Trouble in Paradise (1932, Ernst Lubitsch)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
Lubitsch has been a “hall of shame” director — a blind spot — for me for so many years now. There’s nothing I like better than the idea I always had in my head of his movies, all the lush and sly bed-hopping comedies of our most glamorous dreams, but I encountered few of his films in the first real decade of my cinematic exploration, and those I did see underwhelmed me (though I did like them): Ninotchka, Heaven Can Wait, and more recently, his vaguely sociopathic silent film The Marriage Circle. The first Lubitsch I saw that I genuinely loved was his extremely uncharacteristic melodrama Eternal Love, a sumptuous, progressive and overwhelmingly sad jewel of a movie, but even upon finding it I had little reason to think it indicated that the larger share of Lubitsch’s filmography — comprised almost entirely of comedies — would move me as much.
Happily I’ve once again been proven wrong; the canon projects I’m undergoing to fill in the holes in my knowledge of great movies are sure to provide many such moments, and with the possible exception of Murnau’s Faust, the bawdy but refined Lubitsch classic Trouble in Paradise is my favorite discovery from them to date. This is an unusually informal review for this space because I don’t know a way to tell you less directly and immediately that this film’s peculiarly warm amorality sent me reeling like nothing since I first encountered Kind Hearts and Coronets and Bringing Up Baby. Fizzy but cutting, cushioned by illusions of conspicuous wealth but sharply critical of same, its world is one in which I want to bask. It speaks to and delights me so very much.
The only earlier Lubitsch comedy I personally have the ability to compare Trouble in Paradise to is The Marriage Circle, a film about a series of infidelities and accusations of infidelities disrupting what could have been happy lives — entertaining as it is, it seemed to me a cold and somewhat alarming affair in the delight it took in ramming discontent into people. The first crucial difference here is in the screenplay: adapted by Grover Jones and Samson Raphaelson from a Hungarian play by one László Aladár, Trouble demonstrates compassion for all three central characters, and both seeks and finds nuance in lifestyles that some audiences are bound to find despicable. We’re introduced to Herbert Marshall’s Gaston Monescu and Miriam Hopkins’ Lily Vautier as a caviar-swilling Bonnie and Clyde, only they don’t quite know it yet. They’re scammers playing a long game while posing as members of nobility, and they fall in love in Venice on the night of an enormous heist against wealthy Edward Everett Horton. The real action gets underway when the pair sets about gaining the trust of a Paris-based perfume magnate known as Madame Colet (Kay Francis), at which point the seeds of a second love affair as well as the grand thieves’ undoing are planted.
I don’t typically worry much about spoilers here but there’s frankly no point in recounting much of what grows out of this, except to say that you as the audience member are bound to be as flummoxed as Gaston is by the choice he must make between two potential loves of his life, both of them elegant, witty, strong and brazenly sensuous characters. Lubitsch’s trademark sophistication is well served by a story that blends a sense of classiness with a careful examination of class itself — of the question of whether common ground can exist between haves and have-nots in a capitalist society. At the same time, however, Trouble in Paradise is mostly just a joyous affair, one that comes to feel almost weightless in its winking hedonism. It’s also very identifiably a pre-code film, maybe one of the raciest to be produced by one of the larger studios (Paramount), with its thrillingly risque jokes about spankings, double beds, prostitution and freewheeling promiscuity, and suggestive love scenes that make the finale of The Awful Truth seem comparatively mild. Lubitsch’s mindset is perhaps best defined by a moment in which Gaston and Madame Colet both approach a bed in her maid’s quarters and, for an oddly frozen few seconds, simply stand and gape at it.
