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Trouble in Paradise

Trouble in Paradise
Criterion 170
1932 / b&w / 1:37 flat / 83 min. / Street Date January 7, 2003 / $39.95
Starring Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis, Herbert Marshall, Charles Ruggles, Edward Everett Horton, C. Aubrey Smith, Robert Greig
Cinematography Victor Milner
Art Direction Hans Dreier
Original Music W. Franke Harling
Written by Grover Jones & Samson Raphaelson from the play by Aladar Laszlo
Produced and Directed by Ernst Lubitsch

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

All of Hollywood considered Ernst Lubitsch the tops in sophisticated entertainment, and Billy Wilder worshipped and emulated him. But after his death, awareness of the master director faded outside of film schools and cinema societies. There really is a 'Lubitsch touch' and it oozes from every frame of a masterpiece like Trouble in Paradise. Its knowing acceptance of sex was very appealing to us early-'70s film students, for whom anything culturally subversive was good news. The Hays code was inaugurated to curb excesses that don't seem excessive now, with the result that the sophisticated sexiness of films like this one, was wiped out in Hollywood for nigh-on 30 years. Trouble in Paradise is liberated from notions of sin and moral retribution, but has a sweet and thoughtful disposition for human feelings. It's also uproariously funny from the first frame forward.


Money is stolen in Venice, and when master conman/thief Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) and conman/pickpocket Lily (Miriam Hopkins) meet, their mutual attraction is assured. In the midst of a successful European jaunt fleecing the rich, they alight in Paris to score the riches of Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis). Gaston gets the job as Mariette's personal secretary, while Lily poses as a clerk, and together they wait for her safe to yield a maximum take. But complications ensue. One of Mariette's two snooty suitors (Edward Everett Horton and Charles Ruggles) is the Venice patsy who might recognize Gaston, and Gaston and Mariette are falling in love, much to Lily's consternation.

Lily and Gaston are truly made for each other. They are charming thieves with a love of life and a common understanding of the beauty of larceny. Their running gag of constantly confessing to have stolen things from each other is Lubitsch's substitute for foreplay - when Marshall tells Hopkins he's filched her garter, the expression on her face is priceless.

Lubitsch's Europe is a fantasyland where cultured crooks rob rich folk who can easily do without their treasures. But the world invented by screenwriter Samson Raphaelson makes frequent reference to the depression, while chiding the idle rich and white-telephone romances in general. The film's only exterior scene shows a Venetian garbageman singing as he dumps refuse into a gondola. Millionairess Kay Francis' crooked board chairman C. Aubrey Smith wants to use the depression as an unnecessary excuse to slash wages. A very Mosfilm-like wild Trotskyite (Leonid Kinskey of Casablanca) invades Francis' home to lecture her on her capitalist sins ("Phooey!"). Suave beyond words, Herbert Marshall sweeps all of Francis' problems aside, and quickly installs himself in her confidence.

The comedy is sublime, on the ironic, verbal and visual levels. Amost none of the dialogue is dated or stilted. It's all spoken in that kind of Mid-Atlantic lounge smoothness invented by American movies to appear 'European'. Instead of simple jokes, the humor comes from exchanges that build in double entendre, as pungent lines bounce back and forth like a tennis match. It's all effortless.

Gaston: "I want everything about the dinner to be perfect."
Waiter, enthused: "Yes, signor."
Gaston: "That moon. I want to see that moon in the champagne."
Waiter, enthused: "Yes, signor."
Gaston: "And you, waiter. You I don't want to see at all."
Waiter, down-hearted: "Yes, signor."

The visual jokes are even better. Gaston corners Madame Colet in an embrace, and purrs in her ear. Their love will last for days, weeks, years. With each word we pop closer and closer to the bed, with the final setup framing their silhouetted shadows on a silk pillow. Like prosperity, sex is just around the corner.

You often hear the reactionary phrase that films were sexier when sex couldn't be blatantly shown, and had to be implied instead. Lubitsch implies everything, not just the sex. We're more certain of who wants to sleep with whom, than who has actually been with who. Lily and Gaston are shown returning many a filched item to one another, but we never actually see them steal anything. A shadow retreats from the window of the unconscious Francois Filiba (Edward Everett Horton). In the next scene, the waiter pulls an errant ivy leaf from Gaston's coat. It's all we need to establish Gaston's cat-burglar credentials - he's the crook, but his mind is on love, not crime. Trouble in Paradise is about the elusive sting of romance that can touch anyone, even the most ruthless thief in Europe.

