Trouble in Paradise

Wowza!

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

When Trouble in Paradise sought to be re-issued three years after its 1932 release, the Hayes Office said: No way. The film that had been alright for release upon completion, if not without some minor, ignored objections, was far too scandalous for 1935 when the Production Code was in full swing. What was Director Ernst Lubitsch‘s crime with his first talking romantic comedy? Obvious sexual innuendos and a couple of thieves who get off scott free.

The subject that most comes up in discussions of the Production Code is sex. Before the code, women could have multiple partners, couples could have extramarital affairs, and the camera, dialogue or action could clearly indicate that a sexual act had just occurred. Another subject that fell under the Hayes Office’s purview, however, were criminal sorts. Individuals found as outright thieves or murders had to be punished –either by the legal system, suicide or other killing. You see this in many of the popular gangster movies of the 1930s and 1940s where our beloved hoodlum James Cagney or whomever gets it in the end. I suppose the message from the powers that be was understandable enough: Do not encourage crime. But those gangster films and Trouble in Paradise with them still glorify and make sexy the criminal aspect, so the restriction seems a moot one.

It was because of the Code’s distaste for Trouble in Paradise years later, which prevented anyone seeing it again until 1968 (with it unavailable on video or DVD until 2003), that this film has gone largely forgotten despite being among Lubitsch’s greatest work and a standout in film history. Herbert Marshall is Gaston who in his Venice hotel room eagerly accepts a visit from Lily, embodied by Miriam Hopkins, a woman claiming to be a countess. A man in another room has just been robbed of a large sum of money by a man posing as a doctor and seeking to examine his tonsils. During their dinner, Lily and Gaston intermingle romantic sentiments and the woman declares that Gaston is the man who robbed the neighboring Francois Fileba (Edward Everett Horton). As you can see in the video below, this wonderfully romantic and comedic scene –flush with “the Lubitsch touch”– continues as Gaston reveals that Lily has stolen the stolen wallet from him. Also pick-pocketed from the couple by each other are Lily’s pin, Gaston’s watch and Lily’s garter –but she is not getting that back. As an audience, we instantly decide that this pairing is perfect and the two will have an adventuresome future we can all enjoy.

While in Paris some time later, Gaston and Lily plot the thievery of an expensive purse from Mlle. Colet, played by Kay Francis while she is at the opera. To their fortune, the woman puts a notice of a reward for the bag that would exceed the amount the robbers could get if they sold it. Gaston returns the purse but during his visit with Ms. Colet, manages to woo her and she hires him as her secretary, in charge of all her financial affairs. Ms. Colet is the head of a major perfume company –by inheritance– and has a board of directors running things who now takes orders from Gaston. Colet also has “boyfriends” in none other than Mr. Fileba, the tonsil victim, and “The Major” (Charlie Ruggles). With Gaston in her life, however, she loses even more interest in the two feuding beaux. Gaston has brought Lily in to help him with his new duties and the two plan to rob Mlle. Colet’s safe once more cash has been deposited there, via Gaston’s new financial orders. Lily begins to get jealous, however, when it becomes apparent Mlle. Colet wants alone time with the secretary. It is unclear how much of an affair is conducted between Gaston and Colet, although they spend late nights together.

Mr. Fileba has yet to identify Gaston as the man who robbed him, and it is quite amusing to watch this fabulous character actor try to pull from his memory whether or not he has met the man previously. Eventually, The Major says at first he mistook Gaston for a doctor, and click Mr. Fileba has solved the mystery. Realizing this, Gaston and Lily plan to get out of town fast with the little money they can take from the safe at present. Lily is home packing but Gaston is getting tied up in Colet’s embraces as they visit each others’ bedrooms in a highly suggestive but funny number of scenes. What concludes the film are questions of: will they steal the money, will Mlle. Colet find out, and with whom will Gaston choose to stay, but I will not give that away.

I mentioned the highly risqué feel to this film, so here are a few examples. The opening title reads “Trouble in”, an image of a bed appears, and then the word “Paradise” shows up. Thank you, Lubitsch for explaining this movie is about trouble in bed. Besides Gaston and Colet responding to knocks at their bedroom doors by opening the door of the other, the end includes an embrace between those two that is filmed through a mirror above the woman’s bed so we can connect their embrace with that piece of furniture. Several edits using different angles also inserts a perfect shadowed silhouette of the kissing couple on the bed itself. Bullseye.

The sexy suggestions are not why one should watch Trouble in Paradise, however, but instead the snappy Lubitsch dialogue that had me laughing out loud throughout. The film is ripe with quick banter among the characters delivered in the most sophisticated manner that makes slapstick look utterly primitive. Apparently, Lubitsch throughout his career would act out every part in a movie to show the actors how to deliver the lines and move their bodies. He had started as an actor in Germany before entering directing there and finishing out the silent era in America, coming here at the bequest of Mary Pickford. Peter Bogdanovich has said that Lubitsch managed to get performances out of his actors that they did not convey in other films, which was likely the result of this control he exerted on the actual acting.

Sources: Peter Bogdanovich introduction on Criterion Collection DVD, TCM.com

4 Responses

  1. Funny you should post this today, I’m supposed to be getting Trouble in Paradise from Netflix today. I’m so excited to see this one!

  2. This is one of my favorites, and the movie that introduced me to Kay Francis. It really remains the gold standard for witty romantic comedy nearly 80 years later.

  3. Wondering if someone can confirm that James Cagney sings the 2nd song in this film….sure sounds like his voice but unable to find a credit that lists him. Incredible movie, would like to see it without the cuts made by censors in 1932. One sites stated that this movie was not available from 1935 to 1968. The censoring body which had little power in 32 got the authority to ban films outright.

    • It is also my understanding the flick was unavailable for a long period of time. As far as Cagney, I haven’t heard that, nor was it mentioned in the short biography I read on him. Is the song just a voice over or is there a singer in the scene?

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