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Trouble in Paradise: The Criterion Collection

Home Vision Entertainment

Starring Herbert Marshall, Kay Francis, Miriam Hopkins
Charlie Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton

Written by Samson Raphaelson
Adapted by Grover Jones from the play by Aladar Laszo
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch

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Review by Damon Houx                    

"Isn't it awful, no more Ernst Lubitch."

"Worse than that. No more Lubitsch pictures."

— Comments overheard from Billy Wilder and
William Wyler at Ernst Lubitsch's funeral.

Pity Poor Ernst Lubitsch, for his legacy has been stunted by years of chronic unavailability.

Yes, the paterfamilias of "The Lubitsch Touch," his best works have spent much of the last 70 years sitting in studio vaults gathering dust — outside of the rare late-night showing. Besides mentions from film scholars, it'd be hard to know who he was, and why his touch was so renowned. His career was impressive just the same, as the German-born director began as an actor, and graduated to directing by 1914, achieving such attention that in 1922 he was plucked by Mary Pickford to come Stateside, and though their film together wasn't well thought of, Lubitsch successfully forged a career for himself in Hollywood.

It was the talkies though that made Lubitsch's reputation, starting in 1929 with films like The Love Parade. Done pre-Hays code with a stock cast often including Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier, these films were shot on Paramount's gorgeous back-lots and had plots that were all about love masquerading as sex and vice-versa. The series culminated in what many consider his career high, 1932's Trouble in Paradise, but once the Hays code became an absolute in Hollywood, this type of film would have no place in the mainstream (Paradise was not approved for re-issue in 1935 because of the code), so Lubitsch toned down the risqué elements in his films accordingly.

Unfortunately, these later, mellowed efforts are the most readily available, including the 1939 Greta Garbo vehicle Ninotchka, the 1940 classic The Shop Around the Corner (later remade into the abysmal You've Got Mail), and — strangely enough — 1943's Heaven Can Wait — strange because its title was taken for Warren Beatty's 1978 film, a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Lubitsch might have been ripe for rediscovery if the film-school set had been able to talk to him, but unfortunately the master died a little too young, passing (reportedly while in the act of sex) of a heart attack in 1947 at the ripe age of 55. His early death may have contributed to his absence from home video, because outside of a brief appearance on Laserdisc of a Lubitsch box-set (including seven films from the Paramount period), issued in the waning days of the LD format, the body of work that made Lubitsch famous has gone virtually unseen and unnoticed for decades.

Yet, while his films lay flaccid, Lubitsch's influence has not. Much of what has become known as the Billy Wilder wit has as much to do with Lubitsch as it does Wilder (who was known for having a sign above his desk inscribed "What would Lubitsch do?"). Wilder started his career in Hollywood as screenwriter and worked on such Lubitsch films as Ninotchka and 1938's Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, using many of the tools he gained from writing scripts for Lubitsch for the rest of his career.

But even more than Wilder, the wit, the brilliant use of supporting players for comic effect, and that sexual sparkle we associate with the screwball comedy is directly patterned on Lubitsch, informing the lusty comedies directed by Preston Sturges (like The Lady Eve), and the direct sexuality one sees in the work of Howard Hawks. Many others have paid him homage trying to replicate his tone (including video introducer Peter Bogdanovich in his little seen fiasco At Long Last Love), and usually any time a director attempts a sex comedy (everything from the really good ones to Warren Beatty's Town and Country), in some small way that director is trying to match Lubitsch's success with Trouble in Paradise — which is cinema's greatest sex comedy.

*          *          *

Trouble in Paradise concerns world-famous raconteur and gentleman thief Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) as he pulls off a cat burglary in Venice, and then sets his sights on a young, well-to-do woman named Lily (Miriam Hopkins), who also turns out to be a thief. Immediately falling in love/lust, the two spend the next year together. But after a failed heist, Gaston rests in France and ends up at the opera stealing the purse of a rich perfume magnate's widow, Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis).

It's Madame Colet's large reward that draws Gaston to her again, but when he comes to collect it he ends up getting a job as her secretary. However, his role as secretary has as much to with his business skills as it does the fact that she is a widow and is more interested in him than her two suitors. The two competing gentlemen are the older, incommunicative Major (Charlie Ruggles), and Francois Filiba (Edward Everett Horton), another boring old man who — unfortunately — Gaston robbed the day he met Lily. Working for Colet offers Gaston a chance to steal a large lump of cash from her, but the Madame seems more interested in getting him in bed, and tells as much to Lily, whom Gaston hired to be his secretary. Knowing that his identity might be revealed at any moment, Gaston must protect himself, but he also finds it harder and harder to rebuff the Madam's advances.

