buchanan, who singlemindedly goes after her, finally gaining entry to her hotel suite by posing as a hairdresser then taking over all her servant positions when she has to let everyone go since she can’t pay them.

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Of course Buchanan is secretly wealthy, so after Jeanette gives up hope of escape and is again going out with her prince from the beginning, Jack makes his move and she escapes again.

A train embrace:
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Perfectly decent movie, though I didn’t notice many attention-grabbing Lubitschisms after the intro. Felt more like a simply-plotted cheapie. The only real disappointment (besides Jeanette’s singing) was a hollow-eyed, sad-mouthed Zasu Pitts, seeming to slow down the film whenever on screen. My favorite was the prince, so winning a being a loser in the opening scenes.

One of my favorite 30’s movies – a sheer delight. Thief meets thief, they shack up, scheme to fleece rich woman, thief shacks up with her, love triangle ensues, thieves get away together in the end. Bookmarking naughty/cute scenes where the thieves impress each other by showing off the stuff they pickpocketed from each other during whatever they were doing together before the camera turned on.

Thieves Like Us: Miriam and Herbert
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My two favorite people, maybe just out of recognition from The Smiling Lieutenant, were thief Miriam Hopkins (the princess of Flausenthurm) and major Charlie Ruggles (the friend from whom Maurice steals his modern girl). Miriam is really terrific… maybe I’ll check her out in Design for Living, Becky Sharp or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sometime. The lead male thief was regular-looking Herbert Marshall (star of Angel and Murder!, later in Angel Face and Duel in the Sun), the duped perfume CEO was dark-haired Kay Francis (of Scandal Sheet and The Cocoanuts), and another duped rich guy who, along with the major, is trying to marry Kay was Lubitsch regular Edward Everett Horton.

Great, sophisticated intro scene when the thieves first meet, both pretending to be some fake rich person in order to steal from each other. Actually I think the very first scene was E.E. Horton explaining to the cops how he got his wallet stolen by a fake doctor – in the end he publically identifies Marshall, now hired as Kay Francis’ assistant and lover. Miriam Hopkins is hired as a secretary so they’re both inside the house, but only get away with $100k and a pearl necklace instead of the intended $800k+.

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Most interesting part of the movie was when rich (but goodhearted/generous) Kay is offering a high reward for her missing purse, having the forty-some purse-carrying hopefuls gather in her foyer, receiving them one at a time (each announced by the butler) in an upper-class, highly inefficient manner. A crazy-haired Russian-accented Trotskyite waits his turn, then comes in with no purse just to berate a woman who would spend so much on a purse during the depression, shouting “phooey, phooey and phooey” at her. This is when thief Herbert makes his opportunistic entrance, talking to the “radical” (as labeled in the credits) who then leaves peacefully but still angry. The radical is sort of a comic character, with his wild hair and repeated “phooey”s, but the movie seems careful not to ridicule him, and lets him have the last word, owning up to the fact that our main characters are too extravagant for their own good, voicing some of the resentment that audiences at the time must have felt. The Russian was Leonid Kinskey, who ten years later played one of Rick’s employees at the Café Américain in Casablanca.

Kay Francis threatened by communism:
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Nice, well-researched audio commentary points out the title card (words displayed progressively over shot of a bed = “Trouble In [Bed]”) and tons more. Beginning of 1930’s Month for Katy and myself starts with a bang.
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Naughty Lubitsch:
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EDIT 2016: Eight years later, Katy does not remember 1930’s Month, nor this movie, so we watched it again.

Starring a broooadly overacting, hammy but kinda charismatic Maurice Chevalier as an Austrian lieutenant. Movie opens with a tailor knocking on Maurice’s door vainly attempting to collect on his bill (a year later, Maurice would star in Love Me Tonight as a tailor vainly attempting to collect on an aristocrat’s bill). Nobody answers, and immediately after he walks off, a young girl approaches the door, gives the secret knock and is let in. Yes, there’s actual sex in this movie – offscreen, but it’s acknowledged. It’s that Pre-Code Hollywood that TCM always salivates over before showing tame, dull movies like The Divorcee.

Maurice, a naughty lieutenant:
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The movie is, as promised, a musical comedy (two genres which encourage broad acting) as well as a romantic drama, and the late 20’s/early 30’s had their share of hugely broad comedy performances in film, so in context Maurice is pretty alright. And he’s got kind of a charming, roguish smile on nearly all the time… sucked me in after about ten minutes. Katy disagrees, but liked the movie despite Maurice.

Maurice joins his friend Max to act as wingman so nervous, married Max can pick up a hot young violinist at the concert, but Maurice falls for the girl (Franzi) and takes her home himself, with some sexy banter about which meals they’ll enjoy together (ahem, breakfast).

Max, left, is Charles Ruggles, the viscount in Love Me Tonight, also in Trouble In Paradise. Chevalier was a big star from 1929-36 – then IMDB says he was falsely accused of being a nazi collaborator and his acting career was derailed for a buncha years, with a big comeback in Gigi in ’58.
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Claudette Colbert (Franzi) was later Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra, also starred in It Happened One Night, Midnight, and The Palm Beach Story.
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The young lovers have a good thing going, but flirting in public brings disaster, when Austrian soldier Maurice winks at Franzi across a street just as the coach carrying the king and princess of Flausenthurm drives between them. The wink and the princess’s appalled reaction are photographed and published in the paper, causing an international scandal, but everyone settles down when Maurice explains that he was overcome by the princess’s beauty and is bullied into agreeing to marry her. So M. is off to Flausenthurm, but won’t sleep with his royal bride, preferring to step out on the town. The moody king gets over the inferiority complex he had in Austria, is now smitten with Maurice and tells his daughter not to worry, playing checkers with her every night as a sad substitute for marital sex.

Princess Miriam Hopkins = Savannah-born star of Trouble in Paradise, who won an Oscar a few years later then didn’t do a whole lot of movies I’ve heard of. King George Barbier was in a ton of stuff through the 40’s, including The Milky Way and The Merry Widow.
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The movie is a musical, but I don’t remember most of the songs or even where they occur, except climactic number “Jazz Up Your Lingerie.” You see, Maurice still loves the loose, free, totally modern Franzi, and he still has not-too-secret affairs with her since her violin group is on tour in Flausenthurm. So one day Princess Anna sorta kidnaps Franzi to ask her advice… Franzi helps Anna out, giving up on her man with the great line: “You mustn’t worry about me. I knew it all the time. Girls who start with breakfast don’t usually stay for supper.”

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During the music number, Anna’s frumpy clothes all turn magically into hot things, she learns to smoke and play jazz on the piano, and when Maurice comes home he can not believe his eyes. She takes him to the bedroom and wordlessly suggests a game of checkers, but he keeps tossing the board away… finally tosses it onto the bed, and just look at the expressions on their faces:

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Everyone who sees it today comments on the sexual freeness, but the original New York Times review in 1931 didn’t mention any of that, called it a “highly successful production” with “charming” music and “splendid” performances, and spoiled the entire plot.

J. Weinman: “The Smiling Lieutenant is based on Oscar Straus’s Viennese operetta A Waltz Dream, though Lubitsch relegated all the operetta’s songs to background music and had Straus write a few new songs in a more modern style. As he usually did when adapting a play or an operetta, Lubitsch kept the basic outline of the story but changed everything else.”

Not really a comedy like I’d thought, except for the parts with Grandpa in ’em.

Heaven Can Wait

Guy marries girl he likes, then when he dies, insists he deserves to go to hell but is wrong. I kinda don’t remember much already.