So yesterday was Valentine’s Day and it got me thinking about what I would consider the most romantic movie ever made. That’s such a loaded question and then even thinking along the lines of what constitutes a romantic film and what I would consider my favorite and best are sort of two different things and then, when you really get down to analyzing it the whole idea of romance in itself means something different depending on who you are asking. So, in other words; it was a bad idea to even try and ask myself this question.
So, like, I decided instead to focus on a little known gem that has been with me since I first saw it three years ago and happens to be a beautifully told tale of romance. The fact that it also happens to be my favorite musical ever made and contains one of my favorite performances of all time is just further reason to absolutely dote all over this film. It garnered ONE Oscar nomination back when it was released (1931) and that was for Best Picture of all things. It’s very rare to find a lone Best Picture nominee, in fact that unheard of these days, but this film pulled that off (I don’t take issue with the notion of a lone Best Picture nominee since I’ve been guilty of that a few times myself).
Yes, I’m talking about ‘The Smiling Lieutenant’.
Long thought to be lost, this beautiful film is lauded by critics as one of Lubitsch’s finest films. There is a feeling of pure joy that overcomes me when I watch this film, but focusing on the more romantic aspects (considering that inspiration for this post) I’ll note that the basic premise could have easily gone all sorts of dramtically wrong and yet in the lighthearted hands of Lubitsch this became such a joyously romantic adventure.
The film tells the story of a French Lieutenant named Niki. Niki is in love with Franzi (Claudette Colbert delivering one of the greatest performances ever recorded on film), a sultry young woman who uses her sex appeal to capture his heart. In fact, he so smitten by her that when he sees her while on duty he can’t help by smile her way. It just so happens that he’s on duty saluting the King of Flausenthurm and so as he’s distracted by his affections for Niki, his smiles are mistaken for advances on the King’s daughter, Princess Anna. Because of his uncontrollable happiness, Niki is forced into marriage to the Princess and soon finds himself turned off by her childlike prudishness and finds his heart and body straying towards familiar territory as he sneaks off to enjoy Franzi’s company. It is here where the film, in my eyes, becomes a beautifully fleshed out romantic comedy. Franzi, caught in her affair with Niki, decides to help ‘save a marriage’ and offers her services to Princess Anna. Anna, young and naïve, is in need of some assistance, and Franzi is the perfect person to give it to her. She is more world-wise and so she is perfectly suited to help Anna herself blossom into a more sultry and enticing bride.
Maybe my idea of romanticism is oddly skewed, but I find the whole approach to this story and the unexpected conclusion to be the heart of romance. Sure, it isn’t overtly emotional and no one ‘dies in the name of love’ but is that really the only determining factor in what true romance is? Why are we so fascinated with the idea of romance being ‘painful’? I ask this because I myself am guilty of this. Like I alluded to in the outset of this post; ‘Titanic’ is like the epitome of ‘romance’. But, again, it is grounded in the idea that true romance is born from the belly of adversity. Does love have to be that difficult? In ‘The Smiling Lieutenant’ there is a wrench thrown in the cogs of love when Niki is separated from his girlfriend Franzi and yet pain and suffering is never a part of this narrative. Instead, the film cleverly finds a way to build romance out of joy. ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ is another film that finds a clever way to build a romance, using adversity (the erasure of memory) in a spontaneous way to build love and passion in a more lighthearted atmosphere.
You may cry when watching these films (I cry when I watch ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’) but it is from the mere movement of happiness and the beauty of love depicted than the pain of loss and suffering.
‘Les Miserables’ is NOT romantic IMDB!