Trouble in Paradise

Trouble in Paradise
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Samson Raphaelson (based on the play The Honest Finder by Aladar Laszlo, adaptation by Grover Jones)
Stars: Miriam Hopkins (Lily), Kay Francis (Madame Mariette Colet), Herbert Marshall (Gaston Monescu), Charlie Ruggles (The Major), Edward Everett Horton (François Filiba), C. Aubrey Smith (Adolph J. Giron), Robert Greig (Jacques, Mariette’s Butler)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1932
Country: USA
Trouble in Paradise DVD Cover

Ernst Lubitsch was a German émigré who began as a silent film actor and became one of the most celebrated and popular Hollywood directors of the 1930s and early ’40s. The reason for his popularity and critical acclaim was the fabled “Lubitsch Touch,” which began as a publicity term but slowly grew in legend to describe the indescribable—how Lubitsch could take material that, in any other director’s hands would be merely passable, and turn it into gold. As director Billy Wilder put it, he was “the most elegant of screen magicians.”

Such is the case with Trouble in Paradise, a sophisticated and surprisingly endearing drawing room comedy (and a clear predecessor to the screwball comedy genre that really kicked off with It Happened One Night in 1934) that gleefully rolls in brazen amorality without ever once feeling in the least bit sleazy. The “Lubitsch Touch” is in great evidence in that the storyline, based on a play called The Honest Finder by Aladar Laszlo, is both lightweight and quite silly. But, as Mordaunt Hall, a film critic for The New York Times, wrote when reviewing the film in 1932, Lubitsch was “the only person in Hollywood who could have turned out such an effective entertainment from such a feathery story.”

The “feathery story” involves a pair of criminals, a suave thief named Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) and a vivacious con artist and pickpocket named Lily (Miriam Hopkins). In the film’s brilliantly funny opening sequence, which takes place in Venice, Gaston and Lily meet for the first time, both pretending to be upper-class aristocrats. They spend their first date swindling each other, and the scene at the dinner table in which they gleefully reveal each item they have stolen from the other (Gaston somehow managed to slip off her garter without her knowing it) plays as a hilarious form of foreplay. The sexual chemistry between them is so thick that Lily finally throws herself into Gaston’s lap, begging to know everything about him.

Gaston and Lily team up as both thieves and lovers, and they set their sights on Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), the extraordinarily wealthy widowed heiress of a perfume empire. The ruse is stealing Madame Colet’s diamond-studded purse at the opera one night and then returning it to her in order to collect a rich reward. Gaston takes it further, though, deciding to carry on the charade as a way of getting into Madame Colet’s sizable bank account. Posing as an urbane professional named LaValle, he gets himself hired on as her secretary, and the dialogue during the “interview” scene is so delicious that it bears printing:

Madame Colet: Tell me, Monsieur LaValle. What else is wrong?
Gaston: Everything! 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.
Madame Colet: What would you do if you were my secretary?
Gaston: The same thing.
Madame Colet: You're hired.

The dialogue here is perfectly written, and Lubitsch directs his actors with a sublime mix of sexiness and cunning. The screenplay for Trouble in Paradise was penned by Samson Raphaelson, who worked on 11 of Lubitsch’s films, including such classics as 1940’s The Shop Around the Corner and 1943’s Heaven Can Wait. This was only their fourth collaboration, but it is obvious that their sensibilities had already clicked together. Although the storyline and plotting are nothing special, Raphaelson gives Lubitsch just the right dialogue to work with and Lubitsch handles it with … well, the “Lubitsch Touch.”

As is obvious from that brief bit of dialogue, there is quite a bit sexual chemistry between Gaston and Madame Colet, as well, and the film develops into a sexual triangle, with Lily attempting to hold on to her man while Madame Colet attempts to woo him. Never forget, of course, that Gaston is there for the score, and the way in which Lubitsch massages the scenario so that everyone seems to come out a winner in the end is something of a miracle.

