A man in a tuxedo stands poised upon a stone balcony, robed in silvery moonlight. A Venetian canal sparkles below. A waiter lingers expectantly behind him. From out of the darkness, a gondola appears, bearing a woman in a shimmering evening gown. She glances upward and waves. The man coolly lifts his hand in reply.
“It must be the most marvelous supper,” he says, lost in thought. “We may not eat it, but it must be marvelous.”
“Yes, Baron,” says the waiter.
“You see that moon?”
The waiter nods. “Yes, Baron.”
“I want to see that moon in the champagne.”
“Yes Baron,” answers the waiter, all business. He scribbles in his notepad: “Moon in champagne.”
This scene comes from Trouble in Paradise (1932), a too oft-forgotten romantic comedy, and a little gem of a movie, right out of the heart of the great depression, when the rich were always handsome and elegant and their lives were always so much more exciting than your own, even if they didn’t know it themselves. There is a certain irony that in this period Hollywood chose to dramatize the whims of the idle rich so often – Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932), Dinner at Eight (George Cukor, 1933), The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940) – or that audiences consented to see them so readily…that is, without pelting the screens with produce. Yet they did, and the theatres remained relatively clean. In this particular case, though, nothing is as it seems. The picturesque canal is actually filled with garbage. The man in the next room has just been robbed. And the dapper gent is really a crook, as is the lady. In short, it’s an Ernst Lubitsch movie. The rich may be fun to watch but they’re always good for a fleecing.
Indeed, theft – the stealing of both hearts and pocketbooks – is the raison d’etre of this delightful film. Robbery, the film suggests, is synonymous with love, and vice versa. For those who haven’t seen it, the plot goes something like this: Gason Montescu (Herbert Marshall), internationally renowned thief, meets Lily (Miriam Hopkins), a pickpocket, who, like him, is posing as a Venetian socialite to swindle the city’s upper classes. Over cocktails and a late supper, Gaston discovers Lily’s true identity, and she his, and they instantly fall in love – how can a thief resist a thief? – thereafter departing on a European honeymoon of crime. Like all couples, though, their love burns brightest early on, and with the passing of a year, the spark, if not entirely absent, has dimmed a little in their relationship; the pair have by now settled down to a mundane life of crime in Paris, discussing their latest heists over scones and copies of the Sunday paper. Enter Madame Colet (Kay Francis), a fantastically wealthy – and single – perfume heiress. Gaston steals her diamond-encrusted handbag. She offers a reward higher than the resale value. And he returns the bag, only to be made her personal secretary and the object of her amorous designs. Now the stage is set. Gaston must make a choice: the thief or the socialite? Both are beautiful, both are sexy, and both are madly in love with him. Who ever said crime doesn’t pay?
It took a couple years after the advent of sound for films to again reach their silent eminence. The first clumsy forays, so stiff and stilted, with microphones buried in planters and actors perorating their lines like their stage counterparts, gradually gave way, by the early thirties, to a sudden deluge of cinematic masterpieces: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932), Duck Soup (Leo McCarey, 1933), and The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1934), to name just a few. Certainly, even these improvements lacked the quiet splendor of earlier works, of say The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dreyer, 1928) or The Man With a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929), or the dashing bravado of The Son of the Sheik (George Fitzmaurice, 1926); not until Citizen Kane, in 1940, would the movies again approach the pinnacle they had reached before the talkies. Yet, for all the tumult and regression it caused, sound, that destroyer of worlds, brought with it a whole new weapon to the cinematic arsenal: wit. Suddenly movies could be funny again, and not just funny for a pratfall, either, or a harebrained acrobatic feat, but for an elegant turn of phrase. “Well,” Lily chides Gaston, “I’ll leave you alone with that lady. But if you behave like a gentleman, I’ll break your neck.”
