[1931/32] The Smiling Lieutenant

Humor is incredibly challenging to sustain. In the short-term – film-length, say, jokes have to consistently strike a thin nerve and not stray too far away from the central themes or character motivations. A misplaced quip, or a joke that moves the plot off its close course, can derail an entire film. The audience rarely sees these errors because script and screen editors at the highest professional levels catch them and trash them almost as quickly as they are written.

In the medium-term – Oscar-season, perhaps, humor rarely makes buzz. Much humor is anti-erudite, and juvenile, such that taps into the audience’s deepest desires to identify with things they once found humorous; other humor is dry and satirical and the writing and acting work tirelessly to inform their audience of the hyper-specific culture referenced; still other humor does not parade as comedy and is unintentionally funny because either the story is intentionally poorly conceived, or the acting is laughably sincere or insincere, or often a heaping of both. None of these methods sustain the Academy’s wish to best represent the year in culture; gestalt. Worst case: nothing in the year struck a nerve as particularly humorous or even slightly funny. Modern times call for advanced emotions: fear, hatred, sadness, austerity.

In the long-term – the history of film, for instance, humor falls almost unconditionally flat as tastes are elliptical, and follow a long arc around a contemporary locus. Then, after some time, the basis for the humor no long exists as a strain in human consciousness, through no one’s fault. Tastes change. But, in the rare instance a film can track humor as part of a larger, more serious narrative, it sticks, and exists outside the general theory of relativity. Consider Chocolat. This film is a serious take on historical racism and family dynamics, but it does so through the lens of a loose, and well-intentioned, albeit funny, vagrant. Chocolat, was also one of a handful of films with even slightly humorous undertones nominated, since 2000. Some films, like Chocolat, use humor to their advantage, but are not comedy films, by the reasoning that the larger social and historical implications outweigh jokes. But a curious film from the 5th Academy Awards (1931/32) called The Smiling Lieutenant, seems to have broken all the rules on route to obscurity.

First, the jokes are funny. Nothing needs scrupulous editing because the film’s sole purpose is to tell jokes; the central conflict is a misunderstanding over a wink and the pre-Code sexual innuendos could make a grown man blush. The delivery is charmingly and goofily self-aware. The actors genuinely approach their roles with gusto and enthusiasm. Their ‘hot air’ inflates the quasi-weak script and holey-story to a legendary level of wit that remains genuinely funny over 80 years later. Along with its counterpart, One Hour With You, both starring Maurice Chevalier (the “smiling lieutenant”) and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, The Smiling Lieutenant, reminds the audience that even during Interwar, with tensions bubbling high, misunderstandings that might spiral and burrow deep into the global psyche, masked with humor, remain just that: simple (or complicated) errors in communication – information asymmetries – can lead to disastrous consequences (see: World War I) or to those that entangle the mind with pleasure. A marriage between a princess of a country that does not exist to a man who simply showed too many teeth and twitched at just the wrong time. The entire concept is funny, still, because humans continue to suffer from the same mistakes. Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin usually handled this type of social commentary during the Depression, but instead a French actor, Chevalier, asks the audience to laugh at itself.

Long-term this film remains, and will remain, a dusty diamond. The film is simply too inaccessible (though curiously simple to dig up, unlike Disraeli) for most, and too time consuming for others. Modern audiences can find their dry wit and prescient humor almost at will, while still seeking social commentary on contemporary issues. In terms of Oscar-worthiness, The Smiling Lieutenant and One Hour With You are virtually indistinguishable from one another, and therefore gave the Oscar board no chance but to accept neither as the film to best represent post-Crash, but pre-New Deal America in 1931. Instead, the Academy nominated the first in a long line of ensemble films (with and without the Barrymore family) in Grand Hotel, funny in its own right.



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