Tasha: When German director Ernst Lubitsch started working for Warner Bros. in the 1920s, his films were promoted as having “the Lubitsch touch,” an evocative but never-defined phrase that critics and filmmakers have been trying to codify ever since. Whatever it is, it’s displayed in fine style in Trouble In Paradise, a stage play adapted to the screen via a number of cinema-specific tools: montage, voiceover, suggestive fade-outs, forced perspective. And then there are the less cinema-specific but still elegant storytelling tools: the little musical stings that indicate a joke, the things cleverly insinuated but never said, the repetitions and reversals. This is a mightily clever, thought-through movie that jazzes up an unlikely premise with a lot of comic business and playful execution, which wind up being as crucial to the story as the actual dialogue.
Two touches particularly stood out for me. One is the Hitchcockian setup of François Filiba (the reliably hilarious Edward Everett Horton) being robbed by con artist and thief Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) early on, so that once they meet again, the film has a tense backdrop, as the audience waits for the other shoe to drop on François’ memory. Gaston’s tack of evading him by confronting him—by aggressively claiming they’ve met before, so he won’t arouse François’ suspicion by avoiding him, and by derailing the leading question “Have you ever been to Venice?” with a list of other vacation spots François should visit—not only prolongs the tension, it says so much about his character, particularly his talent at reading and manipulating people, and his boldness and calm in tense circumstances. The other standout part of the film for me was Lubitsch’s particularly clever evocation of time. There’s the turning pages of the score at the opera, a neat twist on the usual flipping calendar pages showing days passing. There’s the voiceover sequence where the audience watches the clock indicate the long hours of a date, rather than following the participants on that date. And there’s the “Yes, ma’am” montage that gives way to the “Yes, sir” montage, indicating how Madame Colet (Kay Francis) has let Gaston step into her life and take over her army of servants and sycophants. Part of the Lubitsch touch was keeping things brisk and energetic, and all these storytelling tools let him cut the fat out of his films and whisk neatly across to the entertaining stuff. Do you guys have particular favorite Lubitsch touches from this film?
Noel: I have two standouts as well, both of which speak to how Lubitsch could suggest sex without being explicit. In one, a romantic smooch on a couch dissolves to an empty couch, implying that the lovers have moved their business somewhere more private. In the other, Lubitsch cuts away from a intense conversation to show the shadows of the talkers stretching across a nearby bed, implying what they’re really talking about.
Nathan: One of my favorite Lubitsch touches in the film is how often he favors conversations where we we can’t hear what either party is saying, and are left to imagine their words through context, body language, and gestures. Lubitsch is all about subtlety and inference—letting viewers’ minds travel to filthy, filthy places while the film winks slyly and stays relatively clean—and this is perhaps the ultimate manifestation of that tendency. Lubitsch trusts audiences, knowing full well that they’ll fill in the blanks unallowable by the social strictures that led to the Hays Code.
Scott: I think Lubitsch handles introductions brilliantly in this movie. He always finds a way through the narrative backdoor. Where any other director would have introduced Venice through a daytime wide shot of canals, gondolas, and other obvious signifiers, Lubitsch offers a garbageman, in the dark, dumping trash on a gondola. In that first scene between Gaston and Lily (Miriam Hopkins), we don’t find out that they’re crooks until Lubitsch is ready to reveal that information at the perfect time. And before we meet our mark, Mme. Colet, we first get a tour of the perfume business on which she’s made her fortune. It’s all so elegant, witty, and unexpected.
Keith: Part of what defines the Lubitsch touch to me is the eroticism. Not just smuggling dirty jokes into the material—though there’s plenty of that—but the heat he generates between characters, and the way that heat keeps shifting. Lily and Gaston fall for each other in a way that’s frankly sexual, and much of the movie’s tension comes from Gaston having the same sort of feelings for Mme. Colet. These are men and women who want to bed each other, and aren’t shy about letting each other know that. And while that creates complications, another part of the Lubitsch touch is his refusal to pass judgment. This film and others remain at an amused but concerned distance, watching the frustrations of basically good people whose desires drive each other crazy.
Sex And Sensuality
Nathan: Trouble In Paradise is awash in sex. Even the title is a winking double entendre. It has an unusually grown-up attitude toward sex, especially where women are concerned. Watching screwball comedies is a great way to get depressed about how far movies have regressed when it comes to depictions of women and sex. The female leads in Trouble In Paradise have healthy sexual appetites, which the film treats with admiration rather than judgement: Mme. Colet pursues Gaston, even though he works for her. He isn’t the aggressor, he’s the object of desire for two women who aren’t about to give him up without a fight. Sex is seemingly everywhere in Trouble In Paradise, but its most eloquent and sexiest expressions are also its subtlest. It’s hard to imagine a film, for example, that gets such an intense sexual charge out of mere kissing. Then again, there’s no such thing as “mere” with kissing like this, a clinch that raises smooching to the level of an art form. What are some of your sexy moments in this profoundly sexy film?