Indeed, one of the great delights of Trouble in Paradise is the plethora of droll banter is has to offer. We tend today, as we eke our way into a new millennium, to think of irony as a fairly recent invention – as if wisecracking crooks were the brainchild of Quentin Tarantino – and forget just how well they did it a few generations ago. Where else but in the thirties could a woman declare, “Marriage is a beautiful mistake which two people make together,” and actually mean it? Or, for those who prefer the less epigrammatic, take this exchange from the beginning of the film:
LILY: I have a confession to make to you: Baron, you are a crook. You robbed the gentleman in 253, 5, 7, and 9. May I have the salt?
LILY: Thank you.
GASTON: The pepper too?
LILY: Oh, no, thank you.
It’s that pert little “no, thank you” that sells the joke, along with the Meg Ryan-like shrug. Sure, she may be falling for the guy, but why let him know that? Besides, stringing him along is so much more fun; he may be a fellow thief, but he’s also a potential sucker, and she’s just taken his pocket watch.
Yet the dialogue is never better than when it deals with sex. For all its pretty costumes and posh exteriors, Trouble in Paradise is positively brimming with sexual innuendo, a fact that did not make it popular with the censors of the time. (In 1935, three years after its initial release, the film was withdrawn from circulation by the Hays Office, not to be seen again until 1968, and never made available on VHS. Only in 2003 was it finally released on DVD to a wide audience.) Here’s a little taste of what we were missing all those years:
GASTON: Madame Colet, if I were your father, which fortunately I’m not, and you made any attempts 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.
There is a brief pause while Madame Colet sinks comfortably into her chair – the cat relishing the moment while it toys with the mouse. “You’re hired,” she purrs.
Invariably, certain questions will present themselves to the uninitiated viewer: who does Gaston really love? How much does Madame Colet really know? And why on earth are they all whispering so much? Listening to the characters express what amounts to little more than a burning of their loins, you’d think they were discussing something really important, like military secrets or the rise of fascism in Europe, as if voicing their passions above a gasp might break all the china in the house. The real question is, though, does it even matter? The film rolls along with such gleeful simplicity that you can’t help but get caught up. It’s like an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel but with a wry smile and a slap of urbane wit, for Lubitsch, like Preston Sturges in the forties, grasped what Fitzgerald never managed to realize, that love and money, the two great peaks of human desire, can, in their intermingled folly, actually be quite amusing. What is Gatsby but a sentimental cad compared to “the man who walked into the Bank of Constantinople, and walked out with the Bank of Constantinople?”
Now, thanks to those persevering folks at the Criterion Collection, we have a gorgeously restored print of Trouble in Paradise, which comes with an introduction by Peter Bogdanovich, stills from the production, and a commentary track by Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman, who, along with offering his own scholarly analyses, takes time to delve into the real nitty-gritty: the making of the film itself. Did you know, for example, that this ribald little opus was filmed in a mere thirty-eight days? Or that, among other notables turned down for the male lead, was a youthful Cary Grant? In hindsight, Grant would probably make a superlative Gaston – all charm and diffidence, with a knowing grin for every situation and that haircut of his as sleek and shiny as a polished Studebaker. Lubitsch, however, wanted someone with a little more experience. Grant, in 1932, was still in his twenties. Herbert Marshall, by comparison, was forty-two; a prosthetic leg – the real one having been shot off in World War l – kept him from performing many of his own stunts, namely, ascending and descending the mansion’s imposing coil of stairs. But Marshall did manage to bring a suave virility to the picture, along with his years. Gaston, in addition to his prowess as a thief, speaks Russian, is versed in opera and eighteenth-century furniture, has great business sense, and seems to know a suspicious amount about women’s make-up. In short, the modern viewer would be forgiven for thinking him gay. Yet Gaston isn’t gay. He’s just a sophisticate’s ideal of a man, the type of guy who, when he’s not snooping behind paintings, is perfectly at ease ordering butlers around or helping himself to the finest wines from the cellar – namely, an early prototype for James Bond and Cary Grant himself.
