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The ‘Paradise’ in Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble In Paradise is the rarefied world of barons and countesses and high-class confidence tricksters, of nights at the opera in top hat and tails or shimmering gowns, and of elegant lovers who coo and swoon on moonlit Riviera nights, and whom it is impossible to imagine ever sitting upon a toilet. It’s a lifestyle alien to us in the comparatively prosperous 21st Century, so one can only imagine how strange and unattainable it must have appeared to audiences during the darkest depths of the Great Depression in 1932. Back then, such unrealistic fantasies offered a means of escape from a life of drudgery and despair, but I can’t help thinking that, were the same conditions to once again prevail, modern audiences would turn away in disgust at such naive frippery.
Herbert Marshall, a once popular leading man with a velvety British accent who is now largely forgotten, plays Gaston Monescu, a suave con man earning a comfortable living fleecing the rich and stupid in wealthy playgrounds such as Venice and Paris. In the movie’s opening scene we see a man singing opera as he empties rubbish into a
gondola, a nice allusion to the rotten underclass that exist amongst the wealthy in even such glamorous locales. But Gaston is in disguise, he wears the uniform of the rich. He wines and dines a young countess (the flirtatious Miriam Hopkins, another largely forgotten star from the pre-code era), and as the evening goes on we – and they – realise that each is trying to con the other. They reveal the riches they have lifted from one another: a wallet Gaston stole from an upper-class twit played by Edward Everett Horton, a wristwatch, and so on. Their little game resembles a round of strip poker in which the stakes grow higher with each hand until Gaston pulls Lily’s garter from his jacket pocket, whereupon she throws herself at him with declarations of her love.
One year later, and the criminal lovers are still in love. One night at the opera, Gaston steals the expensive handbag of a countess (Kay Francis) whose great wealth comes from her inheritance of a perfume factory. Gaston correctly surmises that greater pickings are to be had if he returns the handbag for the proffered reward, and smoothly gains the countess’s trust. He works on convincing the countess to keep fr850,000 in her safe, intending to steal it, but his growing fondness for her, and the fact that one of her suitors is a former victim of Gaston’s, jeopardise both his relationship with Lily and his liberty.
Trouble in Paradise is the epitome of the type of sophisticated comedy for which the phrase ‘the Lubitsch touch’ was coined. Lubitsch’s movies were instrumental in earning the Paramount studio its reputation for producing continental-style movies that contained a level of sophistication unequalled by the other major studios. Being made in the pre-Code era, it’s also pretty racy, a fact which resulted in it remaining unseen for more than 30 years while the Hays Code was in force. And yet there’s nothing crude about the humour or situations, even though the audience is never left in any doubt about what exactly is going on at any given time.
Kay Francis and Miriam Hopkins work well as rivals for Marshall’s attentions. They’re polar opposites, both in looks and manner, with one a woman of grace and culture and the other a streetwise hood. By making the choice he ultimately does, Gaston acknowledges the reality of the person behind the disguise and walks away a better man for it. Ultimately, there are no victims in the movie, and no-one goes to prison, and while the imposition of the Hays Code led to an enhanced level of creativity on the part of writers in some respects, films like Trouble in Paradise show just how much Hollywood movies lost in terms of their intelligent spark.
(Reviewed 6th December 2012)