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Trouble in Paradise delivered it in spades, causing critic Dwight McDonald in 1933 to comment on its "endless" list of virtues and deem it "as close to perfection as anything I have ever seen in the movies." Certainly, Lubitsch himself shared that high opinion, writing shortly before his death in 1947, "As for pure style, I think I have done nothing better or as good." Maybe it would be best simply to take the word of Miriam Hopkins, who said working with Lubitsch was like attending a great drama school, calling him "the master craftsman that people learned comedy and everything from."
In Trouble in Paradise, Miriam Hopkins plays a professional thief on the loose in Europe who, while posing as a countess, comes upon another master crook, Herbert Marshall, himself posing as a baron. They rendezvous with the intention of stealing from each other, and in a hilarious scene of one-upmanship (she takes his wallet, he steals her watch, etc.), they fall madly and instantly in love and lust. Fleeing Venice (where Marshall has fleeced a wealthy Frenchman by pretending to be a doctor called to examine his tonsils), they end up in Paris and set their sights on a rich widow, Madame Colet (Kay Francis). Soon they're in her employ, but as they're closing in for the kill, Marshall finds himself falling in love with his prey. Will he give up his wicked ways and remain with the glamorous Francis or return to Hopkins and the carefree life of thievery? This being Lubitsch, it's not hard to figure out.
There's certainly no shortage of wit in the screenplay, which Lubitsch adapted (he didn't receive screen credit) with his frequent collaborator Samson Raphaelson. (A third writer, Grover Jones, was credited, but by most accounts, all he did was sit in the same room, drink, and tell personal anecdotes.) The story was based, like so many of his films, on a play of Hungarian origin. However, the play was jettisoned early in the process (at the director's suggestion, Raphaelson never even bothered to read it), and Lubitsch modeled his central character on the famous Hungarian swindler and thief Georges Manolescu, whose 1907 memoirs were turned into at least two silent films. What the play and memoirs gave him were a central situation and romantic characters, which he used to create his own unique concoction. (In the 15 films he made during the remaining 15 years of his career, Lubitsch produced only one original script - To Be or Not to Be, 1942.)
But the sophisticated humor of Trouble in Paradise is not just a matter of sparkling, witty dialogue, cleverly plotted situations and sexual gamesmanship. Here, the comedy is brilliantly visual too. An entire love-triangle scene of seduction/resistance/suspicion/betrayal/conquest is played out with nothing more on screen than a series of clocks. Likewise, sex is cued by shadows cast onto a bed and by the opening and closing of doors (and the mystery of who will enter or exit from which one) in a way that goes beyond the antics of French farce. There is the aforementioned escalating foreplay of theft, played out again at the end of the movie, and conversations observed from behind glass that are no less understood for being unheard. As James Harvey observes in Romantic Comedy in Hollywood from Lubitsch to Sturges (Da Capo, 1998), "It's less that the people on the screen illustrate comic and surprising ways of seeing things than that we ourselves do. Lubitsch makes us more conscious than ever of how we understand, of how we get the point of a joke, the sort of things we know without having to be told."
In addition to Raphaelson, other collaborators brought a great deal to the final look and feel of Trouble in Paradise. The stunning art deco sets of Hans Dreier, head of the Paramount art department, are used not just as surface polish or background glamour, but to define the world of the characters and their drive to possess beauty and luxury. Studio costume designer Travis Banton, who worked so closely with Marlene Dietrich on her classic look from this period, made the most of Hopkins' and Francis' glamour and terrific ability to wear great clothes. And as he would later in such films as Ninotchka (1939) and To Be or Not to Be, Lubitsch pulled together a supporting cast of such peerless comic character actors as Edward Everett Horton and Charlie Ruggles. He got from his three principal players probably the best performances of their careers, including the often overly formal Marshall and the frequently suffering clotheshorse Francis. In this film, the latter's charming lisp (like Elmer Fudd, she had a problem saying rs) perfectly meshed for once with her character's nationality. Trouble in Paradise also proves Hopkins was a much better actress and screen presence than she was generally given credit for. Nevertheless, she was already up to her legendary screen-stealing tricks. Determined to upstage Francis in their major scene together, Hopkins kept turning her chair on the set until what was to have been a profile shot ended up revealing her full face. The furious Francis complained to Lubitsch, and he took care of the problem by nailing Hopkins' chair to the floor for future takes.
The Criterion DVD of Trouble in Paradise sports a new digital transfer, with restored image and sound, an audio commentary by Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman (author of Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise) and a new video introduction by director Peter Bogdanovich. The DVD also includes Lubitsch's silent 1917 film, The Merry Jail, starring Emil Jannings and featuring a new music score for this release. There are also written tributes to Lubitsch from Billy Wilder, Roger Ebert and others and the addition of a 1940 "Screen Guild Theatre" radio program with Lubitsch, Jack Benny and Claudette Colbert.
For more information about the DVD special edition of Trouble in Paradise, visit The Criterion Collection web site. To order Trouble in Paradise, visit TCM Shopping.
by Rob Nixon