- Ernst Lubitsch
- Herbert Marshall, Kay Francis, Miriam Hopkins, Edward Everett Horton, Charles Ruggles
- 82 min.
- Release Date
Perhaps the most elegant of all romantic comedy filmmakers, Ernst’s Lubitsch made blithe comedies about infidelity, satires on the struggle between desire and romantic idealism. To put it bluntly, Lubitsch made pictures about sex. In a film like Trouble in Paradise, released in 1932, his sophisticated approach does not engage sex directly; rather, he dances around the subject, insomuch that his exclusions become more important than his disclosures. Lubitsch seems to direct his audience not by pointing to the joke, but by waving in the realm of the joke, which is left for us to discover. His audience understands the punch line without having it read to them. From the opening titles, which appear superimposed over a bed, we know the film’s theme concerns the messy quagmire of sex. Trouble in appears first, then the bed behind it, suggesting the title could be Trouble in Bed; finally, Paradise emerges. While this subtle sign could be missed or ignored, for many it was as stark as the naked form.
Lubitsch was a master of under-the-radar signs. Be it a closed bedroom door, curtains pulled shut, a pair of shoes removed, a chiming typewriter on the bed, or lipstick reapplied, Lubitsch’s delicate inferences say what other films of the period were too afraid to say, and what today’s cinema blurts without an iota of grace. His favorite device, a love triangle, guides Trouble in Paradise through its enchanting progression. He begins by establishing his seemingly unshakable romantic couple, who will later be tested by a third party, a common setup for his films. But instead of two idealized figures upset by a clearly devilish third, his leads Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) and Lily (Miriam Hopkins) are thieves. At their first rendezvous, neither is aware of the other’s pastimes; they keep up the front of two luminaries meeting for a tryst in Venice. As Lily rides her gondola to the hotel, Gaston loses himself in the moonlight and arranges the evening’s provision with the waiter: “It must be the most marvelous super. We may not eat it, but it must be marvelous…” His commentary on social-sexual practices remain unreflective, and yet, wholly representative in a fantastical way.
Gaston and Lily are joyful in their thievery, in that above and beyond an obvious physical attraction, their expert sleight of hand brings them together. Lubitsch does not show them stealing; instead, with humorous class reveals that they have stolen. During dinner, Lily confronts Gaston, accusing him of taking a wallet from fellow hotel patron Monsieur Filiba (Lubitsch regular Edward Everett Horton). He replies to her accusation by calling her a thief, affectionately of course; she has picked Gaston’s pocket to steal M. Filiba’s wallet herself—the music builds to thrilling highs as Gaston stands, locks the door, and then shakes Lily until the wallet falls from under her dress. Dinner resumes, as does lovely music. Through pleasantries and endearing compliments, the two reveal their quiet hands have been at work all night: Gaston hands over Lily’s pin, which he removed from her breast; Lily returns Gaston’s time-corrected watch from inside her purse. Gaston decides to keep her garter. No couple was ever so endearingly meant for each other.
Lubitsch takes us to Paris next to introduce Colet and Company, a French perfumer led by extravagant figurehead Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis). At the opera, her ₣125,000 jewel-encrusted handbag is pilfered; the crook goes unseen by Colet and the film’s viewers. Rather than take the considerably less street value, Gaston, of course the thief, returns the purse for Colet’s publicized reward. Sparks fly as he offers Mariette sound makeup advice, impeccable flirtatious tact, and dispels of unwanted suitors, including The Major (Charles Ruggles). Gaston accepts the opportune position of Madame Colet’s personal secretary in her swank art deco home (with lavish sets and accessories designed by Hans Dreier), giving this master thief access to her personal safe and company-wide resources. With every step Gaston takes toward Colet’s fortune, he finds himself falling in love with her. Lily, meanwhile, takes a job as Gaston’s secretary, unintentionally freeing him up for Colet’s more personal needs. Exaggerated to comic extremes, Gaston and Mariette seem to melt into each other during every conversation, just as Gaston and Lily did at their initial dinner. They never feel out of sync or incommunicative; rather, they know each other implicitly and admonish each other with that knowledge by way of wit and composure.
