If there’s one problem with silent films it’s that it is pretty much impossible to be witty looking. Without sound you can be funny, but you can’t be witty. Likewise, you can be glamorous but not debonair; ingenious but not coolly analytical; in love but unpoetically so. American sound comedies of the 1930s seemed to be hell bent on changing all of that — their characters don’t talk so much as verbally machine gun — and the man who pretty much defined the sophisticated end of stylish movie repartee was German-born director Ernst Lubitsch. After scoring successes with German silent comedies and historical dramas, Lubitsch moved to Hollywood in 1922. At the advent of the sound era he became one of the principal directors and innovators of a newly developed genre: the movie musical. And in the 1930s and 40s he crafted some of the most impeccable screen comedies ever made — three of which are on the Sight & Sound list. Trouble in Paradise (1932) is arguably his greatest triumph, bringing a suave sophistication, irreverent amorality, and a forthright attitude towards sex that manages to be provoking and ridiculous but mature and considered. It was also too risque for the powers that be, and Trouble in Paradise was not allowed to be screened after the Production Code was imposed in Hollywood in 1935. As a result, one of the finest Hollywood comedies of all time has unfairly become one of the least seen. (83 min.) J. – I was so pleased to see Trouble in Paradise had made the Sight & Sound list because it really is one of my favorite comedies. There are a million places I could start with this film, given the endless areas in which it excels, but I suppose I’ll kick off with the basic story. Trouble in Paradise is the story of two crooks — Gaston and Lily — who fall in love and decide to fleece Mme. Colet, a perfume company heiress, using a plan that begins to unravel as the suave thief Gaston begins to fall for the glamorous widow. What’s particularly wonderful about the way this film comes together is how gleefully immoral the whole thing is. The film opens in Venice — romantic, canal-checkered Venice — by showing a man dump garbage onto a gondola and then sing. It’s a pretty excellent way to illustrate the reality behind the glamorous facade — a theme that constantly comes to the fore in this film. After that, a man is robbed and we are introduced to the charming, sophisticated thief Gaston Monescu, played with cool panache by British actor Herbert Marshall. Gaston is meeting Lily — he claims to be a baron, she a countess, both are liars. Lily, played by the fiery and very funny Miriam Hopkins, has a joie de vivre and roiling temper can’t help break through the fraudulent face she presents her victims. I think there are few better scenes in romantic comedy than the dinner between Gaston and Lily. The escalating game of revealing what they have stolen from each other is excellent, and it is indicative of the tone of this film that, rather than being enraged or even annoyed by the pickpocketing and one-upsmanship, the two swoon over their collective deceit and daring. It’s utterly divorced from reality but done with such style and fun that a new, better sort of reality is created by the film — another facade that the film has fun punching holes in as it goes along. S. – There is an aura of sophistication here, everyone knows just what to say and exactly how to say it. The surrounds are polished to a high gloss, the sun is always shining and no-one has a hair out of place. Even Lily and Gaston’s cramped apartment, meant to suggest the crooks have hit a dry spell, looks beautifully appointed. This style gives the film an appealing aspirational quality that compensates for the absence of a common touch. There is a thrill generated by being let into a world of riches, charm and wit. However, Trouble in Paradise offers more than appearances, the physical attraction between Gaston and two women in his life is handled in a frank and playful manner. There is no power differential here, neither Lily or Mariette Colet (Kay Francis) is shyly hoping that her prince will come, instead both of them engage directly with Gaston and are clear in their desire. At the centre of the love triangle Gaston does not waste time wringing his hands or bemoaning the wicked temptation of women, instead he enjoys the verbal foreplay and demonstrates an emotional intelligence that is usually non-existent on screen. All this without resorting to a tired old morality trope, making it more amoral than immoral in my opinion. Clearly those censors don’t know a good thing when they see it.
