Top billing in the film went to Miriam Hopkins as Lily, who had previously appeared in Lubitsch's Smiling Lieutenant, playing part of a triangle opposite Maurice Chevalier and Claudette Colbert. Her very next Lubitsch film would be Design for Living where again she was thrown in a love triangle only with two men clamoring for her attention. Now the three-way in this film does not have the same camaraderie that Cooper, March, and Hopkins shared in Design for Living. Francis remains completely oblivious to Hopkins throughout the film, but Hopkins never ceases to be jealous of her wealthy would be usurper. She takes her anger in part out on Gaston (Herbert Marshall) delivering my favorite line of the film "I wouldn't fall for another man if he were the biggest crook in the world". It is crime that brings these two together. Not like the lovers on the run who rob banks to get by, these two have made a life for themselves as pickpockets and have met each other with the sole purpose of robbing each other. When they meet they’re both masquerading as being attractive members of the noble aristocracy. When they both discover the other to be a thief, instead of recoiling in shock and disappointment they promptly discover they have met their soul mate.
|Kay Francis, Miriam Hopkins, and Herbert Marshall from left.|
Their initial seduction of theft is repeated at the end of the film brilliantly reinforcing that no matter how much of a temptation Francis may have appeared, she really posed no great challenge to a woman of Lily‘s skill set. Gaston however did succumb to her charms. He was ready to risk his own possible imprisonment for a night in her bed (or his bed considering they slept next to each other in connecting rooms). In a way that few films could make explicit at the time we know that Gaston is looking to sleep with her, whether or not he is in love with her. Mariette always seems slightly more sure of herself than need be. She is almost embarrassingly trusting and she is so sure of her own sexual prowess that she remains blind to the fact that this thief has only an intention of robbing her. Sure Kay Francis was pretty, but the film seems to imply that her money and position is what gives her confidence. She’s used to giving orders and this naturally carries over into her personal life as well. Her attraction to Gaston might seem a bit odd, but after being courted by the dull Edward Everett Horton and Charles Ruggles, Herbert Marshall doesn't seem like too bad of a choice. Although one can argue he doesn’t have the same charisma as say Gary Cooper in Design for Living.
What of course makes this film different from one that would have been made roughly 18 months later was that these two thieves do rob Mariette and they do get away with it. She lets them go, and Gaston even robs the pearl necklace that Lily had her eyes on and tells Mariette "Your parting gift to her". Again Mariette's character flaw comes out and she just lets it go. As Lily chastises her "You paid 125,000 francs for a handbag you can pay 100,000 for Gaston". Everything with these two becomes monetary. When they realize they can't wait for the 850,000 francs Gaston says "100,000 francs in the hand is worth more than 850 in jail." They're always aware of what things are worth, and in this way the film makes some indirect comment on the depression. Mariette gives Lily (who's now working as Gaston's secretary) a 50 franc raise, which she says is her payment for Gaston. When Gaston brings the bag he stole back a Bolshevik is there criticizing her for spending that money on a bag and being wasteful in this day and age. Gaston yells at him in a different language that results in nothing but a "Phooey" from the revolutionary. In this way Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson are saying "yes there is a depression going on, but these characters are in a different world". Of course with Lubitsch we're always in a different world, were people seem to wake up in formal wear and money seems to grow on trees.
|Madame Colet confiding in Lily|
The Venice in this film however seems a bit more rooted in reality than a much more blatantly escapist picture like Top Hat, whose canals and hotels seem better suited for Las Vegas than Italy. The films first joke shows a trash collector singing opera on the famed canal. A visual gag that shows the uglier side of the city. People actually do work here and in Lubitsch’s films, but Mariette is more willing to pawn Gaston’s work on to Lily. Despite her allure and her wealth she doesn’t seem like a real threat. Gaston and Lily aren’t crooks who long to become legitimate, they’re just playing at it to get their next big score. They even get the large reward for returning a purse they stole in the first place. Gaston with as much dignity as he can muster tells her to make the check out to cash.
Gaston and Lily’s personal game of one-upping each other is as playful a sexual courtship as you’re likely to find, capped off by Gaston revealing he stole Lily’s garter. This subtlety and sophistication is what has been described as the “Lubitsch touch” a phrase that was as widely used in it’s day as now. A hard to define style that’s easier felt than seen, it is one of subtlety and that’s perhaps the best reason why audiences still appreciate his films, at least the more even keeled ones. It is interesting to think Lubitsch’s first films that made their way to America where his historical epics Passion/Madame du Barry and Deception/Anna Boleyn which had many critics calling him the German D.W. Griffith. Yet even from his early stage roles as an actor, Lubitsch seemed best suited for comedy, and his somewhat warped sense of morality made the early sound period the most interesting phase of his career.
|Gaston revealing the garter he stole from Lily's leg|
Trouble in Paradise also makes a wonderfully light portrait of it’s lovers criminal activities. What would have been inexplicable a few years later is the fact that they get away with it. They steal, they don’t get caught, and despite the fact that Francois (Horton) finally discovers who Gaston is (he robbed him in Venice just before he meets Lily), you never get a sense that they’re in real danger of being captured. Sure Gaston is willing to risk his neck quite literally for Madame Colet, he comes to his senses and in a playful mockery of marriage and infidelity he returns to his “wife”. The status quo is returned and the back to square one, complete with the reprisal of their stealing from each other has an ending reminiscent of a sitcom today. Not to put the ending down by comparing it to such a low form of entertainment, but these characters don’t really grow. Perhaps Colet has learned a lesson and will be less likely to trust her next personal secretary, but these two thieves have just escaped all consequences and despite their domestic bliss being threatened they clearly are in no hurry to mend their ways.
For many Trouble in Paradise is his ultimate film. It has a continental feel, playfully amorous characters, and a type of moral code that could only be possible in that brief window from 1929 to about halfway through 1934. As the audience interest continues to grow for the celebrated Pre-Code era of Hollywood the DVD release of Trouble in Paradise can be seen as a landmark in it’s revival. This set the stage for the release of the Complicated Women book and documentary as well as several collections of “Pre-Code Hollywood” or TCM’s Forbidden Hollywood collections. Since it’s been available for nearly a decade now it’s hard to think back to a time when this film was never even available on VHS. Following the Hayes code enforcement in 1934, this film was kept out of circulation for decades.
People who discovered the Lubitsch touch had to base it on his more tame films like Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not to Be, and Heaven Can Wait. What a shock to see a film like this or Design for Living, which I feel takes things one step farther. Sure other audiences might come into the film expecting some sort of raunchy sex romp and they’ll be disappointed. If the production code was one of subtlety Lubitsch was a master of the power of suggestion. The difference is what you could get away with suggesting. In Design for Living a few cutaways and a line Hopkins delivers saying “But I’m no lady” clues us into all we need to know, just as a follow up shot of her new husband walking out of the bedroom in the morning and kicking a plant because he very clearly didn’t “consecrate his marriage”.