Scott: I think the film’s biggest turn-on comes from the way these two thieves admire the deftness of each other’s hands. Sam Fuller once talked about how pickpockets are more artists than crooks, and part of the film’s illicit thrill is the pleasure they get from doing something wrong so artfully. And that ties into other screwball couples, like Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday: They exist on a higher plane than the average chump, and they get a rise out of putting one over on other people—and each other.
Tasha: Noel already covered my favorite sexy moment, when Mme. Colet is laying out her planned future with Gaston, and their elongated shadows fall across the bed, evoking their bodies stretched out side by side. It’s a striking visual, more suggestive and erotic than many of the modern films I’ve seen that feature full-on sex. But what really makes the moment is the way Mme. Colet purrs that they’ll have days together… months… years, with the shadows-on-the-bed shot matching the word “years.” She isn’t just offering him a roll in the hay, she’s implying an endless series of unhurried assignations where they can explore each other at great length, without interruption. Now that’s sexy. But while we’re there anyway, I’ll also give a shout-out to the earlier moment before she’s really set her sights on him, where she finds him in a bedroom, staring meaningfully at the bed, and she’s just a little shocked, and just a little turned on. Then he starts knowledgeably talking about the provenance of that particular antique, making it clear where his real interests lie. Then she reveals that it isn’t even her bed, it belongs to a fired maid, and he’s taken aback, because he really was gently seducing her, but he’s clearly pointed in the wrong direction. That’s screwball for you: a nested series of setups and reversals that come so blindingly fast, it takes time to process all the jokes.
Noel: According to all reports, the people responsible for enforcing the Motion Picture Production Code loved Lubitsch, even though they frequently asked him to tone down his double entendres. They recognized the level of sophistication at which he was operating, and appreciated the tasteful way he approached his more adult material. In a way, he made them look good, proving that Hollywood could police itself and still produce mature movies.
Keith: I think this—and some of the things Preston Sturges got away with later on—stand as proof that sometimes restrictions just make what does slip through all the sexier. I don’t want to come off like Rex Reed talking about The Fountainhead during the opening of Lost In America, but this movie is sexy in part because we know it has to suggest, that even pre-Code, there are restrictions that must be adhered to. Some of the titillation comes because it’s hard to believe the movie is getting away with what it’s getting away with. And it’s getting away with a lot without making that big a deal about it. It’s matter-of-fact in its naughtiness.
Noel: Keith mentioned Preston Sturges as another filmmaker who had a knack for sophisticated comedy, but Sturges was very American, while Lubitsch was one of the first of a wave of writers and directors who had experience making movies in Europe before emigrating to the United States (either because they were staying one step ahead of the Nazis, or because Hollywood invited them). F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Michael Curtiz, Curtis Bernhardt, Fred Zinnemann, Billy Wilder, the Siodmak brothers, and Alfred Hitchcock (among others) all developed a fascination with American slang and with certain qualities of irrational exuberance in our national character; but they also retained a European perspective in their attention to class differences, and in their lack of prudery when it came to human sexuality. Can you even imagine a Trouble In Paradise set in the U.S., from an American-born director?
Scott: That’s an excellent point, Noel. One of the fascinating (and productive) aspects of European émigrés in American cinema is how the two worlds were reconciled—and Hollywood movies made more expansive in style and theme—but Trouble In Paradise does indeed seem resolutely European in sensibility, sophistication, and sensuality. I think its spirit does feed into later Hollywood films like Sturges’ The Lady Eve, another screwball comedy about criminal seduction, with a house-afire performance by Barbara Stanwyck. But this was nearly 10 years earlier.
Keith: I’ve never had anyone satisfactorily define to me what screwball comedy is, but I’ve also never felt like I didn’t understand it. Like film noir, it seems more like a collection of elements than a genre with clear boundaries, especially since it contains movies with plots as diverse as, say, this film (thieves-a-go-go in Europe) and The Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek (small-town girl unexpectedly gets pregnant after a drunken night with soldiers ends in “marriage.”) Check enough boxes, and you’re in screwball territory, and there’s no mistaking it for anywhere else. So I’ll check off some boxes that make it a screwball, then let everyone else talk about how it fits into the tradition: sexual tension between strong-willed would-be partners; clever banter; luxurious situations that contrasted with the difficult situations in which many 1930s audiences found themselves; farcical situations; and an ending that puts a cap on all the preceding chaos. What did I miss? And in what ways is Trouble In Paradise an unusual screwball?
