Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Dir. Ernst Lubitsch. Starring Herbert Marshall, Kay Francis, Miriam Hopkins

In the last scene of Trouble in Paradise, which calls back to some of the funnier moments early on in the movie, Lily (Hopkins) and Gaston (Marshall) have stolen objects from one another. Lily walked out with 100,000 francs originally belonging to Madame Mariette Colet (Francis), but it turns out Gaston has them. Gaston walked out with a priceless string of pearls, and he really undertakes a serious patdown of himself to find it. He checks just about everywhere as Lily begins to smile a little slyly before revealing that she has the necklace which she has admired for some time. It’s Gaston’s peace offering as much as it is anything else, and as the two of them kiss in the back of a taxi, en route to the train station and no doubt some con after that, there’s an unusual clarity in what the movie is showing us. Gaston has spent more of the movie playing Madame Colet’s lover than he has Lily’s, even though the two of them have been together for more than a year and planned the con on Madame Colet in the first place. (If there’s an issue with the movie for me, it’s that I could have used another scene or two – perhaps eight minutes that could have brought the movie up to a round ninety minutes – just to hammer home the depth of Gaston and Lily’s relationship.) The story of the “taker being took” is at the heart of the movie, and at the end I’m not convinced that Gaston loves Lily. More than that, I don’t think I’m supposed to be. All Gaston and Mariette (and Lily, probably) know is that birds of a feather have sex with other birds wearing similar plumage. Madame Colet takes the news that Gaston has been cheating her with some aplomb, as one might expect from the rich young widow and owner of an internationally known parfumerie. And she gets a little help from Gaston:

Gaston: But tomorrow morning, if you should wake out of your dreams and hear a knock, and the door opens, and there, instead of a maid with a breakfast tray stands a policeman with a warrant – then you’ll be glad you are alone.

A thief as clever as Gaston knows that it’s a dangerous game to play when you aren’t sensible. And what we see in that taxi, the kiss that he shares with the woman he’s invested a year of himself in (and who has been invested in himself), is pure rationalism. Here’s a romantic comedy which plays by many of the rules of the genre until the final scene. We want our romantic comedies to be escapism and inexplicable circumstance; even in the 1930s, major romantic comedies require a certain level of baroque strangeness to come through. The Awful Truth features two people getting divorced who are still obsessed with the other person. Bringing Up Baby uses a dinosaur bone and a runaway leopard to effect. City Lights turns on an operation that can cure blindness. Trouble in Paradise is about con man and con woman and learning that it’s better not to fly so high outside your social circumstances. It is the antithesis of the fantastic, and it roots the movie in the regret that most movies in this genre try to leave behind fifteen minutes after the credits.

Gaston is a charmer, a fact evidenced long before we ever see him interact with Mariette. Not only is his dinner with Lily – in the hotel rooms of a man he appears to have beaten senseless or drugged or chloroformed or something – a masterclass in chic repartee, but we find out that even the man he took advantage of with such gusto thought him charming. It’s part of the description that Filiba (Edward Everett Horton) gives to the police, albeit a little slowly. Lubitsch and his screenwriter, Samson Raphaelson, can’t resist a little nudge at Italians. They are scrupulously polite, but a group of maybe four or six or fifteen of them are gathered a little distant from Filiba, reacting noisily to every bit of information that he tells them about the circumstances of his robbery. Gaston somehow managed to convince Filiba to let him examine his tonsils after ten minutes of patter, which Svengali wishes he could have done. We see how he does it with Mariette, and a little surprisingly he manages to do it through criticism. Her makeup is all wrong, he says, from lipstick to foundation. She shouldn’t be managing the perfume company at all. (It’s in black and white and Francis looks just fine, but there’s also no evidence to show that she’s a particularly canny businesswoman.) In what might be the most famous Lubitsch dialogue of all, they compare notes on who should spank her. If Gaston were her father, he would spank her. And the same goes, he says, if he were her secretary. “You’re hired,” she says. Seven years after this picture debuted, James Thurber would retell the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” with a new moral after Red Riding Hood shoots the badly disguised wolf: “It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.” James Thurber did not have Mariette Colet in mind when he wrote that. Gaston gets in because she’s offered a massive reward and a private audience for a missing purse, and it never crosses her mind that the handsome man with the lyrical voice in front of her might have stolen it in the first place and been ready for a 20,000 franc payday returning it. Mariette is charming too, ingenuous to a fault but not incapable of explaining to Gaston in one scene how thoroughly she’s hooked him.

There’s strong chemistry between Marshall and Hopkins as well as Marshall and Francis, though I’m personally enamored of the people who it seems have no chemistry with anyone except each other. It turns out that Filiba is a suitor of Madame Colet, and that he is not alone among older rich men in seeking her hand. He has a rival, the Major (Charles Ruggles); beside their interest in Madame Colet, both of them are also fooled into believing that Gaston is a doctor the first time they come across him. The Major does not lose his wallet, but he does fail to give the lady a purse to replace the one she lost at the opera had stolen from her by a neatly placed pair of charming thieves. Later on, it is a conversation in which the Major shares his first impression of Gaston with his likewise jilted pal, who has very nearly put the pieces together already, that forces Gaston to bail on what he thought was going to be a much more lucrative payday. It’s a skillful use of characters. Trouble in Paradise has a small, tightly-knit cast of characters; even though we see, for example, a big party at Madame Colet’s residence, the people we see there are the same ones we had seen before. There are certainly people who are good for one scene only, such as the waiter who listens to Gaston prattle on in Venice or those aforementioned Italian cops. (I am personally very fond of the Marxist who comes to harangue Madame Colet about the expensiveness of her purse, yelling “Phooey!” at her over and over again. Gaston is more amused than anything else; his “phooey” is worse than his bite, he tells the slightly shellshocked lady.) Yet they are part of the scenery as much as the winding stairs in Mariette’s home or the opera box where she “loses” her purse, and the minor characters like Filiba turn out to be more than just scenery themselves when no one would have guessed that a man with a very nice suite would turn out to be a centerpiece of the plot.

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