The Smiling Lieutenant

Lieutenant Niki and band leader Franzi

Gay – in the old sense – is probably the best way to describe 1931’s The Smiling Lieutenant, a blithe, smart, quick and gossipy comedy from director Ernst Lubitsch starring Maurice Chevalier as the military man in question. Chevalier, as French as they come and not making the slightest effort to hide it, plays a very Viennese womanising army officer who in very short order meets the love of his life, the violinist leader of a female orchestra, only to end up shanghaied into marrying the princess daughter of a visiting king, after a mix-up over who exactly the lieutenant was smiling at as the royal procession whizzed by. I know, everyday stuff. … Read more

Becky Sharp

Miriam Hopkins as Becky

It’s remarkable that in film and TV adaptations of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, it’s always called just that. Thackeray lifted the title for his satire from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, where a fair at a town called Vanity was an allegory for all the delights of the realm of the physical. It’s hardly a punchy title, or one with any modern currency and yet it carries on being used. At least six movies and eight TV shows, not to mention various magazines, have used or are using its name. Apart from this 1935 adaptation, no one seems to have though to use the name of its principal character, Becky Sharp, instead. Not … Read more

Design for Living

George and Tom and Gilda

One of those pre-Code 1930s comedies that comes wrapped in an aura, Design for Living can’t live up to the sell. It’s not funny, though there is the odd smirk, nor perceptive, unless a comedy about the fickleness of women is what you’re after The aura comes virtue of the boys in the backroom. Noel Coward wrote the original play, then Ben Hecht came in and threw most of that away while working on his screen adaptation, in the process turning Coward’s urbane posh gents into a couple of impetuous workaday types – the Time Out London review called it a “tea cups to beer glasses” transformation, and that’s a neatly pithy way … Read more

Trouble in Paradise

Lily and Gaston stealing from each other

Trouble in Paradise was Ernst Lubitsch’s favourite of his own films. It’s 83 quick minutes of screwball farce, made in 1932 just as Hollywood was putting its own house in order (before the government stepped in and did it), one of the highlights of the pre-Code era. It’s more sexually risqué than later films, for sure, though that isn’t what got it into trouble when Paramount tried and failed to re-issue it in 1935. Banned for decades, it wasn’t really seen again until the 1960s It’s the story of a conman called Gaston and a thief called Lily who try to swindle/steal each other but instead fall in love. Realising they’re a crack … Read more