Trouble in Paradise
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Starring: Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis, Charlie Ruggles, Edward Everett Horton
“The Lubitsch Touch” is a famous saying in film. Lubitsch, an early film director, became renowned for his notoriously deft handling of screwball comedies; his later films even used the saying in their ad campaigns. The Lubitsch Touch refers to his superb sophistication, a debonair suavity that pervades his work. Of the Lubitsch films I have seen, none personifies this elegance more so than Trouble in Paradise.
The story is about Gaston Monescu (an insanely sexy and suaver-than-Cary-Grant-no-really-I-mean-it Herbert Marshall), a thief and pickpocket who masquerades as upper class nobility. He meets his match in Lily (Miriam Hopkins), a fellow con artist pretending to be a countess. The two fall madly in love when they realize they are kindred spirits. Their romantic bliss is threatened, however, when they decide to con the wealthy and widowed but gorgeous Mme Mariette Colet (Kay Francis). When Mariette falls for Gaston, and Gaston finds himself falling for Mariette, the brewing love triangle and the law closing in on the thieves puts the relationship between Gaston and Lily in danger.
Typically, the phrase “Trouble in Paradise” refers to marriage woes, but there are husbands or wives in the picture. Instead, as the opening credits make abundantly clear, “Trouble in Paradise” is really about trouble in, well, bed. In the first shot of the film, the words “Trouble in…” appear on the screen, followed by a picture of a bed, and then an extremely long pause before the title completes itself with the word “Paradise.” Lubitsch is not trying to fool anyone. This film is about sex and love and how the two interfere with each other. Lubitsch, in key scenes, intentionally returns to shots of a made bed, covered in silks and satins, looking incredibly inviting. Characters walk into a room, then immediately notice the bed, walk over to it, as if entranced. Lovers embrace, and then look down at the bed. A mirror above the bed shows the reflection of kissing lovers with the pillows underneath.
Along with the bed, Lubitsch is very aware of time of day in the film, with clocks and timepieces featuring prominently in many shots and scenes. In one tantalizing sequence, Lubitsch keeps the camera focused entirely on a mother-of-pearl clock face while we hear different characters talking. One couple says goodbye at 5pm, while another couple says hello at 6pm. As it gets later and later in the evening, we are left wondering, what did they do for those two hours between midnight and 2 am? Talk? Doubtful. This was 1932, so obviously, there are no explicit sex scenes, but my goodness, the sex is clearly laced throughout the entire film.
What makes an early Hollywood sex comedy the prime example of the Lubitsch Touch is the incomparable sophistication that Lubitsch brings to the table. The film is painfully beautiful – silks, satins, furs, gleaming black and white floors, immaculate art deco apartments – this is a fantasy world of elegance. Even the opening camera shot of the film – on a garbage man in Venice picking up refuse in his gondola – is elegant. The garbage man suddenly breaks into song, singing ‘O Sole Mio’ with an operatic tenor voice. Even the trash collectors in a Lubitsch film are sophisticated! Given this, it makes perfect sense that Gaston, the main character, a con artist, a thief, a pickpocket, absolutely oozes debonair grace. Herbert Marshall is beyond immaculate in this film as a silver-tongued sophisticate. There is little question why both Miriam Hopkins and Kay Francis fall for him. Cary Grant, Sean Connery, and George Clooney have nothing on Marshall from this film, especially when he’s purring out seductive lines like, “Do you see the moon? I want to see the moon in the champagne,” and “It could have been marvelous – divine – glorious.”
The relationship between Gaston and Lily is easily the most fun pairing of the film. Their courtship over their shared livelihood in an early hotel scene is intoxicating. “I have a confession to make to you,” Lily says. “Baron, you are a crook! You robbed the gentleman in 253, 5, 7, and 9. May I have the salt?” He responds with, “Let me say this, with love in my heart. Countess, you are a thief! The wallet of the gentleman in 253, 5, 7 and 9 is in your possession. I knew it very well when you took it out of my pocket.” They then proceed to hand back the various items they pickpocketed off each other. Their relationship is consummated, so to speak, when Lily realizes that Gaston took off her garter without her noticing. She throws herself around his neck, realizing that she has met her match, not only romantically but professionally as well. Their effervescent relationship is so sexy, so perfect, so delightful, that despite the fact that they are world class con artists and thieves, I can’t help but root for them.
Contrasting Gaston and Lily’s relationship is that of Gaston and Mariette Colet, a wealthy widow not exactly careful with her money, making her an obvious target for the thieves. Kay Francis as Mariette is so languorous, so dreamy, with a constant look in her eyes as if she just came from a romp in the hay, that despite the appeal of Gaston and Lily, it’s also obvious why Gaston falls for her. Francis purrs seductively to Marshall when Mariette knows that she has Gaston within her clutches, never breaking eye contact, and smiling tantalizingly when she declares, “You want me.” The sex appeal oozing out of her is off the charts, yet it is never crass or vulgar, once more reflecting the sophistication of the Lubitsch Touch.
Providing amusing comic supporting characters are Edward Everett Horton and Charlie Ruggles as two stymied suitors of Mariette Colet. Gone are the days of the great supporting actors, but thank goodness we have films like this one to remind us of the awesomeness past. Horton plays, well, his classic stammering part, but as always, he’s perfect. Ruggles is equally amusing, and the banter between the two of them is wonderful.
Normally I meticulously avoid spoilers in my film reviews, but I must make an exception for Trouble in Paradise. If you’ve never seen it and want to keep the surprise intact about the resolution of the love triangle, by all means, skip the rest of this paragraph. Ready? Done skipping? Good, because here I go. Despite Colet’s money, seductive voice, and the clear power she holds over Gaston, he ultimately realizes what he values in his life – and it isn’t the fleeting yet wonderful relationship he could have with Mariette. It is his life with Lily, a life that includes love, sex, and crime, which he wants. As he says in his apology to Mariette, “But in the morning, there would be a policeman holding a warrant.” He must be on the run, and she can’t join him. She stares at him in shock – not that he revealed himself to be a criminal, but that he is turning her down. Lily, for her part, is upset that Gaston even considered Mariette, but the film ends brilliantly, echoing the pickpocket courtship that brought Lily and Gaston together in the first place. Mariette is seductive and lovely, but it is Lily and Gaston who are truly made for each other, and it is beyond gratifying to see them end up together… on the run to a different city with the police hot on their heels.
There is a playfulness to this film that puts it in the same category of film as The Thin Man and Some Like It Hot. If you’re a fan of those two classics and you’ve never heard of Trouble in Paradise, I more than recommend you give it a try. It’s positively delicious.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10