This isn’t a screwball comedy; it’s more grown up somehow than its later brethren, partially but not entirely because of the reduced censorship. Lubitsch’s kinetic direction — strongly in evidence in Eternal Love, less so in his other films that I have seen — makes a large contribution to the feeling that Trouble in Paradise is a genuine piece of art-deco adult entertainment built to last. (Thanks to its liberal attitudes and the complexity of its two female leads, it’s scarcely aged at all.) It’s filled with sharp, clever montages — at one point Lubitsch uses a spoken radio ad to make a vital scene transition and put forward exposition, an almost Wellesian move — and impressively cinematic storytelling techniques, and doesn’t rely on quick-paced dialogue, speaking with more of a turned-on drawl. To boot, although its characters are constantly funny people, they also seem to a large degree like real people (more so than the heightened figures populating the oeuvres of, say, Billy Wilder’s or Preston Sturges’) — horny but poor, rich but lonely, quick-witted in a soft kind of way. At bottom their two most intense desires, for love (and sex) and hard cash, are the same as everyone’s, and for these needs to be so unfussily laid out in dialogue and action circa 1932 seems like the equivalent of watching a Hollywood heartthrob go to the washroom.
Though the comic scenario set up by the first scene, wherein we see the aftermath of Gaston robbing a man by posing as a doctor, plays out both predictably and delightfully when he turns out to be one of Colet’s suitors, the film’s pleasures come not from a neatly tied story but from characters that manage to contain multitudes while remaining relatable and engaging. Gaston’s air of pretension is made tolerable and even sympathetic by his lack of humiliation about begging for money, and by what we can logically read as his genuine attraction and affection for two very different women. Madame Colet is a distant figure because of her improbable, undeserved wealth (pointed out directly by a vagrant communist in one scene, a rebuke to any accusation that Lubitsch’s flighty theatrics are ignoring the larger world) but embodied by the stunning Francis she also is an undeniably alluring and seemingly kind person, made human by the desire she so openly exhibits, the disdain she delights in extending to her army of dull male hangers-on. Most appealing of all is Lily — the sole flaw of the film is that she disappears for a big chunk of the second act — with Hopkins handing in a deliciously irreverent, multifaceted performance as a person in love with both a human being and with the constant escapism he symbolizes; her pain at the possibility of losing this mutually beneficial, mutually loving and intense partnership is never made into a joke, even when her responses to it are hilarious indeed.
All three actors’ comic timing is impeccable (as is that of the supporting players, especially Horton and Charlie Ruggles), which is all the more impressive when you consider Marshall’s stiffness in more serious films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! (made just a year earlier). But of course these actors are being given so much to work with here, and the script in and of itself would be enough to justify the film’s sterling reputation. A movie like His Girl Friday or The Awful Truth is dependent so much on the volume of dialogue, but here what we get are small, elegant morsels that are rarer but seem to linger even more, and like the most legendary of Billy Wilder’s lines they’re not necessarily funny (or sexy) out of context: “You’re hired.” “Tonsils!” “You see… mother is deaad.” And, of course, the immortal “shut up, kiss me.”
There’s also a line that really stuck to me in one of the final scenes, in which Colet is watching as Gaston prepares to leave her behind and seems to be looking at him over the great gulf formed by their incompatible lives. (Grace Kelly would tempt Cary Grant with the opposite proposition in To Catch a Thief, of love and openness: “Ever had a better offer in your whole life? One with everything?”) Both know theirs could have been a grand romance, but this isn’t positioned to reduce the standing or beauty of Gaston and Lily’s love, it’s simply that one will be and one will not. Still, it startled me for perversely the same reason I’m startled by the moments of disturbing violence and the vocal rejection of war in All Quiet on the Western Front: after you’ve been spun around for eighty minutes by the bubbly exuberance of the Lubitsch universe, unbound by obligations to Hays and so much resembling the thrilling, edgy subversion of real love at its most sinful, it’s hard not to hear this exchange of dialogue as an advance adieu to the decades of stunning popular entertainment that would have been offered by the continued freedom in Hollywood filmmaking without the interference of the religious tastemakers and moral zealots.
“It could have been marvelous,” Gaston says.
“Divine,” Colet replies wistfully.