M. Filiba, a chance member of Mariette’s entourage, (finally) recognizes Gaston’s notorious face. And so, Gaston’s game must end quickly while Mariette remains none the wiser. Preparing for a clean getaway, Lily packs while Gaston wraps up office errands, but Mariette slows their urgent dash with her continued courting of Gaston. She begins to take off her jewelry pre-coitus in Gaston’s office bedroom and asks, “When a lady takes her jewels off in a gentleman’s room, where does she put them?” Gaston replies, “Well, on the… on the night table.” Mariette smiles, “But I don’t want to be a lady.” Sexual ruminations aside, Gaston chooses Lily, with a heartbroken concession from Madame Colet. Lily is the correct choice for love, with Madame Colet a dreamlike sexual ideal. And to be sure, our lover-thieves walk away with Colet’s cash, purse, and pearls, untouched by the law and unscathed in their love for one another. Lubitsch’s brand of mutual sexual understanding and knowing sophistication was identified as “The Lubitsch Touch”—an endearing, if not limited and sometimes vaguely used term, as Lubitsch could be so much more than sophisticated. Nevertheless, of his own work, Lubitsch wrote of Trouble in Paradise in 1947, saying, “As for pure style, I think I have done nothing better or as good.”
Working in Hollywood throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the German-born director became the first in a series of European filmmakers to leave their homeland and bring an alternate sense of directorship to America’s otherwise puritan model. Making his acting debut in 1911 at the Max Reinhardt Theater Company, the Berlin-born tailor’s son would go on to direct and star in a series of short screen comedies, and eventually moved to full-length features. After making a number of successful large-scale romances as a full-time director, Mary Pickford contracted Lubitsch to join her in Hollywood to direct her in Rosita (1923), which Pickford also produced; but even with that film’s success, Pickford and Lubitsch clashed and never worked together again. Early in his Hollywood career, Lubitsch was influenced by Charles Chaplin’s dramatic turn on A Woman of Paris (1923) and make unsuccessful dramatic efforts such as The Patriot (1928) and The Man I Killed (1932). Later he found his niche in musicals and romantic comedies, exploring the sexual goings-on of swindlers, thieves, spies, and bohemians, all of whom he depicted as being refined beyond the often dopey regulars in his films. He never went back to drama.
Though when Lubitsch arrived in Hollywood figures such as Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith ruled the studios, new European filmmakers such as Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, and Jacques Tourneur, reinvented the way American films were made. Lubitsch preceded them all, innovating on American genres and adding European panache. His films were familiar to Americans, yet wholly exotic with European airs. Although the genre he’s known for today is the romantic comedy, he began by single-handedly inventing the musical. Lubitsch filmed The Love Parade in 1929, stylistically following German operettas he saw during his youth—it was Hollywood’s first all sound, full-on song and dance extravaganza. Monte Carlo followed in 1930, The Smiling Lieutenant in 1931 (his best musical), and One Hour with You in 1932. Through these whimsical and ever-lovable films, wherefrom Lubitsch-created musical tropes are still taken today, the director molded the future screen careers of French charmer Maurice Chevalier and crowned “Queen of Hollywood” Jeanette MacDonald. As a worker, his productions were always on or under budget, his adherence to the script customary, and his efficiency as a filmmaker a mark of his continued dependability among studio executives. With an unchallenged career of commercial and artistic successes—among them The Marriage Circle (1923), Design for Living (1933), The Merry Widow (1934), and The Shop Around the Corner (1946)—he worked for Paramount (he ran the studio briefly in 1929 as production head) and Warner Bros. off and on, earning himself unheard of widespread acclaim and respect.
All the while, his main characters slipped by censors with questionable movie morals, as they’re presented in such a way that they appear cultured and well-mannered. Despite their outward downfalls, Lubitsch he never moralizes over his protagonists, nor does he excuse their behavior. In this sense, Lubitsch’s films were realistic, even while being a romantic comedy fantasy. Curiously, the fanciful (and sexual) European spirits he would become famous for depicting onscreen escaped Lubitsch in his own personal affairs. His longtime collaborator Samson Raphaelson called him “almost naïve,” but “as an artist shrewd, as a man simple.” No matter how polished or passionate his films, Lubitsch’s personal life was a romantic tragedy. Perhaps his naïveté attracted his two wives: one had an affair with his best friend; another married Lubitsch for his money, and then left him after she bore his only child, Nicola. He lived happily, despite personal misfortune. Friends said he was overly sensitive about his appearance, despite the fact that his charisma and geniality was known and cherished throughout Hollywood. At his funeral, Billy Wilder commented “No more Lubitsch.” William Wyler responded, “Worse than that, no more Lubitsch films.”