Lubitsch's direction is as simple as pie, lining up the characters and letting the story roll. There's an effortless feeling of symmetry to the action, as when Gaston, by spying through a window, repeatedly finds Lily on the opposite side of the Colet manse where she doesn't belong. Lily and Gaston's pickpocketing 'meet cute' is mirrored in the last scene.

Those who have only seen Miriam Hopkins in her old crone roles (The Chase, The Children's Hour) will be surprised by her vivacious allure. The same goes for Herbert Marshall, the kind of guy incapable of sweating. He always projects a half-dreamy reverie, while remaining a calculating conman inside. Herbert Marshall had only one leg, which explains his deliberate gait, and the slightly stilted 'launch' when he starts moving in any particular direction. If you see him take more than two steps, it's an unusual shot. He's doubled for several angles where he runs up and down the Colet stairs. Marshall's strain at walking smoothly is much more pronounced in The Fly, made 26 years later.

Kay Francis was a very popular actress at the time, and steals the show with her pearly smile while delivering naughty dialogue:

Madame Colet: "Where does a lady put her jewelry in a gentleman's bedroom?"
Gaston, unsure: "Uh, on the night table."
Madame Colet: "But I don't want to be a lady."

Providing sidebar comedy are Charles Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton, two of Madame Colet's unsuccessful suitors who have absolutely no sex appeal. Herbert Marshall's charm erases them like a steamroller.

Raphaelson and Lubitch determine every plot twist by consistently turning in the direction of the unexpected. Caught red-handed both as a thief and a two-timing lover, Gaston's sincerity wins the cooperative sympathy of his rich victim, and they part amiably. Because Gaston has proven where his heart really lies, the jealous Lily has no bitterness. And she has her rival's jewels to prove it.

Billy Wilder modeled much of his filmography after Ernst Lubitsch, and Trouble in Paradise shows why he returned repeatedly to middle European theatrical farces by playwrights like Ferenc Molnar, for basic material. One person watching this show will smile, two will chuckle, and audiences soon join in the fun wholesale.

Criterion's DVD of Trouble in Paradise is an okay transfer accompanied by excellent extras. The quality is good but not great, not because of any production lapses, but because the source materials for most of the pre-1948 Paramount acquisitions held by Universal/MCA (sold, unbelievably, in the late 1950's) are not in good shape. My contact at Universal reports that for many titles the only negatives are very dupey copies made with the inadequate stocks of long ago. This means that many of the beautiful nitrate archive prints we saw at UCLA, now only exist with higher contrast, lacking their silver sheen. This was immediately apparent with Von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress, one of the most dazzling b&w films ever made: on DVD, its glamour was greatly reduced.

That said, Trouble in Paradise doesn't look bad, either. It's unbroken and spotless, and the soundtrack is intact and clear. Video restoration has compensated for everything but a slight dullness, and our awareness of that disappears as soon as the story kicks in.

The extras are phenomenal. An entire short silent Lubitsch feature called The Happy Jail is included. It's light-hearted and sophisticated fun, with jokes that work as well as anything in a Chaplin film. An 'introduction' by Peter Bogdanovich is actually a primer on Ernst Lubitch that's invaluable to understanding the talented man. Bogdanovich knows his film history and comes off very favorably in this segment, which should definitely be held off until one's seen the main feature. There's also a vintage radio show, where you can hear Lubitsch's thick accent playing off Jack Benny and Claudette Colbert. A text extra quotes famous directors offering tributes to Lubitsch, and is okay. New directors like Wes Anderson have nothing to contribute except lame joke hand-drawn cartoons. Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman is heard on a full-length commentary track.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Trouble in Paradise rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good-
Sound: Good
Supplements: Commentary by Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman, video introduction by Peter Bogdanovich, the 1917 short film Das fidele Gefangnis (The Merry Jail), a 1940 Screen Guild Theater radio program featuring Ernst Lubitsch, Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert, and Basil Rathbone, text tributes to Lubitsch, written by Billy Wilder, Leonard Maltin, Cameron Crowe, Roger Ebert, and others.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 11, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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