As for the man behind the camera, the director, Ernst Lubitsch, the question today is not how he will be remembered, but will he be remembered at all? Perhaps no other filmmaker in history resists the powers of recollection so well; for everyone who can, when presented with that curious-sounding name, chime something about the “Lubitsch touch,” few, if any, can summon a title to go with it, or a face. Some directors simply look the part – Fritz Lang, John Huston, John Ford, Erich von Stroheim – men whose very visages foretold the autocrat within. Lubitsch, however, was not one of them. He was a pear-shaped man, with an egg-shaped head, and an easily amusable grin; not exactly the type of face to scare a misbehaving actor into submission. Yet between 1914 and his early death in 1947, he directed over seventy films – no mean feat in and of itself – oftentimes producing and writing them as well; though, after moving to America, he never penned a script alone, fearing his facility with English was not up to par, but stood close by while scribblers more fluent in the idiom did the dirty work for him. Today, such omnipotent manipulation of a picture is commonplace, just another way a successful director can further exert his control, but in the thirties, when the studios reigned supreme, governed by such power-hungry tyrants as David O. Selznick, Louis B. Mayer, and Irving Thalberg, it was decidedly unusual. In an era of producers, Lubitsch stood alone, an auteur before his time.
He was born over a century ago, in Germany, in 1892. The son of a tailor and dressmaker, he shunned the family business for the stage, eventually joining Max Reinhardt’s famed Deutsches Theater, and, a year later, began appearing in films. In 1914, he turned to directing. His breakthrough came in 1918 with Die Augen der Mumie Ma, a mummy adventure in blackface that proved an unexpected hit. This initial triumph was quickly attended by another, the equally successful Carmen, that same year, and shortly thereafter, yet another, Die Austernprinzessin (1919), a tongue-in-cheek satire caricaturizing the American rich, and perhaps the first film to exhibit the famous Lubitsch touch, that deliciously ineffable something that is so much more easily felt than explained. Lubitsch was now a successful director with his own production company at his disposal. The fact that Berlin was, during this period, one of the most exciting cities in the world, and the focal point of the German Expressionist movement, has been trodden over so often by cinematic historians that the platitude comes out like a fine paste; far more interesting is how little Lubitsch seemed to care. In 1922, while Lang commenced work on his first Mabuse picture and F.W. Murnau toiled away on Nosferatu (1922), Lubitsch set sail for America, forever abandoning the twisted shadows of Germany for the sun-drenched hills of Hollywood.
His first film in the U.S. was Rosita (1923), a romantic comedy starring Mary Pickford; the actress and the director clashed, but the film was a sensation nonetheless. There followed a string of sophisticated, if not financially successful, comedies for Warner Brothers: The Marriage Circle (1924), Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925), and So This is Paris (1926). In 1927, MGM-Paramount bought out his contract from Warners, and Lubitsch – one of the few filmmakers to embrace sound rather fear its clamorous approach – turned his attention to the newly budding musical genre: The Love Parade (1929), Monte Carlo (1930), and The Smiling Lieutenant (1931). Then come the greatest hits: Trouble in Paradise (1932), The Merry Widow (1934), Shop Around the Corner (1940), and To Be or Not to Be (1942), films so ebulliently amusing and impervious to all common sense as to be perfect cocktails of chaos. If ever you want your heart broken watch the scene from Shop Around the Corner in which Margaret Sullavan searches woefully through the empty mailbox and try not to feel a pang of remorse. Or, if you’re the type of person who loves films from the forties but wearies of Capra’s rosy glow, rent To Be or Not To Be some rainy night, and test your threshold for fatalism against that of Lubitsch. You may not be able to help laughing, but you’ll wonder if you really should. It is a movie at once dark and light, cluttered yet simple, cynical yet uplifting, and never flagging in its desire to shock, for Lubitsch was certainly always game for that. Who else, in the midst of World War ll, would make a comedy that included Adolf Hitler as a keynote character? Well, Chaplin did, of course. But even he put on the breaks, casting aside the great dictator to deliver a heartfelt plea for peace. Lubitsch, on the other hand, just keeps stepping on the accelerator. And why shouldn’t he? Though a German by birth, he was also a Jew. What better way to stick it to the Third Reich?
