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Trouble in Paradise, Ernst Lubitschs fizzy 1932 comedy about larceny and love, opens with a Venetian sanitation worker collecting garbage in his gondola. Its a clever, contradictory joke because Trouble in Paradiseor any of Lubitschs comedies, for that matteris about as far away as you can get from earthy compost.
The German director who came to Hollywood in 1922 became known for the Lubitsch Touchthe sophisticated quality that set his motion pictures apart from any others being made then (or today, in fact). Movies like The Merry Widow, Ninotchka, To Be or Not to Be, Heaven Can Wait and The Shop Around the Corner (arguably the greatest of his films) were light as bubbles and sharp as razors. Like his contemporaries Frank Capra and Billy Wilder, Lubitsch had your mouth laughing while your brain, lagging by about ten seconds, processed the clever indirection of his supreme wit. Were constantly playing mental catch-up while watching a Lubitsch comedy, always one-and-a-half beats behind the joke which pedals by at ninety miles per hour.
Lubitschs impact, while rarely remembered today by all but classic-film devotees, was felt by dozens upon dozens of other moviemakers. Billy Wilder himself had a sign on his desk which simply stated How would Lubitsch do it?
He did it by slipping frank sexuality past the Hays Office censors as he misdirected the viewers attention. In Ninotchka, sex is a godawful hat first scorned by Greta Garbo, then later worn with orgasmic jubilation; in The Shop Around the Corner, sex centers around a music box designed to hold phallic cigars; in Trouble in Paradise, one of the most prominent set decorations is the bed (always neatly made) where, at one point, Lubitsch casts shadows of his embracing lovers. If he cant actually show them in bed, he can at least put their silhouettes on the sheets.
What is the Lubitsch Touch? Its a sharp-cornered steel cube draped in silk. You barely know how naughty the movie is until you start running your hands across the silk and feel the outline of what lies beneath.
What is the Lubitsch Touch? The directors light-fingered style is best summarized by an exchange of dialogue five minutes into Trouble in Paradise. Debonair thief Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) is planning an elegant dinner for two hes to have in his hotel suite with a girl he just met, fellow pickpocket Lily (Miriam Hopkins). Lets listen in as the self-styled baron gives instructions to the waiter while they stand on the balcony that evening:
It must be the most marvelous supper. We may not eat it, but it must be marvelous.
Oh, and waiter?
You see that moon?
I want to see that moon in the champagne.
Yes, Baron. [writing on his notepad] Moon in champagne.
I want to see
And as for you, waiter
I dont want to see you at all.
The swarthy, cigar-chomping Lubitsch excelled at dropping moonlight into every glass of champagne he produced.
Viewers thirsty for a glass of lunar bubbly can rejoice over the new Criterion DVD of Trouble in Paradise which boasts not only a flawless digital transfer, but also an introduction by director Peter Bogdanovich; a rare 1917 Lubitsch film (The Merry Jail); a 1940 radio program featuring Lubitsch, Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert and Basil Rathbone; text-only tributes by Billy Wilder, Leonard Maltin, Cameron Crowe, Roger Ebert and others; and a smart, scene-specific commentary by Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman. As always, Criterion treats the film with all the love and respect of a Michelangelo masterpiece.
Trouble in Paradise may not be Lubitschs Sistine Chapel ceiling (for my money, thats The Shop Around the Corner), but the Lubitsch Touch is, like the outstretched fingers of God and Adam, predominantly on display here.
The story trots along as Gaston successfully woos Lily, they shack up together and move to Paris, then plot to steal an expensive jeweled handbag from perfume heiress Madame Colet (Kay Francis). Gaston weasels his way into Madame Colets charmed circle and soon becomes her personal secretary as well as her lover, to the chagrin and consternation of two other men vying for her affectionFrancois (Edward Everett Horton) and an army Major (Charlie Ruggles).
Madame Colet quickly brushes aside her erstwhile suitorsMarriage is a beautiful mistake which two people make together; but with you, Francois, I think it would be a mistakeand takes Gaston into her sexually ravenous embrace as he tries to swipe the contents of her wall-safe. The joke here is that Francois is a former victim of Gastons and now, unbeknownst to him, hes being robbed for a second time. Lubitsch keeps Francois and the Major in the wings as comic foils who also keep the plot moving with their suspicions of Gastons mysterious past.
Meanwhile, Gaston and Lily are still carrying on in his off-duty hours. Amour between Lily and Gaston is fueled by their ability to one-up each other in pickpocketing skills (their first dinner together is full of delightful crosses and double-crosses) and romantic dialogue like You remember that day you took that Chinese vase from the Royal Palace and you made it into a lamp for my night-table?
After that first-date dinner, Lily reclines sexually on the couch while Gaston murmurs sweet nothings: I love you. I loved you the moment I saw you. Im mad about you, my little shoplifter, my sweet little pickpocket, my darling. Much later, after their plot against Madame Colet is starting to unravel and Gaston is starting to have second thoughts, Lily returns the sweet nothings as she literally tries to shake some sense into him: Darling, remember you are Gaston Monescu. You are a crook. I want you as a crook. I love you as a crook. I worship you as a crook. Steal, swindle, rob, oh but dont become one of those useless good-for-nothing gigolos.
Gaston tries to reassure Lily that his feelings for Madame Colet are strictly business: As far as Im concerned, her whole sex appeal is in that safe. But hes lying. He does find himself helplessly drawn toward the rich widows smoky, soft-voiced sensuality (a polar opposite of the chattering blonde Lily). Marshall, like that other dapper dandy of the screen George Saunders, is like lunar champagne in his role of a man who must always remain one step ahead of the two women he loves, the meddling board of directors at the perfume company, and the international police hunt. Projecting an air of oh-so-polite cynicism, Marshall is at his peak here (he was also memorable as a debonair menace in Alfred Hitchcocks Foreign Correspondent).
The real star of the show, however, is Lubitsch and his distinct style, full of many innovative visual tricks that we take for granted these days. For instance, one entire minute of screen time is devoted to nothing but a series of clock faces while we hear off-camera dialogue, the advancing hour hands illustrating the sexual advances Gaston is making toward Madame Colet. As Eyman points out in his DVD commentary, the talkies were only five years old, but Lubitsch was already showing his fellow filmmakers how sound could be used toward witty and dramatic ends.
Trouble in Paradise doesnt have the frenzy of one-liners like To Be or Not to Be or the humid chemistry between its leads like Ninotchka, but what Trouble in Paradise does have is good enough to make it rise like a champagne bubble above some of its contemporaries and certainly most of todays lead-footed comedies. It has Herbert Marshall. It has a mercurial visual wit. And it has rampant sexualitythe steel cube with sharp edgeswhich is only barely clothed in polite discretion; one small snag and the whole garment could easily fall away.
What is the Lubitsch Touch? It is the absence of touch. His films are at their best when the breezy wit and pace are all but invisible. He once said, Nobody should try to play comedy unless they have a circus going on inside. Lubitsch is so good, we dont even notice the three-ring cavalcade on the screen. Its like watching someone simultaneously juggle butcher knives, sing a Schumann light opera, and tap dance, and all we can say as we walk away is, Boy, he sure can carry a tune, cant he?
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