TROUBLE IN PARADISE: The Beautiful Mess of Intelligent People

March 2, 2018 - 1:36pm
Posted by Jim Healy


These notes on Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932) were written by Matt Connolly, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Trouble in Paradise will screen in our UCLA Film & Television Archive Festival of Preservation on Saturday, March 3 at 7 p.m. in our regular Cinematheque venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Print courtesy UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation and The Film Foundation.

By Matthew Connolly

“It could have been marvelous,” sighs the man. “Divine,” laments the woman. “Wonderful,” responds the gentleman. The scene finds two lovers potentially parting forever, the air thick with regret over what could have been, were it not for the circumstances driving them asunder. Mind you, said circumstances are that the man has been conning the woman throughout their brief affair, masquerading as her loyal secretary in a plot to abscond several hundred thousand francs from her personal safe. (Did I mention that he’s doing so while involved with another woman, also a seasoned thief?) And yet, despite the knowledge of the con by both parties, their affection for one another is not a joke. A genuine affinity has formed between them—a shared sexual desire, yes, but also a sensibility that sees crime, passion, and longing as all mixed together in the same bracing cocktail of human experience.

By the time you get to this scene in Trouble in Paradise, such pirouettes between urbane wit and knowing pathos have become almost commonplace. Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 masterpiece exemplifies its director’s remarkable plays with mood, innuendo, humor, and emotion as succinctly as any film in his oeuvre and does so with an ease that belies its meticulous construction and pitch-perfect tonal control. Like its protagonist, it conceals its ever-whirring mind behind a veneer of effortless charm and sophistication.

That would be Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall), an infamous thief whom we first meet after a successful robbery in Venice. He is greeted at his hotel room by Lily (Miriam Hopkins), a wily pickpocket masquerading as a wealthy socialite, for a dinner engagement. As the evening progresses, it becomes clear that both have figured out the other’s criminal identities, having successfully lifted multiple items off the other (money, jewelry, a garter belt) throughout the meal. The scene embodies the essence of the film’s approach to romance—an endless game between people whose affections are filtered through a private language of insinuation and playful one-upmanship.

Together, Gaston and Lily plot their next job: robbing Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), the wealthy heiress to a perfume empire. Gaston steals and then returns Mariette’s handbag at the opera, ingratiating himself to the point that she hires him as her personal secretary. How personal Mariette intends the position to be soon becomes clear. Gaston finds himself not only torn between his plan to rob Mariette and his increasingly mutual feelings toward her, but also between Mariette and Lily, who grows increasingly suspicious of Gaston’s true feelings toward their mutual target.

Lubitsch is known as a master of the double entendre in classical Hollywood cinema, though it’s worth noting the immense contributions of writer Samson Raphaelson, a frequent Lubitsch collaborator who wrote the script based on a play by Aladar Laszlo. (The credits somewhat confusingly name Raphaelson as the film’s screenwriter while crediting Grover Jones as the “adapter” of Laszlo’s stage work.) The film contains an endless string of deliciously crafted bon mots. “She’s says he’s her secretary, and he says he’s her secretary” a party guest observes as she eyes Mariette and Gaston looking cozy together at a midday soiree. She pauses and shrugs: “Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he is her secretary.” Such winking suggestion is delightful enough, but it’s Lubitsch’s handling of visual humor that marks Trouble in Paradise as a film whose winking eye is matched by a wise, beating heart. Lubitsch constructs a series of running gags around the adjacent locations of Mariette’s bedroom door and Gaston’s office door—who goes in, who comes out, who answers when butler Jacques (Robert Greig) knocks. It would be the stuff of slamming-door farce, except that doors are rarely slammed in Trouble in Paradise. They’re gingerly opened, or softly closed, or hovered near as someone tries (futilely) to untangle logical planning from erotic impulse.

The remarkable cast of Trouble in Paradise maneuver through these comic and romantic complications with otherworldly grace. Marshall, Francis, and Hopkins form an impeccable love triangle, with each performer giving off an expertly-calibrated mixture of urbane wit and poignant emotional confusion. You genuinely understand the connection between each one of them, making the final pairings at once inevitable and wistful. The film also showcases two of the great dolts of classical Hollywood comedy in Mariette’s two ineffectual suitors, played to boobish perfection by Edward Everett Horton and Charles Ruggles.

So often when discussing Trouble in Paradise’s creator, we return to a valuable if shopworn phrase: “the Lubitsch touch.” Broadly, it connotes an affinity for double entendre, a relaxed attitude toward sexual mores, a general sophistication surrounding matters of the heart. No arguments here. And still, I feel that Trouble in Paradise reveals how Lubitsch’s cinema transcends the clever handling of a naughty joke or the shimmering elegance of an adroitly-filmed cocktail party. To borrow a title of another Lubitsch classic, his films provide a design for living—one that cherishes complexity, understands human foibles, and delights in the beautiful mess that the most intelligent people make when they fall in love. His cinema is one of arched eyebrows and forgiving hearts, and you can hardly separate the two at any given moment.

So many scenes in Trouble in Paradise embody this spirit of tender wordliness, but one always sticks with me. In a moment of regret, Gaston rings up a florist. He orders five-dozen roses to be delivered to Mariette, deep red like the lipstick color he insisted made her look her most beautiful. It’s a genuine token of remembrance for a romance he never expected. Gaston is about to hang up the phone when there’s one more question asked from the florist. We don’t hear what it is, and we don’t need to. “Oh,” Gaston responds. “Charge it to Madame Colet.”