How the director felt about marriage is more ambiguous. Lubitsch’s own first marriage ended in 1931, a year before Trouble in Paradise, when he discovered his wife was in love with another man, his friend and collaborator Hanns Kraly. Lubitsch’s response to the affair was to dive headlong into work; the following year he directed two pictures (One Hour with You and Trouble in Paradise), produced and partially directed a third (If I Had a Million), and, acting as either director, producer, or both, saw the release of four more pictures with his name on the credits. And certainly one can’t help but feel that in the case of Trouble in Paradise, a movie dutifully opposed to the trappings of marriage, Lubitsch was at least in some way attempting to rewrite the heartache of his own life. Among the lines objected to by the censors of the time are two of the film’s most caustic: “And we’ll celebrate the second anniversary of the day we didn’t get married,” and “I like to take my fun and leave it.” In the shooting script, Lubitsch cut the former but let the latter stand, appeasing the New York Board of Censors while still maintaining a healthy suspicion of monogamous bliss. Ever onward, marital strife, and all the follies that accompany it, would provide the chief grist of the Lubitsch mill. Like Evelyn Waugh, a fellow satirist of the beautiful and rich, Lubitsch was an artist always happy to mock his own unhappiness; resigned to play the cuckold in life, he took out his frustrations on the silver screen, where hearts may be stolen as easily as wallets but – lest reality rear its ugly head – returned just as quickly without so much as a wrinkling of the sheets.
Which is to say that reality, or rather a startling lack of reality, is perhaps the most crucial component of the Lubitsch touch, as observed by biographer Scott Eyman: “With few exceptions Lubitsch’s movies take place in neither Europe nor America but in Lubitschland, a place of metaphor, benign grace, rueful wisdom…What came to preoccupy this anomalous artist was the comedy of manners and the society in which it transpired, a world of delicate sangfroid, where a breach of sexual or social propriety and the appropriate response are ritualized, but in unexpected ways, where the basest things are discussed in elegant whispers; of the rapier, never the broadsword…To the unsophisticated eye, Lubitsch’s work can appear dated, simply because his characters belong to a world of formal sexual protocol. But his approach to film, to comedy, and to life was not so much ahead of his time as it was singular, and totally out of any time.” (1) Rarely does he bother to suspend our disbelief. Why should he? It’s only when we begin to consider the consequences of Gaston’s actions that Trouble in Paradise truly becomes fraught with strife; imagine poor Kay Francis, after the picture’s close, waking up alone in that cavernous house, having just lost her bankroll, her pearl necklace and the love of her life. Troubles of this nature are not pertinent to the world of the film; they simply aren’t wanted. The heiress gets swindled, the money gets taken, and the thieves get away with it. What reality could be better than that?
Sadly, for Lubitsch, reality did intrude upon his own life. He died on November 30, 1947, the victim of a frail heart – not broken, just attacked, the director being, at the time of death, preoccupied with the seduction of an attractive young houseguest. Reportedly, at his funeral, a sad-eyed Billy Wilder turned to William Wyler and stated, “No more Lubitsch,” to which the other director added, equally doleful, but for other reasons, “Worse than that – no more Lubitsch films.” Indeed, he leaves an indelible imprint; in addition to his own films – which are not insubstantial by any comparison – one can’t help but see the fingerprints of his touch upon the works of an array of subsequent masters – from Billy Wilder to Cameron Crowe, from Preston Sturges to Woody Allen. But Lubitsch was there before them all, leading the way, and leaving, for us, a glimpse of paradise.