The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

It’s a rare thing for Maurice Chevalier to be upstaged—his Gallic charm and boundless energy have kept him the center of attention in dozens of motion pictures. But in this 1931 musical, his two female costars, Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins, wrap the picture up in a tidy package and walk off with it in one little number. Chevalier stars as an Austrian Army lieutenant engaged in a “Breakfast Table Love” with violinist Colbert. When princess Hopkins’ carriage drives between them as Chevalier is winking at his mistress, Hopkins thinks the wink is meant for her, triggering an international incident that puts him into a loveless marriage with the princess. Then, in one of the most buoyant moments in early musicals, Colbert gives Hopkins the secret to winning a man’s heart, “Jazz Up Your Lingerie.” It helps greatly that the film is directed by Ernst Lubitsch, a master of the sophisticated double entendre. From checkerboards to pillows, he turns the royal castle into a treasure trove of subtly deployed symbols that keep up the sexual heat without offending. Lubitsch apparently had a crush on Hopkins and when both leading ladies insisted on having only their right profiles filmed, Hopkins won. She would reteam with Lubitsch for two more classics, Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Design for Living (1933).

(d. Ernst Lubitsch, 93m, 35mm)