One of the most sublime of all Ernst Lubitsch’s romantic comedies, Trouble in Paradise (1932) is a delicate and carefully balanced mixture of languorous romance, luxurious exoticism and sophisticated comedy, in which two master jewel thieves – the urbane Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) and Lily Vautier (the gorgeous and quick-witted Miriam Hopkins) – meet in a Venice hotel and almost immediately fall in love. Though the film is not a musical in the strictest sense of the word, its dialogue is extremely witty and delivered in singsong, often in time with the musical score. Running a compact 83 minutes, the film is remarkably modern with its rapid-fire double entendres, Pre-Code sexual references, and remarkably witty, strong female characters played by Hopkins and Kay Francis.
Over dinner in Gaston’s room – as Gaston tells the waiter, “It must be the most marvelous supper. We may not eat it, but it must be marvellous.” – the two take turns stealing each other’s personal possessions then returning them in an erotic game that climaxes with Lily flinging herself into Gaston’s arms, as he enticingly declares “I love you. I loved you the minute I saw you. I’m mad about you, my little shoplifter … my sweet little pickpocket … my darling.” They’re both so charming, enchanted and completely unscrupulous that it is such great fun. Soon they head to Paris, where they set their sights on the fortune of Madame Mariette Colet, the obscenely rich and fabulously dressed head of Colet and Co. cosmetics (Francis, in the sexiest and most delicious role of her career).
To get into Madame Colet’s inner circle, Gaston steals a valuable, diamond-studded purse from her and then returns it, seemingly seeking no reward – thereby gaining her confidence. The glittering purse, at the centre of several scenes in the film, and spoken about innumerable times with great relish, is a thinly veiled metaphor for female sexual anatomy. Gaston’s smooth manners (and ability to handle women’s purses) soon earn him a position as Madame Colet’s “private secretary”, much to the chagrin of her board of directors, headed by the formidable Monsieur Adolph J Giron (C Aubrey Smith), who sees through Gaston’s superficial amiability and rightly recognises him as a fraud and a fellow trickster.
But, since this is a Lubitsch film, the women are always far stronger, smarter, more romantic and more unpredictable. Madame Colet starts to fall for Gaston – a thief passing as nobility – and he falls for her too; everyone is capable of falling for one another in Lubitsch’s highly sexed yet sophisticated cinematic universe. It is important to note that, in Lubitsch’s romantic triangle, it is the two women who are arguably the most important and compelling figures in the narrative. Marshall’s dashing lead and the other men in the film are mere supporting characters for Francis and Hopkins, tending to fade into the fabulous Art Deco sets. But it is impossible to take our eyes off the two incredibly sexy and sharp-witted leading women; their scenes together sizzle in the memory long after we have seen the film.
Making things more hilarious and frivolous is the fact that Madame Colet has two ardent suitors vying for her hand, and her fortune: a rather ineffectual major (Charles Ruggles), who is more of an annoyance that anything else, and the wealthy François Filiba (a delightfully befuddled Edward Everett Horton). Despite their preoccupation with Colet, both are – in the style of Pre-Code films – heavily coded as gay, adding elements of queer farce and camp to the film, features so sadly lacking in flat, dull, 21st-century attempts at romantic comedy.
The opening meeting between Lily and Gaston, just after Gaston has pulled off a big jewel heist, allows Lubitsch to indulge in some charmingly artificial miniature work using a dramatic crane shot outside the exterior of a lavish hotel; when Gaston and Lily fall madly in love during their first dinner and eventually retire to bed, their lovemaking is subtly suggested by the twin shadows of their heads falling onto pillows in the moonlight, a charming example of the Lubitsch touch.
Similarly, we are introduced to the high-stakes, fast-moving world of Colet and Co. with a dazzling and rapid montage of shots depicting the enormous factory where Colet Perfumes are produced, cut to the rhythm of a spoken radio advertisement that instructs the listener that what’s important isn’t the way you look; it’s “the way you smell”. Throughout the film, Lubitsch’s camera is always moving smoothly through his world of con men and women, who insinuate themselves into the lives of the very rich with ease. Hans Dreier’s dazzling Art Deco settings are every bit as tantalising and luxurious to the audience as they are to Gaston and Lily, who long to escape from the grind of petty thievery, and graduate to grand larceny in style.
As a resolutely Pre-Code film, Trouble in Paradise could afford to push the envelope in matters of sexual innuendo, something that Paramount Pictures specialised in during this era; their films of the time featured the Marx Brothers at their most anarchic, and Mae West’s most proudly and openly erotic persona. While the film clearly sides with the criminal couple (the less wealthy Gaston and Lily), it proves that, for all her wealth and seemingly carefree abandon, Madame Colet is no fool, either; otherwise, how could she have built up such a huge cosmetics conglomerate from the ground floor?
One of the most satisfying elements of watching Trouble in Paradise is the presence of two leading women who are strong, funny and very much in charge. Hopkins and Francis are both intelligent and beautiful, but neither makes any apology for having a voracious sexual appetite, and much of the humour comes from watching them play off one another. Trouble in Paradise was so far ahead of its time that, after the Motion Picture Production Code was formally enforced in 1934, the film was prevented from being reissued to theaters in the United States until 1968. But now that this censorious era has passed, we can see this stunning film again – for many, the touchstone of Lubitsch’s long career, and one of the most delightful, effervescent and sophisticated romantic comedies ever made.
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Trouble in Paradise (1932 United States 83 mins)
Prod. Co: Paramount Prod: Ernst Lubitsch Dir: Ernst Lubitsch Scr: Samson Raphaelson, Grover Jones Phot: Victor Milner Prod. Des: Hans Dreier Mus: W Franke Harling
Cast: Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis, Edward Everett Horton, Charles Ruggles, Sir C Aubrey Smith