By Duane Porter
In the darkness, light filters through the glass panes of a closed door. A man steps up and takes hold of a garbage can that has been left outside the door. He carries it to the edge of a canal and adds it’s contents to the already huge pile of garbage in his waiting gondola. Setting down the empty can, he exuberantly breaks into song with “O Sole Mio” as he pushes off on his way down the canal. This is Ernst Lubitsch’s Venice.
Having just pulled off an audacious robbery, master thief Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall), posing as some sort of baron, is making plans to have a most romantic dinner with a beautiful visiting countess.
“It must be the most marvelous supper. We may not eat it, but it must be marvelous.”
“And, waiter. You see that moon?”
“I want to see that moon in the champagne.”
The countess arrives in a fluster, worried that she has been seen entering his rooms and that, surely, a scandal will ensue. His suave soothing manner seems to put her at ease and they start the evening with a kiss and a cocktail. She is Lily Vautier (Miriam Hopkins), but she is no more a countess than he is a baron. As the evening progresses, they each become aware that neither is who they purport to be. She has lifted a wallet from his pocket and guesses it to be from the earlier robbery, news of which has traveled very fast. Not easily taken unaware, Gaston now knows that his guest is a charming little pickpocket. He grabs her by the shoulders and shakes her until the wallet falls to the floor. He picks it up, puts it in his pocket, and resumes his dinner. Delighted, they begin returning various items they have taken from each other. He has her pin. She has his watch. They are surprised and excited by the other’s prowess.
“I like you, Baron.”
“I’m crazy about you… I hope you don’t mind if I keep your garter.”
She grabs her leg as he holds up the garter, kisses it, and returns it to his pocket.
“Darling!” she jumps up and kisses him. She wants to know who he is. He introduces himself as the notorious Gaston Monescu. She is thrilled as they passionately embrace.
Moving her to the couch, he murmurs, “I love you. I loved you the moment I saw you. I’m mad about you. My little shoplifter. My sweet little pickpocket. My darling.”
This is thievery as foreplay and another version of love at first sight. Lubitsch escorts us from the room and places a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door. And once again, we are returned to the garbage collecting gondolier as he serenades the night. This is the Lubitsch touch.
Already established in Germany as a major film director, Ernst Lubitsch came to Hollywood in 1922. He worked steadily throughout the 1920’s making such films as The Marriage Circle (1924), Lady Windemere’s Fan (1925), So This Is Paris (1926), and The Student Prince of Heidelberg (1927). The advent of sound allowed him to make his wonderful musical comedies, The Love Parade (1929), Monte Carlo (1930), The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), and One Hour With You (1932). Then he made his first talking non-musical romantic comedy. With a script by Samson Raphaelson, cinematography by Victor Milner, and an impeccable cast we have the sublimely amoral Trouble in Paradise. Although he made many other wonderful films, including the infinitely charming The Shop Around the Corner (1940), I believe Trouble in Paradise remains the most typically Lubitschian of his works. It absolutely sparkles with wit and sophistication and shimmers with casual innuendo.
Gaston and Lily, together a year now, have come to Paris. Paris is home to Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), the wealthy, widowed owner of the Colet Perfume Company. During an evening at the opera, she seems to have lost her recently purchased diamond-encrusted purse. The purse, of course, happens to be in the possession of Gaston who, upon seeing that a 20,000 franc reward is being offered for it’s return, decides to do the honest thing and return it, especially since he would only get 5,000 if he were to sell it. He returns the purse, introducing himself as Monsieur LaValle, and in the process, so charms Madame Colet with his worldly expertise in all matters that she hires him as her personal secretary. Seeing this as a golden opportunity to gain access to her fortune, he accepts.
Lily is brought in as his assistant and together they devise a plan to make off with a large portion of Madame Colet’s fortune, but it will take awhile. Lily begins to worry that Gaston wants something other than money from Madame Colet. He assures her that Madame Colet’s whole sex appeal is in her safe, but it isn’t long before he begins to be swayed by her considerable loveliness. She takes him out to dinner, they go dancing, and they stay up late talking and drinking champagne.
Gaston says to Madame Colet, “I know all your tricks.”
She replies, “And you’re going to fall for them.”
“So you think you can get me?”
“Any minute I want”
“Now let me tell you…”
She interrupts him, “Shut up – kiss me! Wasting all this marvelous time with arguments.”
But it is all over too soon. His identity is found out. Lily has left with the money. The police will be coming by morning.
“But it could have been glorious.”
Trouble in Paradise could only have been made during that exquisite window in time between the coming of sound and the subsequent enforcement of the production code. Although it was well received by both audiences and critics at the time of it’s release in 1932, the Hays office withdrew it from circulation in 1935 and it was not to be seen again until 1968. Never released on VHS, it finally became widely available in 2003 on DVD. The subject is sex and there is an awareness here that desire is without gender. Marriage is neither considered nor is it desired. “Marriage is a beautiful mistake which two people make together.” But, it is all handled with such an abstract sophisticated elegance that it is unlikely to offend. Trouble in Paradise doesn’t depict the nobility of the human spirit. It doesn’t try to show us a better way to live. It doesn’t provide any answers to the problems of life. It is simply a masterpiece.