Thursday, March 20, 2008

Trouble in Paradise directed by Ernst Lubitsch (starring Kay Francis, Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins)

Trouble in Paradise (1932). Screenplay/adaptation by Samson Raphaelson (who worked on several films for Lubitsch) and Grover Jones from the play The Honest Finder by Laszlo Aladar.

This wonderful confection from Ernst Lubitsch is a marvelous pre–Hays Code example of what can be done to imply sex. Trouble in Paradise simply drips with it, but nothing but the slightest hint of cleavage is shown. The script is literate and flows with banter, offering the most sophisticated of comic dialogue.

Herbert Marshall stars as the dapper Gaston Monescu, "the man who walked into the bank of Constantinople, and walked out with the bank of Constantinople." We first meet him in Venice, where he has completed a robbery of François Filiba (the inimitable Edward Everett Horton), just before having a romantic dinner with his love, Lily Vautier (Miriam Hopkins).

They are both career crooks (and she has another secret, unknown to him) and their light-hearted pickpocketing of each other is my image of the ideal romantic byplay. Ever so intimate (and quite racy, if you think about it), but with a sense of fun.

Gaston and Lily's relationship begins to suffer when he puts the moves on the exceptionally beautiful (and rich!) Mariette Colet (Kay Francis, whose difficulty pronouncing Rs had her nicknamed "the wavishing Kay Fwancis" on the Warner backlot) — widow of a cosmetics king — for the 850,000 franc insurance payout that is soon to come. Gaston sets himself up as her personal secretary by laying on the charm (and discipline!), and Mariette simply glows when he is around. Lily, inserting herself as Gaston's own secretary, is a perfect delight, fussing and fuming at their relationship while trying to keep her hands from lifting little trinkets around the house.

Trouble in Paradise is ideal in many ways. It barely treads near reality — or, at least, not a reality that most of us will ever see — but that is part of its charm. At a time when most movie characters seem to be underdeveloped juveniles, it's nice to see some confident adults involved in mature situations. As Roger Ebert put it, "Both Lily and Mariette know what they want, and Gaston knows that he has it." This is cinema at its very best. It is funny, sexy, and seems fresh even today, far surpassing the modern idea of "romantic comedy."

Fortunately, it is finally available to purchase on a spectacular Criterion Collection DVD (my original VHS copy was recorded from American Movie Classics back when they lived up to their name) with extras including an informative commentary from Lubitsch's biographer Scott Eyman and one of the director's early short films. One of the best motion pictures of all time can finally find a modern audience.

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