Trouble in Paradise was Lubitsch’s first non-musical romantic comedy, written by Samson Raphaelson, screenwriter of Hollywood’s first renowned talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927) with Al Jolson. As the director’s greatest and most frequent contributing writer, Raphaelson penned the Lubitsch staples The Merry Widow, The Shop Around the Corner, and Heaven Can Wait (1943), adorning them all with unparalleled wit and charm. Understanding filmic clichés and working with his director to avoid them at all costs, Raphaelson helped pioneer Lubitsch’s stark innovations on the typical American narrative structure. Tricks of metaphor, tender cynicism, and near invisible direction were all underlined in Raphaelson’s screenplay, always closely followed by the director. But as viewers, we notice Raphaelson’s graceful dialogue—how naturally it flows among characters and joins them together like merging streams. Every line has a double meaning or redirection, resulting in deft surprise yet inevitable turns: Mariette rejects prospective beau M. Filiba with breezy abandon when she says, “Marriage is a beautiful mistake which two people make together… But with you, François, I think it would be a mistake.” Raphaelson brought words to Hollywood with The Jazz Singer; he perfected those words in his dialogue for Trouble in Paradise.
Lubitsch films often involve delivering a soft blow to the upper classes—poking fun at the bourgeois, their frequent promiscuity, and their recklessness with money. Sexual crassness acts as his tool chipping away at the prestige of “nobles,” bringing them down a notch, humanizing them, even depicting them as childish. In his silent picture The Oyster Princess (1919), the title character (Ossi Oswalda) vows to smash every bit of furniture and decoration in her house until she’s married; after she’s finally married, the uninvolved Oyster King (Victor Janson) tiptoes downstairs like a cartoon to peep grotesquely through his daughter’s keyhole, hoping to find her consummating her new marriage, perhaps giving him something to be “impressed” with. Or look at Gene Tierney’s parents (Eugene Pallette and Marjorie Main) in Lubitsch’s late-joy Heaven Can Wait. They bicker childishly over the funny papers, forcing their server to relay messages between each other to comic follow-through on opposite ends of an elongated dinner table. Lubitsch elevates his audience by making the rich absurd to sometimes cartoonish yet comically effective extremes.
Following this pattern, Trouble in Paradise affords an escapist romantic fantasy with then-modern relevance, by addressing major issues plaguing the world of 1932, specifically nationwide disenchantment stemming from The Great Depression. Effectively, Lubitsch shows us how absurd the world looks by raising us up above it, to a fantastical bird’s eye view. With well-to-do thieves as his heroes, he implies that Madame Colet deserves to be robbed; look at the way she spends money needlessly on a handbag. At one moment ₣3,000 is too much for one purse; the next moment, ₣125,000 seems like a bargain for the attention it will bring. Of course, the thief-lovers, as well as the greed of Madame Colet, become appealing for Depression-era audiences by way of monetary appeal—their ability to steal, or simply have wealth, allures victims of the recession. Gaston even refers to himself as a member of the “nouveaux poor,” identifying himself with his contemporary audiences. Not even the idealistic esteem of Venice is safe from the director’s critical eye. Trouble in Paradise opens with a garbage man emptying trash onto a gondola, who then belts an echoing sonata in true Venetian form.
Indeed, the director chose targets as much as his subjects and themes. Another of Lubitsch’s masterpieces is To Be or Not to Be, the dark wartime satire he hoped would give Hitler a much-needed kick in the pants. Filmed in the latter part of 1941 just before America entered WWII, the film centers on an acting troupe that outwits numbskull Nazis in occupied Warsaw. Jack Benny and Carole Lombard (in her last screen performance) star in this provocative attack on Hitler’s regime—as directly referential as Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940—that says more than Hollywood was willing to say after the war began. Fleix Bressart’s character goes as far as to recite Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech from The Merchant of Venice; a German-Jew himself, Lubitsch sought to cleverly defend his beliefs. Nevertheless, To Be or Not to Be was released in March of 1942, receiving an awkward response given the political climate. Attitudes toward the picture would lighten as years passed; the film is now acknowledged as one of cinema’s great comedic satires. Working in a series of germane opposites more alike than contrary, Lubitsch’s world does not function the way The Real World operates; still, his comedy is more authentic than an overwrought tragedy.
