Sunday Editor’s Pick: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

by on August 1, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun Aug 7 at 1:00, 4:00, 7:00, 10:00  & Mon Aug 8 at 1:00, 4:00, 10:00 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]
*Dbl Ftr with JEWEL ROBBERY (1932)


Quite simply, a masterpiece. Lubtisch’s Art Deco roundelay of thieves and lovers is one of the most sophisticated, adult delights Hollywood ever produced. Many critics agree…


J. Hoberman for LA Weekly:

There is no Hollywood movie more insouciantly amoral than Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 Trouble in Paradise. Released in the depths of the Great Depression, Lubitsch’s urbane comedy concerns a swank pair of thieves, played by Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins, who not only live together in sin but—after successfully fleecing Kay Francis’s rich and equally charming widow—taxi off into the sunset utterly unrepentant.


The movie’s white-on-white deco sets were once the essence of modernity—and so was its worldly attitude. Obviously, Trouble in Paradise,could not have been produced after the 1934 Production Code arrived to regulate the fantasy lives of American moviegoers. Hedonism was never more nonchalant. Trouble in Paradise has none of the single-entendre tawdriness or salacious Puritanism that gives pre-Code Hollywood its carnival flavor. Style is substance in Lubitsch’s instantly recognized masterpiece: “As close to perfection as anything I have ever seen in the movies,” the young Dwight Macdonald wrote in a little literary magazine. Indeed, style is morality.


This comedy of jewel thieves is itself the prize sparkler of Lubitsch’s enterprising career—a ransom that he never quite redeemed. Trouble in Paradise combines the visual glitter of Lubitsch’s silent films with the verbal wit of his talkies; it leavens ’20s frivolity with a soupçon of ’30s class consciousness. Exceedingly fluid for its day, Trouble in Paradise was the director’s first non-musical talking picture; cut to sprightly incidental music and paced by playful spoken rhythms, it dances to its own tune.



Pauline Kael in 5001 Nights at the Movies:

Perhaps the most shimmering of the romantic comedy collaborations of the director Ernst Lubitsch and the writer Samson Raphaelson, this film is a make-believe world of the 30s preserved intact. Herbert Marshall is so adept at the silky tricks written into his lines that he creates a hushed atmosphere. He plays a career jewel thief and, as his partner, Miriam Hopkins, quick and darting, always has her feelers out, along with her kittenish claws. These two are accomplished seducers, and in this movie witty seduction is indistinguishable from love itself. Kay Francis is the wealthy widow whose face takes on a yearning expression once she sees Marshall; desire makes her warm and languid. The movie is full of suave maneuvers and magical switcheroos; in its light-as-a-feather way, it’s perfection.


Imogen Smith for The Chiseler:

The film opens, famously, with the tour-de-force scene in which a master thief named Gaston (the impossibly suave Herbert Marshall) shares a romantic dinner with a lady thief named Lily (Miriam Hopkins), during which they pick each other’s pockets and fall in love. The scene suggests that they are soul mates; yet the film’s biggest surprise is that Gaston’s true equal isn’t the rather jumpy, giddy woman who is his partner in crime, but the victim they team up to fleece. Mariette (Kay Francis), the wealthy mark, has the same invincible cool and brazen self-confidence. “I know all your tricks,” Gaston says knowingly. “And you’re going to fall for them” she replies even more knowingly.


The choice between the two women is no foregone conclusion, and no easy matter. Hollywood liked every “other man” to be Ralph Bellamy, every “other woman” some bitch like Gail Patrick; rarely did it admit that a person might be forced to decide between two desirable and deserving alternatives. In Trouble in Paradise, as in all Lubitsch movies, there is the consolation of a crowd of delicious character actors—Edward Everett Horton, Charlie Ruggles, C. Aubrey Smith—each starring in his own comedy of confusion and thwarted desires. Paradise indeed.



Charles Silver in his program notes for MoMA:

Beginning with Trouble in Paradise (1932), Lubitsch developed essentially his own genre, which lasted almost until his untimely death. These films, mostly set in Europe, were one of the most distinctive brands of the pre–World War II decade, eschewing spectacle for scintillation and Depression-era reality for exuberant performances and unlikely plots made credible by the photography of flesh on celluloid.


These masterpieces (with the exception of Greta Garbo’s tour-de-force Ninotchka) —Trouble in Paradise, Angel, and The Shop Around the Corner—were written by Samson Raphaelson, who had on his conscience the original play from which Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer had been adapted. Together, Lubitsch and Raphaelson fashioned a kind of “magic realism,” tinged with a subdued and poignant melancholy. Possibly part of the truth about Lubitsch’s genius is that, by limiting himself to a canvas of a particular size and texture, he was so able to polish his work to a jewel-like quality and come so “close to perfection.”


Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

It’s possible to prefer other Ernst Lubitsch films for their more serene stylings and more plangent emotions, but this 1932 production is probably the most perfectly representative of his works—the most Lubitschian Lubitsch. Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins are a pair of professional thieves who fall in love while plundering the Riviera, but when Marshall falls under the spell of the wealthy Parisienne he intends to fleece (Kay Francis), their perfect relationship falters. The bons mots fly and an elegant immorality abounds, while beneath the surface the most serious kinds of emotional transactions are being made.



Charles Taylor for Salon:

There’s a wonderful contradiction between the way Lubitsch looked — short, swarthy, rough-hewn — and the casual classiness of the movies he made. You see that contradiction reflected in his approach to sex. Lubitsch had the talent of rendering risqué and even out-and-out dirty jokes with a gossamer refinement. When Gaston and Lily go to bed for the first time, Lubitsch shows us a series of shots beginning with the couple lying on a couch in his hotel suite. There’s a dissolve to the now-empty couch (suggesting that they have moved elsewhere), and then shots of the lights being extinguished, the curtains opened and Gaston’s arm, now denuded of his tuxedo jacket, hanging a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door to his suite. It’s too clear, too frank, to be classified with the coyness movies would later resort to, the camera moving from a clinching couple to a roaring fireplace and then a dissolve to glowing embers.


Lubitsch goes even further in a montage of Madame Colet’s servants saying compliantly, “Yes, Monsieur La Valle!” or “No, Monsieur La Valle!” The comely maid coyly answers, “Maybe, Monsieur La Valle!” but the topper comes in a shot of Madame herself lying on her back, on an exercise mat. She has lifted her legs up and over so her toes are resting on the floor behind her head; her graceful rump thrusts out with innocent pertness. She asks, “Is this what you mean, La Valle?” It’s an outrageous moment, a really filthy joke delivered with absolute propriety.


The trouble with trying to define “the Lubitsch touch” is the difficulty of pinning down the sublime. “Trouble in Paradise” moves along so smoothly that we’re scarcely aware of any tension in the style. And yet it’s there, in the contrast between Continental society and the (implicitly American) raffishness of the two interlopers (particularly when Hopkins, in the midst of a con, rattles on in Spanish, replete with Castilian lisp, and then German, never altering her flat American accent). And it’s present in Madame Colet’s two other suitors, Edward Everett Horton and Charles Ruggles, those quintessential oddballs of American comedy. They function here like the rustics in a Shakespeare comedy. Too bumptious to enter the rarefied world of the leads, they’re the unwitting embodiments of the movie’s comic id.



The movie even tickles the soul of Armond White, writing here for The Criterion Collection:

Trouble in Paradise is the most fondly memorable—if rarely seen—Hollywood screwball comedy. Its combination of suaveness, hilarity, and sexiness has had a mighty influence. There would be no Bringing Up Baby, no The Lady Eve, no Pat and Mike, without the delicious trouble Ernst Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson stirred up.


Trouble in Paradise is a triumph of sexual awareness that treats the feints, twirls, and innuendo of romance as steps in every lucky human’s sojourn. These characters seem to be waltzing through the swamp of sex, and though they live the high life, their emotions bring them down to earth, in touch with their mortality. A faintly chiming clock can be heard during Mariette’s heartbreak; and Lubitsch shows her anticipated future with Gaston (“weeks, months, years”) in a classic existential montage.


Lubitsch and Raphaelson set the screwball comedy standard, treating hard-on material with dignified aplomb. Trouble in Paradise’s teasing insight into the machinations of the heart has influenced every romantic comedy to come after it. But no other movie can match the way Gaston, Lily, and Mariette’s rendezvous make you laugh, sigh, and reflect. It steals the heart of every lucky person who sees it.


James Harvey in Romantic Comedy in Hollywood:

The fecundity and cleverness with which all this is expounded in the Sam Raphaelson screenplay are astonishing. At almost every point Lubitsch and Raphaelson find some new and surprising way of narrating a scene or telling a joke or even just conveying information. It’s as if they had set out to test the expressive limits of indirection – to make these closed Lubitsch doors achieve a kind of maximum eloquence. As a result, more than ever before in a Lubitsch film, out own responses become the subject of the film. 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, of the sort of things we know without having to be told.


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