Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932)

It must be the most marvelous supper. We may not eat it, but it must be marvelous.”

Introduction

This is paddling into the Lubitsch territory. Master filmmaker Billy Wilder co-wrote some late-Lubitsch pictures, and turned to him for inspiration on a daily basis by placing a sign on his desk to turn to when in doubt: “What would Lubitsch have done?” was all it read.

Trouble in Paradise is additionally an example of a Pre-Code film. Released in 1932, it was not approved by the Production Code and was refused re-issue in 1935 due to the innuendo and overt sexuality of the characters, and consequently hidden away until 1968. A film that defined “The Lubitsch Touch”, containing all the trademark elements of the filmmaker, locked away for over thirty-years is simply tragic. It is difficult to imagine how we would feel if, three years after release, our favourite film vanished, unavailable to easily-access. Truly it is one of those things which we take for granted in a day and age whereby films sit online, to access instantaneously.

Two Thieves in the Night

The set-up is genius as two characters try to out-con each other, only to reveal that they are both thieves. Lily (Miriam Hopkins), a pickpocket, attempts to outsmart Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall), a master thief on the run. The intelligence in the script resides in how we, as viewers, do not initially know each character. We are unsure whether Gaston is a thief; and for a moment, we are unsure about Lily too. The story leads us slowly to understand that they are both trying to outsmart each other – eventually falling for each other. This set-up is playful and personal – already establishing the lovers from the get-go.

But it is Gaston’s story as he moves into Madame Marriette Colet’s (Kay Francis) house, hired as the accountant for her and the perfume business she owns. Inevitably perhaps, the true motive between the two becomes unclear as business and pleasure becomes hazy. Is Gaston falling for Colet? Is Colet falling for Gaston? Is Gaston conning Colet, by pretending to fall for her? We are not told until the final act…

Playfulness

The pace and playfulness of the film is summarised by two sequences that highlight Lubitsch’s flair and inventiveness. To depict the daily life of Madame Colet, we see the various greetings she states and others say to her in a series of quick-cuts. Characters repeat the phrase “Hello”/”hello”/”goodbye”/”Hello”, etc. We see the many different shop-tailors and assistants speak to her – clearly they know her well. This simple series of events highlight her flippant attitude towards finance and the amount of money she has. To some extent, it is clear that she is quite foolish and unaware about how open she is with her money.

The second sequence that captures the skill of Lubitsch is when the camera remains static on a clock as we hear the commotion surrounding the clock at different intervals to represent the passing of time. Again, a slight change in lighting and sound is what clarifies the situation – and it is effortless as we imagine the surrounding elements. In a similar manner, in one scene, Gaston and Colet kiss on a sofa as it fades out and then, fading back in, it reveals the empty sofa and then cuts to the characters walking between rooms. Without a line in the script; without a revealing shot; the characters have had sex.

A Social Balance

A story that revolves around theft from the upper class will always have a clear agenda regarding its social context. Indeed, our introduction to Madame Colet supports our disgust with the wealth of the upper class when she purchases a hand bag for $125,000. She loses it and, upon placing an advert in the paper for finding the bag, many people arrive to – potentially – gain the reward. One man argues our own opinion and shouts at her “fool! fool!” with regards to spending such an amount of money on a handbag.

But, considering the small cast, the tension lies in Gaston and his attitude. His criminal lifestyle, we wonder, is it through greed or envy. Does he simply want to take everything? Or does he, deep down, seek to be the same upper-class accountant he purports to be? His love for her fueled by a lust for the same equal stance in society – indeed, his dialect and posture indicates a clear understanding of the upper-class.

Such a tension how, on the surface it is merely a man choosing who he really loves whilst, bubbling under the narrative, is a personal conflict regarding wealth, status and the definition of greed. I can see where Billy Wilder managed to get the confidence to tackle stories of such sadness and sorrow (such as The Lost Weekend and Double Indemnity) in a manner that is light and playful – Lubitsch does it here in Trouble in Paradise. Walking out of a cinema and, despite laughing and smiling whilst watching the film, you ponder the  Western attitudes to class, really is a testament to film-making that aspires to be so much more than entertainment.

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