I watched Trouble in Paradise (1932) for the first time at the Grand Illusion Cinema the other night, and now I can’t stop thinking about it or the director Ernst Lubitsch. He’s beloved around my house; my husband loves The Shop Around the Corner and my favorite is To Be or Not To Be. (I have a life-long obsession with Jack Benny. At age five I could do two impressions: Mae West and Jack Benny. Yes, I was bullied.) A lot gets bandied about regarding “The Lubitsch Touch” and what that is. For me, it’s where what you don’t see is just as important as what you do. He is never so crass as to show you everything that is going on; he gives you the framing pieces of the puzzle, but it is up to you to fill in the rest. While other directors will show you a couple making love, Lubitsch will have the butler knock on his lady’s door, but have her open the door down the hall—the door to her male secretary’s room. The audience hasn’t seen anything really, but now they, and the butler, know that something is going on.
Trouble in Paradise starts in Vienna with a baron (Herbert Marshall) and a countess (Miriam Hopkins) having a clandestine meeting over dinner. She is reticent; he is a most persuasive seducer. As they come closer together, he gently convinces her of her beauty and desirability. She robs him blind; he manages to steal the brooch from her décolletage without her noticing. Neither are what they seem. He is Gaston Monescu, the great thief, and she is Lily, his larcenous match. As is fitting in a Lubitsch movie, they fall in love and travel to Paris.
While in Paris, Monescu steals the purse of perfumer Madame Colet (Kay Francis). He soon realizes that the reward for the purse is more than what he could hock it for, so he returns it to her and charms her so much she offers him a job as her personal secretary. His goal is to steal money from her safe; her goal is his heart. As Monescu becomes more and more entrenched in his plans, his heart opens to Madame Colet and he begins to long for something more than what he has. Being in no way stupid, Lily picks up on this and decides to force his hand by stealing the money herself. How will this all work out? Which woman will he choose, and will his choice accept him back? Ah, the complexities of love.
And this movie is all about love. And sex. This movie was made before the Hays Code was enforced, and there is sex all over the place. Or rather, because this is a Lubitsch film, it is everywhere, but seen not at all. He would never be so vulgar. But there are too many closed doors, do not disturb signs, and reading the paper together in the morning scenes to mistake what is going on. This film is full of sex, but modern viewers used to more blatant displays might miss the naughtiness of it all. Monescu and Lily are a matched set, but they are not married. Had he been married, Monescu’s feelings for Madame Colet might have appeared more sordid and that would have been a different type of movie altogether. As it is, this is a light, sophisticated film about the vagaries of the heart.
In addition to the sure-handed direction, the performances of the actors help to make this film so wonderful. Herbert Marshall is perfect as Monescu. His manners and presentation are beautiful; it is no surprise that his character is able to move undetected among the titled. Marshall’s comic timing is spot on, and makes me wish he had done more funny movies. (As a point of interest, he lost one of his legs in World War I, but nobody could ever tell on the screen. I certainly couldn’t.) Miriam Hopkins and Kay Francis are perfectly cast in their roles as well. Hopkins is as light as air in her role as Lily. She does not quite float through her scenes, but it almost feels like it. She’s a ham, but a delightful ham, and I enjoyed her more than I ever have before. As Madame Colet, Kay Francis is lovely. As dark as Miriam Hopkins is fair, her presence is more grounded. She also wants more than what she has, but doesn’t know how to answer that longing except for buying more things.
Let me take a moment to write about Madame Colet’s two suitors. Charles Ruggles as the Major and Edward Everett Horton as François Filiba are fabulous as the two men who are vying for Madame Colet’s heart, even though she has no real interest in either of them. There is one scene where The Major invites Filiba to a party and insults him by asking if he has a dinner jacket. (Of course he does, they are both very rich men.) Ok, maybe I was the only one who laughed, but it is these small throwaway lines and attention to detail that make this film so wonderful. I kept marveling while watching the film, that Lubitsch could focus so much on the details and not lose control of the film as a whole. But no, it holds together beautifully.
Trouble in Paradise is one of the great 1930s films: a beautiful distraction from the hardest of times. Madame Colet does not wear gowns, she wears GOWNS, and the luxuriousness of her surroundings is over the top. In the end, this movie is a perfect pink frothy confection that tastes as good as it looks. I was talking to my daughter about this, and she mentioned that we have plenty of directors now that can make a great serious film, but there aren’t that many out there who can make a truly delightful light romantic comedy. I agree with her wholeheartedly. I want more Lubitsches. Especially in hard economic times, I think maybe we could use more deliciously light entertainment. But there is always Lubitsch to go back to, and I recommend going back as often as you can.
Final Grade: A