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Trouble in Paradise

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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

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CMBA Movies of 1939 Blogathon: The Old Maid

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The Old Maid (1939)

     1939 was a major year for films and not a bad one for Bette Davis either. She might not have landed the much coveted role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, also to be released that year, but she was busy with two other projects. Dark Victory would stand up as one of the greatest roles of her career –an Oscar-nominated one– but Davis would also go head to head with Miriam Hopkins –off screen that is– for The Old Maid.
 
     Hopkins’ Delia is preparing to wed Jim (James Stephenson) right at the start of the Civil War, but her ex-fiance Clem (George Brent) shows up and is horribly heartbroken by the goings on. Thankfully Davis’ Charlotte, as the cousin, eases his pain and sends him away to die in the war. Now stuck with an illegitimate child, Charlotte starts a home for war orphans, her daughter Tina hid among them. Delia invites the two to live in her mansion and raises Tina as her child while the girl refers to her actual mother as Aunt Charlotte. Fifteen years later, Tina is ready to marry a man of stature, so Delia officially adopts her to give the girl a proper background, which causes turmoil with Charlotte who must decide whether to reveal the truth of the girl’s origins.
 
     I do not know a whole lot about Hopkins, but I can see how she might have been a pill off-screen. Davis, as we know, was far worse. She could make enemies of the best people. Davis was once quoted as saying:
“Miriam is a perfectly charming woman socially. Working with her is another story. On the first day of shooting, for instance, she arrived on the set wearing a complete replica of one of my Jezebel costumes. It was obvious she wanted me to blow my stack at this.”
Davis said she ignored the incidence but that the mounting tricks of her costar took their toll and she would explode when returning home at night. Davis also said Hopkins liked to interrupt any time the star had a difficult speech, once requiring Davis to make 20 takes of one scene. During one day of shooting, Davis fainted and was sent home where she remained for the following two days, at which point Hopkins decided she was also sick and headed home. The two would be reteamed in Old Acquaintance when they would play competing writers.
 
     At one point there was also some trouble relating to Hopkins’ makeup that got Director Edmund Goulding involved. Goulding had noticed the star was coming onto the set appearing younger each day. Executive Producer Hal Wallis ordered the makeup man to stick to the makeup design originally approved. Davis’ makeup, on the other hand, managed to age her character convincingly and with little effort. The older Charlotte simply lacks eye makeup and lipstick and was given an ashen powder as foundation. The awful hairdo completes the effect. Bette’s figure, however, remained youthful in the form-fitting costumes masterfully designed by Orry-Kelly.
 
     Performance-wise Davis wins the battle. Hopkins brings plenty of energy to her roles, but I think she over does them a bit and fails to give the natural performances Davis did in all her work, which makes one think she must be just like her characters off-screen, no matter how diverse her repertoire. Like Dark Victory, The Old Maid also features Brent, and he also disappoints here with his empty, unexpressive eyes. The annoyance is not for long, however, as the part is fleeting. The film itself certainly does not stand well against Dark Victory as it is a bit melodramatic at times in its story. Davis, however, never gave a bad performance, so there is no real threat of disappointment with The Old Maid.
 
Please check out the other participating posts for the Classic Movie Blog Association-sponsored blogathon surrounding the movies of 1939.
  • The Old Maid is set for 8 p.m. Aug. 3 on TCM.

Source: Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis by Ed Sikov; Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine; TCM.com

Richest Girl in the World

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Richest Girl in the World (1934)

     Joel McCrea seems to have a special place in my heart, and the more I think about it, I realize my only rationale is his presence in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent. He is a lot of fun in that movie with the dry delivery of humor and every-man look that makes him a nice romantic lead. I have not seen a great many of his films, however, so my judgement thus far is that McCrea probably does not have a great acting range, but who cares so long as he keeps within his comfort zone.

     The Richest Girl in the World is one of those films that fits McCrea well. He plays Tony, a modest man making a modest living. I should be clear, however, this film is not about him. Instead, Miriam Hopkins is Dorothy, the literal richest girl in the world. Her parents died when she was four and she inherited all their assets. A board of directors manages her affairs and starts the film by approving her marriage to a man partially selected by the young woman’s guardian, if you will, Connors (Henry Stephenson).

     No one in the media or public has ever seen Dorothy, and the lady often has her secretary Sylvia (Fay Wray) stand in for her in public settings. This continues to be the case at a party that was originally meant to announce the engagement. Unfortunately, the couple broke it off the day before because the man was not in love with Dorothy, who happens to not believe in that mush. Dorothy meets Tony at the party and the two hit it off with Tony thinking the woman is in fact Dorothy’s secretary. Our protagonist quite likes Tony, but when he promises her a canoe ride and instead takes the fake Dorothy on one, the question arises: Does Tony prefer love or money.

     The Sylvia-Dorothy flip-flop is upheld as Dorothy seeks to spend time with Tony while pushing him toward dating the fake Dorothy. Tony, although he is gradually falling in love with the genuine rich lady, has his emotions confused as Dorothy insists that the fake Dorothy really likes him.

     Naturally, we assume that Tony and Dorothy will end up together, but Tony’s behavior is not entirely predictable. The way the plot tumbles, it seems as though Dorothy will have no choice but to reject him, despite how much McCrea has won the audience over as a great suitor for her. There’s a charming scene where, alone in a cabin, Tony stretches out on the couch laying his head in Dorothy’s lap in the dim light of a fireplace as if it were the most common of gestures. Although the two have had a considerable amount to drink, neither gives hint of inebriation. Tony talks casually to the girl while she sits awkwardly with her arms up at her shoulders unsure how to ease into this intimate position. He confesses his love for her, but the mood is quickly dashed by his follow up line. This short sequence does a great job of conveying the sexual tension Dorothy feels and the utmost comfort with his friend/love Tony feels.

     Although The Richest Girl in the World is no gem, it offers a unique plot and some nice romance. It is entertaining but not an award winner (it was nominated for Best Screenplay).

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