Everything about the film is pure fantasy—from the impossibly debonair charm of Gaston, to the amusing bickering of The Major (Charlie Ruggles) and François Filiba (Edward Everett Horton), two bumbling would-be suitors who are vying for Madame Colet’s hand in marriage. Produced during some of the worst months of the Great Depression, Trouble in Paradise is glorious escapism, taking place as it does in a world of lavish, art-deco European penthouses where everyone wears crisp suits and long evening gowns. Even when an irate communist ruptures the narrative with a diatribe against Madame Colet’s careless spending habits, he is turned into a pawn for Gaston to assert himself (he tells the communist off, in Russian no less).

Trouble in Paradise was released a year and a half before Hollywood put muscle behind the dictates of the Production Code—otherwise all its sexual jokes and its primary identification with attractive criminals would have not been tolerated. While certainly tame by today’s standards, the film’s constant innuendo and double entendres give it a crackling energy so that it’s hard to tell what drives the characters more: lust or greed. Of course, this makes them sound like vile people, and in truth they are. Yet, Lubitsch’s direction is so precise and the three central performances by Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins, and Kay Francis are so good that these vice-ridden charlatans are redeemed, if only because they’re so witty and attractive.

Trouble in Paradise Criterion Collection Special Edition DVD

Aspect Ratio 1.33:1 (Academy Aspect Ratio)
Subtitles English
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision
Release DateJanuary 7, 2003

1.33:1 (Academy Aspect Ratio)
Trouble in Paradise is over 70 years old, but Criterion’s digital transfer, made from the 35mm preservation fine grain, has it looking pretty good. The image itself is generally sharp, maintaining the original grain structure with good detail and deep, rich blacks. Signs of age are fairly limited, although there are some noticeable nicks and scratches here and there, with a few frames showing considerable damage, but nothing unexpected for a film of this age.

English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
The one-channel Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack is relatively clean, although there is some ambient hiss. Digital restoration tools were used to removed the most obvious aural artifacts, allowing all that great dialogue to maintain its zip.

Audio commentary by Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman
Scott Eyman, a film historian and author of Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise, contributes a clear and consistently informative screen-specific audio commentary. While he offers some formal analysis of the film itself, he is clearly more interested in talking about Lubitsch’s biographical details and the historical and social aspects of the era in which he worked.

Video introduction by Peter Bogdanovich
In his 10-minute video introduction, director Peter Bogdanovich offers his own thoughts on the film, discussing several key scenes in-depth and offering some historical information about Lubitsch’s sizable influence on modern filmmaking. Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1).

Das fidele Gefängnis (The Merry Jail) 1917 short by film by Ernst Lubitsch
This early German short film directed by Ernst Lubitsch has never been available on home video until now (another example of how Criterion consistently and effectively brings to our home video screens the crucial fringes of cinematic history that might otherwise be lost and forgotten). Running about 50 minutes in length, it has been given a new transfer (although a bit flickery and scratched, it looks pretty good for a film of its age) and a specially recorded piano score. No doubt, this is a real gem for Lubitsch fans and film buffs in general. Presented in 1.33:1 (Academy aspect ratio).

Screen Guild Theater radio program
This is a complete 30-minute radio program originally broadcast in 1940. It features Ernst Lubitsch (who at the time was promoting Ninotchka), Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert, and Basil Rathbone.

Tributes to Lubitsch
This is a series of brief tributes to the influence and artistry of Ernst Lubitsch written by well-known directors and film critics. Some of the quotes have been culled from previously published articles and interviews, while many were written specifically for this DVD release. Included are excerpts from interviews with Orson Welles, Frank Capra, Charlie Chaplin, and Billy Wilder and new commentary by Roger Ebert, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Cameron Crowe, and Wes Anderson (who offers his tribute in pictorial form), among others.

Liner notes
Features a new essay on Trouble in Paradise by Village Voice film critic Armond White and a reprinted essay on Lubitsch’s pre-Hollywood career in Germany by Enno Patalas, a film scholar and director of the Munich Filmmuseum from 1972 to 1994.

Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (4)

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