J. – Yeah, amoral is definitely a better way to describe things, although I think the fact that the main characters are sympathetic — and unpunished — crooks (i.e. – immoral) was one of the reasons the censorious types didn’t approve of the film. And I wholly agree that the big thing is that the main characters act like proper adults and not the overgrown, petty children of so many romantic comedies. I think one of the things that really assists in that is having older actors than one often finds in these sort of roles. Herbert Marshall was in his 40s and uses his sophistication, intellect, and deportment to make himself desirable, rather than simply being a good-looking guy. Additionally, Gaston appeals less to the vanity of Lily and Mariette Colet than to their actual personal qualities. I don’t think he ever once tells either woman that she is beautiful throughout the entire film. And, just as you say, S., the women totally hold their own with Marshall’s Gaston. Hopkins and Francis were both in their 30s when this film came out and play characters with enough life experience to feel no need to be coy or feign ignorance about the way the world and relationships work. It’s refreshing to have a love triangle scenario in which each player is equally strong, equally vulnerable, and also not blindsided by the ups and downs of love. In so many romance stories the third wheel is such an obvious red herring the audience always knows who is meant to be together. Trouble in Paradise never makes that clear, and even at the end it’s very possible to think the wrong couple is driving off together. But the film even does one better than making the leads into honest-to-god adults; it offers a pair of older suitors to Mme Colet that despite their age do behave like bickering children. The duo’s juvenile sniping and griping is meant strictly as comedic nonsense, which is great fun to see. In many romantic comedies the unsuccessful suitor is made out to be a stiff, but not in Trouble in Paradise. Here the unsuccessful suitors are fools — you know, like the heroes of all too many comedies today.
S. – The antics of the Major (Charlie Ruggles) and François Filiba (Edward Everett Horton) are a fun distraction alongside the main game and it sets up an interesting contrast for Mme Colet. The suitors deemed socially acceptable for her are entitled fools and it is obvious that she is only playing with them for her own amusement, yet this behaviour doesn’t raise an eyebrow. But she is flirting with real scandal by showing affection for her “secretary”, Gaston. Despite their ancillary roles, the performances by both Ruggles and Horton are superb, and any film that manages to give the word “tonsils” so many different connotations is doing something right. The entire ensemble has been expertly cast, from the Italian policemen to the patient butler, the film is a slick and polished production. I think more so than any of the earlier films we have seen from the list, what do you think, J.? J. – I would definitely agree that it is the most polished production we have seen so far; the sophisticated style and seemingly effortless elegance were actually dubbed in Hollywood as the “Lubitsch touch”. And that polish extends to everything in this film: the characters are dressed to the nines; the dialogue is honed to perfection; the lighting is exquisite; and if Metropolis was an art deco riot of design, then Trouble in Paradise is an art deco thermonuclear war. I’m glad you commended Ruggles and Horton for their performances, because I am a big fan of both actors — particularly Horton, who I think was in every second Hollywood comedy of the 1930s (and was a frequent player in Frank Capra’s films). I think their performances really get at the heart of the film and its sophistication, because they are absolutely petulant dopes, but dopes working within the code of high society. And in many ways, Trouble in Paradise is one of the great standard bearers of a form that has largely died out in American film: the comedy of manners. What’s particularly great about the film is that it largely forgoes the slobs v. snobs shenanigans that have been the standard in American comedy since perhaps Animal House (1978). Trouble in Paradise stays with the snobs but it does not glorify them at all, rather it picks apart the rules of high society for comedic effect. Sometimes this is done within the set of elite manners, drawing humor from people like the Major and Filiba trying and failing while operating within the code of etiquette set for them, but more often the film punctures that code to show how utterly ridiculous it is. The movie calls on us to sympathize with those characters whose high-flown manners and sophistication are really just fraudulent tools use to infiltrate and rob the upper classes, and it does so successfully. In many ways, the film is firmly in the slobs’ corner, but it has the good sense simply to let the snobs eat themselves. It is a movie of surprising profundity that showcases its depth by presenting a whole lot of paper thin surfaces — all the better for a smash and grab job.
S. – And while it is being all clever, stunning and sophisticated Trouble in Paradise is also effortlessly funny. You always expect a comedy to make you laugh but here every scene is relentlessly punctuated with great lines (I also want the moon in my champagne!). The dialogue flows fast and is usually laced with innuendo, barbs or self-mockery. Or else there is a knowing glance and half-smile that injects a playful spin into a seemingly everyday exchange. It manages to deliver on two levels, the quick witticisms exchanged and the apparent joy of the protagonists at recognising that each of them is in on the joke. Such flagrant use of innuendo has the potential to get tiresome but when it elicits a visible spark and a robust rejoinder it is hard not to enjoy it. J. – It is a hilarious movie, and probably one of the most sex-obsessed of any film I’ve ever seen. The joy in it is the clever use of innuendo and visual cues that suggest (or sometimes pretty much scream) some serious naughtiness. But it really is only naughty; Lubitsch is great at walking a fine line that keeps things amped and sexy without ever getting crass. He always seems to know what to show and what to imply, allowing a movie about five very sexually forward individuals to stay classy and above the fray — I don’t think it even has a moment that could be considered bawdy (save perhaps a small gag in the opening credits). So there it is, big dollops of wit and laughter with a sexy sheen of Continental style and sophistication — Tonsils! Positively tonsils!