Wednesday 2 September 2009

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Stars: Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis, Herbert Marshall, Charlie Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton

Oh, how I've waited for this one. Acclaimed as perhaps the greatest Ernst Lubitsch of them all, which is something of a claim given that he also directed things like The Shop Around the Corner and To Be or Not to Be, it's written by Aladar Laszlo, who also wrote Top Hat. Jonathan Rosenbaum chose it as one of his alternative Top 100 list to counter how safe the AFI's list was. It's also one of the last films for me to cross off the Home Theater Forum's list of the greatest films of the thirties. It also has a peach of a cast and the best sort too, no great stars but a handful of great character actors. I can't say the title song did much for me but even the font used for the credits was a solid one.

The Baron is in love so he's not making a lot of sense. He wants to see the moon in the champagne, he doesn't want to see the waiter at all and he wants supper to be marvellous, even if they don't eat it. The lady he's enamoured of is nothing short of a Countess and all of Venice is rattling away in rapid fire Italian. Of course there's a catch and it's a big one, though it isn't that they're played by Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins, both of whom are an utter delight and have never been better. It's that the Baron isn't a baron and the Countess isn't a countess.

He's Gaston Monescu, she's Lily Vautier, and they're both high class thieves. In fact while they're romancing each other as cleverly as they can, they're also stealing everything they possibly can. They're good at it too, because they're hardly amateurs, as we find out as they begin returning everything with the driest and most polite humour imaginable: Lily doesn't just get Gaston's watch, she even corrects the time without his noticing; and he gets her garter. So Lily robs Gaston of what Gaston has just robbed Fran├žois Filiba and they fall promptly and firmly in love. They're birds of a feather and they're perfect together.

Time passes, at least a year but probably more, and everyone has shifted over to Paris where everyone's focus has become Madame Mariette Colet, in the lovely form of a superb Wavishing Kay Fwancis. She's a rich widow who runs a huge and influential Paris perfumerie. Filiba is there to attempt to romance her, as is the Major, though Mme Colet doesn't care for either of them. Perhaps she keeps them on the hook just to watch them battle it out, which works for us as they're played by Edward Everett Horton and Charles Ruggles, who had never shared the screen before but play off each other like they were a practised double act. The only flaw is that we don't see enough of either.

Lily and Gaston are there too, working out where to hit next and the opportunity drops into their laps in the form of Mme Colet's F125,000 handbag that she's 'lost' at the opera and advertised for her in the papers. He returns it to her but rather than collect the F20,000 reward, he charms his way into becoming her secretary. His charm is such that the clincher is when he tells her that she deserves a good spanking. I so love precodes, especially ones with dialogue as sparkling as this. Lily tells him, 'Darling, remember, you are Gaston Monescu. You are a crook. I want you as a crook. I love you as a crook. I worship you as a crook. Steal, swindle, rob. Oh, but don't become one of those useless, good-for-nothing gigolos.' Utter genius.

Every opportunity is taken for a memorable transition between scenes. We move around the rooms, the floors, the people with panache. There are obvious gags in every scene and then there are gags under the gags and behind the gags and on the other side of the door from the gags. They're everywhere, in stamping feet and tonsils and sitting on hands and closed eyes and subtle nods. They're in having two doors to the same room, in having a butler who makes all sorts of bizarre noises and in the sexual innuendo that runs riot throughout the whole film, or may be wuns wiot thwoughout, given that they're in Kay Francis's awesome delivery of lines. This is a wobbewy picture, after all. More than anything they're in thieves stealing from thieves. The production code wouldn't have had a clue how to deal with this film, which explains precisely why it didn't get a reissue in 1935.

It doesn't let up in any way, shape or form, playing as fast and tight as the best of the screwball comedies that it presaged. The screwball era is generally seen as beginning with It Happened One Night in 1934, but perhaps that's because of the success of Gable and Colbert and how it swept the Oscars. It remained the only film to win all five top awards until One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest over forty years later. John Barrymore's Twentieth Century is the other great screwball comedy of 1934 that's always lived in its shadow. Yet here, two years earlier, is every element of the genre perfectly encapsulated into a mere 80 minutes. It's lightning fast, incorrigibly witty, with mismatched romance, the rich and the poor, and more sexual innuendo than could come later given that the classic screwball comedies arrived at the same time as the production code.

Miriam Hopkins had acted for Ernst Lubitsch before, in the joyous The Smiling Lieutenant and they'd reunite once more in 1933 for Design for Living. It's a shame they didn't continue on together but then the code would have interfered. Kay Francis was having a great time in comedy at this point, making Jewel Robbery the same year. That was one of of two films she made in 1932 opposite William Powell, the other being One Way Passage, and Powell would have made a great Gaston Monescu. It's been far too long since I've seen him.

Herbert Marshall has never been better than here, though I'm still yet to see his previous film, Josef von Sternberg's Blonde Venus with Marlene Dietrich. In fact all the Marshalls I've seen have been within the code. Knowing full well how the greatest precode names often floundered under its restrictions. Warren William was a genius when Hollywood allowed him to be, which ist to say not very much after 1934, Lee Tracy and Richard Barthelmess similarly. Perhaps Marshall fits in that esteemed company. It'll take a few more precodes to confirm that theory but I'm always up for that.

There's also good old C Aubrey Smith, a little less blustery than usual but still excellent as Mme Colet's chairman of the board. Robert Greig is the only one of the main actors I didn't know, but he's a memorable butler in a film in which everyone steals every scene they're in. They're all aided by the magic script though, courtesy of Grover Jones and Lubitsch regular Samson Raphaelson. The source play was contemporary too, having opened in Budapest a year earlier. Most of all the Lubitsch touch has never been more apparent, even in his later highly acclaimed comedies like To Be or Not to Be, The Shop Around the Corner or even Ninotchka. This is a new favourite for me and I'll be picking up that expensive Criterion edition this time out, that's for sure.

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