*          *          *

It's over 70 years old and labeled a classic. It has the sort of cinematic pedigree one expects from a stilted but amusing piece. But make no mistake — Trouble in Paradise is all about shagging. As Bogdanovich points out in his introduction, when the title rolls out at the film's opening, it's in front of a bed, and the title pauses on Trouble in before revealing... Paradise. From the get-go, it's made obvious that the film concerns the sexual. Characters allude to sex and sexual promiscuity at every turn, and Gaston shares lustful stares with both leading ladies throughout the film. This may seem a bit shocking to those who are used to the slightly later American movies made during the reign of the Hays code, where everything had to be of a certain moral fiber, and scripts were not permitted to include explicit innuendo (another reason why these Lubitsch films have fallen out of sight). But the Production Code isn't apparent in Paradise, as from the first scene where Gaston tells his butler that for dinner "It must be the most marvelous supper. We may not eat it, but it must be marvelous," he's obviously not talking about anything else.

However, once one adjusts to the shock and titillation of the sheer amount of overt sexuality in the movie, what makes the Lubitsch Touch so special is that there is so much sophistication in this animalistic desire. Lubitsch's films all have a European elegance to them that marks their quality. Perhaps it's just a less puritanical approach to the affairs of the heart/bed that make it so appealing (something few American filmmakers can conquer), keeping the film fresh even after seven decades. And yet it also lacks the sort of tacky sex of recent American comedies — with 1998's There's Something About Mary the obvious, seminal effort.

As a proto-screwball piece, Trouble in Paradise doesn't have the over-the-top frenetic energy of the director's later films, something one could argue is due to growing American influences. But all the basic elements of the genre are here, as people like Edward Everett Horton (from whom the film gets great mileage out of his consternation at being unable to place Gaston) and Charlie Ruggles set the stage for the great supporting performances we come to love from a screwball. And the wordplay (by favored Lubitsch scenarist Samson Raphaelson) is exquisite, with right amount of sophistication and sass mixed in with the double entendres. Lubitsch is of the school of "invisible director," the kind who feel they do their job best if the audience doesn't notice them at all. Here there are only a few moments where one is made aware of the director's hand, and they are at the service of the story. The film nonetheless has a great rhythm, as the compact running time (82 minutes) flows quickly.

But why is Trouble in Paradise so special? It's often claimed as one of the great pictures, which can't be just because of the sex, or the wordplay, or the film's scarcity over the years. What makes the film more so is that it communicates a sense of chance that, had things gone a little different, the results might have changed. That may not sound like much, but too often in romantic comedies there are the obvious winners and losers — one only has to look at the aforementioned remake You've Got Mail for evidence of this. From frame one of that film it's obvious that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan will pair up, and that previous beaus Greg Kinnear and Parker Posey are poor matches for their respective partners. That's a more modern example, of course. But mismatched pairing can be found in pieces of the era (say, Cary Grant quarreling with Ralph Bellamy over Rosalind Russell in 1940's His Girl Friday). However, in Lubitsch's romantic triangle, one could see Gaston heading off with either woman. And when the decision is made, all parties know what could have been, would have been wonderful; who gets chosen and why has as much to do with timing as it does desire. It's a nice twist in a familiar genre.

*          *          *

Criterion's DVD release of Trouble in Paradise presents the film in fine — but not without moments of weakness — full-frame transfer (1.33:1) that showcases the films deep blacks. The source-print has its share of nicks and scratches, but it's watchable throughout. The film is presented in its original monaural audio (DD 1.0), which fares a bit better.

Accompanying the film is an audio commentary by Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman, who does offer some play-by-play but mostly comments on who Lubitsch was, why he is so important, the influence he exerts, and what makes this film so special. For an 82-minute movie, that's a lot to talk about, but Eyman does a solid job. This is complemented by the film's Video Introduction with Peter Bogdanovich (10:44). Bogdanovich has spent the last 20 years as the ranking Hollywood insider of yore (for better or worse) and acquits himself well here, as he seems best in short bursts (especially in comparison to his audio commentaries for both Citizen Kane and Lady from Shanghai).

Perhaps the most impressive addition is the 1917 short film "Das Fidele Gefangnis" (in English "The Merry Jail"), which is accompanied by a newly made and recorded score by Aljosepha Zimmerman. The film (running at 48 min.) is very much of the period, and the camera gets locked down too often. But it also reveals how long the comedy of sexual mores was the favorite subject of Lubitsch, and it's also quite funny. Also included is a 1940 Screen Guild Theater radio program featuring Ernst Lubitsch, along with Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert, and Basil Rathbone This was done in conjunction with the release of Ninotchka, but it offers a rare chance to actually hear from Lubitsch, though it's essentially a 30-min. program to highlight the comedy of Benny. And finally, there is a still gallery featuring quotes from older directors (Frank Capra, Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Jean Renoir, and Charles Chaplin) and recent admirers (Noah Baumbach, Wes Anderson, Leonard Maltin, and Roger Ebert, among others) that is mostly a section of pull-quotes and artwork; most of the more-recent contributors have little to say (the critics fare better than the directors), but it helps to suggest the legacy and influence of Lubitsch. And, as with all Criterion releases, handy liner notes accompany the disc, written here by Armond White and Enno Patalas.

— Damon Houx

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