Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Best Director Of 1932-33 (Comedy/Musical): Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble In Paradise and Design For Living), Part Three

[To read Part One of this essay, click here. To read Part Two of this essay, click here.]

III. Trouble In Paradise: Champagne and Moonlight
After the success of his naughty operettas, The Love Parade, Monte Carlo, The Smiling Lieutenant and One Hour With You (and the failure of a somber anti-war film, Broken Lullaby), Ernst Lubitsch turned his attention to what most critics now point to when they speak of Lubitsch's best work, Trouble In Paradise.

Trouble In Paradise is the story of a pair of sophisticated lovers, Gaston and Lily, who romance and thieve their way across Europe, only to find their happiness threatened by a beautiful young widow who also happens to be the target of their latest scam. Lubitsch based the story on the first act of Laszlo Aladar's failed stageplay, The Honest Finder—a crook finds a rich woman's handbag—and originally thought to do a spoof of the gentleman-thief stories, such as Raffles, The Saint and The Falcon, which were popular at the time. Then Lubitsch and long-time collaborator Samson Raphaelson hit upon the idea of making the thieves a man and a woman, which added both a romance angle and then when they take aim at the widow, a romantic complication.

The gentleman thief is Gaston Monescu, "the man who walked into the Bank of Constantinople and walked out with the Bank of Constantinople." The studio had suggested a young Cary Grant for the role, but as Lubitsch's biographer Scott Eyman noted, in 1932 Grant was still more the Cockney roughneck Archie Leach of his birth than the style icon of later years; and Lubitsch preferred an actor who possessed the sort of cultured aplomb that one can only acquire through experience.

Instead, he chose another English actor, Herbert Marshall, a twenty year veteran of the London stage who was as suave and sophisticated in real life as the gentleman thief he portrayed on screen here, but who, having lost a leg in World War I and then so mastered the use of a prosthetic limb the resulting limp was barely apparent, also possessed the mettle to convincingly depict a master criminal.

When the movie opens, we see the thief's escape, his silhouette leaping over the balcony of a ritzy Venetian hotel while his victim lays unconscious on the floor, an example of the indirect and innovative way Lubitsch preferred to stage action—rather than show us the crime itself, Lubitsch leaves us to fill in the blanks and instead moves us directly into the relationship that will define the rest of the movie.

We get our first good look at Gaston a short distance from the scene of his crime as he instructs a waiter on the preparation of a romantic dinner:

"It must be the most marvelous supper. We may not eat it, but it must be marvelous."
"Yes, Baron."
"And waiter?"
"Yes, Baron?"
"You see that moon?"
"Yes, Baron."
"I want to see that moon in the champagne."
"Yes, Baron." (makes note on pad) "'Moon in champagne.'"
"I want to see—um—"
"Yes, Baron."
"And as for you, waiter—"
"Yes, Baron?"
"I don't want to see you at all."

Gaston is pretending to be a baron so he can scam a countess, who ironically turns out to be Lily pretending to be a countess so she can scam a baron. As Lily, Lubitsch cast Miriam Hopkins, who had worked with the director a year earlier in the musical comedy, The Smiling Lieutenant (she would work with him again in 1933's Design For Living). As I have written before (here), "Hopkins was one of the sauciest actresses of the pre-Code age, excelling in light comedies and lurid melodramas alike," yet because her best films often proved too scandalous to be re-issued once censors began taking scissors to Hollywood's past, "even film fanatics can admit to having rarely seen her work."

It doesn't take long for Gaston and Lily to realize the truth about each other, but rather than being angry or disappointed, the two are titillated, and dinner turns into a virtual striptease of items they've stolen from each other—a wallet, a brooch, a pocket watch—climaxing with the revelation of the most audacious theft of all:

"I hope you don't mind if I keep your garter."

The film quickly jumps ahead a year—no wasted motion for Lubitsch. Gaston and Lily have been living together and thieving together through the capitals of Europe and all is well until they run across a wealthy young widow. Madame Colet is rich, generous and bored with the stiffs who court her—veteran farceurs, Charlie Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton (the latter the very man Gaston robbed in Venice). When Gaston appears at her door as part of a scheme to separate her from her fortune, she sees in him the sort of handsome, Continental man she's been longing for.

"Madame Colet, if I were your father—which fortunately I am not—and you made any attempt to handle your own business affairs, I would give you a good spanking. In a business way, of course."
"What would you do if you were my secretary?"
"The same thing."
"You're hired."

The widow, who may well know she's being taken but is still eager for the ride, is played with sympathy and sex appeal by Kay Francis. Her polished, dark beauty contrasts nicely with Hopkins's earthy blonde charms and no doubt was a factor in her casting, as was her performance earlier that year in Jewel Robbery, in which she plays a willing victim to William Powell's elegant jewel thief. Although her career would later take a nose-dive after a bitter contract dispute at Warner Brothers, in 1932, she was at the peak of her popularity.

Just the plot I've described so far would provide the makings of a good comedy (or spun in a different direction, suspense thriller), but Lubitsch ups the ante by creating genuine chemistry between Gaston and the widow. Suddenly Trouble In Paradise is no longer a simple story about the theft of money, but the theft of Gaston's affections as well, which realistically can't end well for somebody. The inevitable heartbreak adds what Andrew Sarris called "a counterpoint of poignant sadness during a film's gayest moments," and is what, I think, lifts this sparkling comedy to the level of pure genius.

And that's without even addressing the numerous examples of Lubitsch's mastery of the technical end of his craft, which not only keeps the story moving but gives this confection its airy, art Deco style. "I think I have done nothing better or as good," he wrote of the film shortly before his death.

"The plot is grown-up, funny and sad," Roger Ebert wrote in 2002, and for his review of the film for his Great Movies series, he added, "in a drawing room comedy of froth and inconsequence, you find that you believe in the characters and care about them."

The result was a hit with audiences and the film landed in the list of the year's top ten money makers despite mixed reviews from the critics. Despite its success, relatively rare for Lubitsch, the film was withdrawn from circulation once the studios began enforcing the Production Code in 1934 and was not seen again until 1968. Coupled with the fact that it was never released on videotape and didn't land on DVD until 2003, Trouble In Paradise probably ranks high on a list of least-seen essential classics.

In 1991, the Library of Congress selected Trouble In Paradise for preservation in the National Film Registry.

[To read Part Four of this essay, click here.]


Anonymous said...

Is that Scott Eyman bio (Laughter in Paradise) on Ernst a good read?

Mythical monkey said...

It Is actually ...

By the way, I'm on my sister in law's new I pad so forgive the very brief reply ...

mister muleboy said...

Michele and I watched this on our Friday night date.

It vaulted up my list o' all times favourites. What a great, great movie.

Mythical Monkey said...

I'm glad you guys liked it. It's one of my all-time favorites, too.