Tasha: One more way it’s typical screwball is that it turns on a big secret, in this case the fact that Gaston is a thief who’s duping Mme. Colet while trying to throw her suitors (especially François) off the track. Wacky misunderstandings, mistaken identities, or deliberate deceptions about identity are a common thread in screwballs from Bringing Up Baby and My Man Godfrey to neo-screwballs like The Hudsucker Proxy. Another element that often helps define screwballs for me: The lack of a particularly distinct villain, or even a really strong opposing force. Mme. Colet isn’t a selfish monster keeping Gaston away from the woman he loves—she’s looking for an equal, and she falls for him, and his loyalties wind up rightly divided. I suspect it’d take very little script-tweaking to switch the audience’s sympathies. Viewers are mostly primed to think Gaston belongs with Lily because he met her first, and because they’re more matched in terms of class and profession, but with some very small changes in dialogue and portrayal, she could easily become the possessive shrew he needs to escape. What makes this feel atypical for screwball to me, though, is how much more time we spend with Gaston than his primary love interest—ultimately, it’s his story, and his romance, not Lily’s.
Noel: This isn’t strictly part of the definition of screwball (and I can come up with a slew of exceptions), but I tend to think of the lead characters as being fairly savvy, which is one thing that differentiates the genre from slapstick, even though they share some common elements. Gable and Colbert aren’t Laurel and Hardy, in other words. You guys have already mentioned the strong-willed characters in Trouble In Paradise, and the idea that each corner of this love triangle is equally sharp. That’s on-point with screwball. No one’s really a villain because everyone can see advantages and disadvantages to every possible outcome. They’re smart folks; that’s why they’re so enjoyable to spend time with.
Scott: We haven’t talked much about the mark in this little love triangle, but the Mme. Colet character adds quite a bit of value to the movie, simply by not being the glamorous dope you’d expect. The third wheel in romantic comedies usually behaves more like Mme. Colet’s two hapless suitors, who lack the cleverness to be worthy of her (or anybody, for that matter). But she’s an equal party to Lily and Gaston, both a stronger-than-expected foil and a genuine rival for Gaston’s affections. She makes an already-great film better.
Keith: Exactly. Mme. Colet kind of overwhelms the movie after a bit, just as she overwhelms Gaston’s heart. (Or, if you will, other parts of the body.) That’s a brilliant choice on the movie’s part, and Kay Francis plays it beautifully. She doesn’t seem too smart to get duped, but she’s also, as she points out, not an idiot. The film establishes Gaston and Lily as a perfect match—two people with shared interests and strong sexual chemistry—which means challenging their pairing should take some effort. Mme. Colet is the trouble in paradise. One final note: Any chance we’d get a romantic comedy starring a one-legged leading man—Marshall lost one in World War One—and an actress with a pronounced speech impediment today?
Tasha: One of the most interesting things about Mme. Colet is that the story goes out of its way to humanize her, by introducing her calmly standing up to her board of directors, who want to lower salaries at her cosmetics business. She doesn’t tell them off so much as laugh them off. You have a point about the unlikelihood of seeing this cast in a rom-com today, Keith, but it’s just as unlikely that we’d see a modern film starring an ultra-wealthy business owner who lives in an immense mansion and casually drops a fortune on a gaudy purse, but is also a sympathetic figure who stands up for her employees, and makes sure they’re well-paid. That makes her practically a goddess by the standards of the Depression, when the film was made. But I’m very curious how her character played with 1932 audiences, given what a vamp she is, or at least thinks she is. The scene where she smugly tells Gaston that she knows he’s nuts about her, but he can’t have her just yet, while he’s secretly thinking about Lily instead—that doesn’t play positively in any era, but I can’t imagine how it would have gone over with viewers less used to women taking the initiative in relationships.
Noel: She’s generous, but that may be because she’s so rich, she leaves jewelry scattered absently atop her bed. I try to imagine what it must’ve been like during the Depression to watch a movie where one of the characters is that loaded. It’s to Kay Francis’ credit that her Mme. Colet remains a viable rival to Lily.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion began yesterday with the Keynote essay on Trouble In Paradise’s unapologetically sinful sophistication, and concludes tomorrow with an examination of Ernst Lubitsch’s charming, shocking Pre-Code transgressions from Kim Morgan.