Never forget that Lubitsch has made us fall for criminals. He’s careful to conceal their crimes under-the-table. Each member of Lubitsch’s love triangle is a thief, a swindler, or a superficial well-to-do, but they remain honest about their positions. None are hypocrites, especially when they flirt; they at once realize the potential disaster but follow their loins nonetheless. Lubitsch walks us through the gate into an affectionate and sexual dream world, the consequences of which less important than the acts themselves. Generally speaking, Pre-Code cinema of this kind contains a surprising amount of sexual content, which seems uncharacteristic given popular contemporary views that old cinema is somehow stuffy or stodgy sexually. Rather, DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932), for example, made the same year as Trouble in Paradise, is pointedly liberated, depicting Orientalized lesbians, orgies, and nude bathing scenes amid Roman courts. Such blatant signs were described as “immoral,” just as some Prohibition-era gangster pictures (such as Howard Hughes’ Scarface, also 1932) were said to glorify violence and gangsterism. Public protests over Hollywood’s growing indecency in entertainment media fuelled the creation of the Production Code (or Hays Code), established March 31st, 1930. Enforcement of Code mandates began on July 1st, 1934—all films following this date would require a certificate of approval before their release, issued by the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (or MPPDA, later our current MPAA).
Released a year-and-a-half prior to the Production Code’s imposition on Hollywood, Lubitsch slipped Trouble in Paradise through the cracks with in-tact riffs on “sexual swapping” and criminality. The Code suggested that such immoral behavior would be inescapably punished, be it by law or by fate or by God. But Gaston and Lily, thick as the thieves they are, remain criminals and, most significantly, they get away with it. When the film ends, their crimes are unpunished; even Gaston’s intended infidelity is excused. In fact, we are overjoyed in the finale when Gaston and Lily pinch Colet’s pearl necklace, jewel-coated purse, and ₣100,000 worth of incidental cash. After 1934, Trouble in Paradise failed to receive re-release approval from Hays Code mandates for its “depraved” content. It was not to be seen again until its welcomed 1968 revival, when Hollywood was becoming all about a freedom of sexual politics in film. This is the case with several early Lubitsch romantic comedies. Consider Design for Living (1933), a film that begins and ends with the notion of a functioning and healthy threesome—not even years later in more liberal cinematic times did François Tuffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962) or Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) have the bravery to suggest such a thing.
Now imagine if Lubitsch released Trouble in Paradise in 1935 under Production Code regulation. “Different” hardly describes the resultant hypothetical product. Of course, M. Filiba would still recognize Gaston Monescu straightaway, while the justly moral Madame Colet would begrudgingly concede that the police take her budding lover to jail. No doubt Gaston would be imprisoned for his robberies, and Lily too for her part in the con. Perhaps this version would end with our couple jailed in side-by-side cells, exchanging flowering dialogue through prison bars, versus driving away fancifully in their getaway car. Fortunately, the film was released at the height of Lubitsch’s artistic freedom, allowing Lubitsch’s half-nefarious, half-endearing characters to remain, in their humanness and, curiously, in their exaggerated but affable flaws, free. Of all Lubitsch pictures, this one best explores the direct theme of romance that stands as a symbol for sexual freedom; he was careful to separate these concepts of romance and sex, with one being a nod to the other in the cleverest of ways.
In a Lubitsch film, what might be considered brutal honesty translates into endearing candor. When Lily tells Mariette that her mother is dead, Mariette replies “That’s the trouble with mothers. First you get to like them. Then they die.” On the one hand she jokes about her mother’s death, but then she refuses to cut her workers’ salaries (another important sense of her character to Depression-era audiences). No one apologizes for their feelings in an Ernst Lubitsch film. In this romanticized Paradise, Gaston never has to deny his feelings for Mariette to Lily, nor does Mariette deny her intentions toward Gaston. Everyone participates in The Game of Sex, and all parties are well aware of the rules before the whistle blows and the game begins. For its honesty and unrestrained frankness about relationships and sex, Trouble in Paradise is a delightful onscreen fantasy, and a rare one in which men and women can give and receive “love”—elements representative of an adult, sophisticated view toward romance and a key characteristic of “The Lubitsch Touch.”
Eyman, Scott. Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise. New York: Simon & Schuster, c1993.