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Friday Film Review: Trouble in Paradise

Trouble in Paradise (1932)
Genre: comedy
Grade: wonderful

The first time I watched “Trouble in Paradise” I fell in love with it. It’s smart, sophisticated, cultured and urbane. And it’s about two crooks who meet, fall in love then take advantage of a situation to instill themselves into the household of a wealthy widow in Paris, planning to take her for all they can get.

The action opens in Venice but not the way such openings normally happen. Instead of a shot of the Piazza San Marco or the grand canal we get….well I won’t spoil the surprise but it’s a classic example of the way Lubitsch tried to turn things on their heads and give the audience something different. The next scene, of a handsome man planning a dinner party for two, tells us that romance is in the works along with – again – something different.

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Our first view of Lily (Miriam Hopkins) seems off. Something’s wrong in the way this woman is obviously overplaying her lines. But it’s the director’s way of showing that what we’re seeing isn’t the truth. Then in a shocking turn the handsome man we met earlier calls her a thief. But it’s okay since he, Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) is one too. As the dinner progresses, these two seduce and woo each other by revealing what each has pickpocketed from the other. It’s love at first sight.

The action skips a year then introduces the second woman of the plot via Lubitsch’s take off on the overwrought radio ads of the time. Madame Colet (Kay Francis), of Colet and Company has too much money for her own good and no head for business. But she’s so generous with her wealth that we can’t help but like her. When she thinks she has lost an expensive handbag at the opera, she posts a reward that brings our two con artists – who stole the bag in the first place – into her life.

We then get to watch suave Gaston in action. He’s all charm and Continental sophistication from his command of languages, knowledge of women’s make-up and – guess what? – head for business that Madame Colet soon has him working as her man of business even as she tries to seduce him.

But there’s trouble in paradise as a former mark of Gaston’s, and current co-beaux of Colet’s, puzzles out where they met. Will the truth come out? And whom will Gaston pick as the closing credits roll?

The movie is only 82 minutes long but it’s not a problem as Lubitsch didn’t clog up with works with extraneous subplots. The need to make sharp cuts to hide Marshall’s limp moves the action even faster. And what a delightful example of sexual attraction we get in this pre-code era. It must have been charmingly shocking in its day. Here’s a man who is obviously living with one woman and attracted to another. But as their final scene together shows, Gaston and Madame Colet are regretful but accepting of the reality that Gaston is fated to stay with the one woman who not only loves that he’s a crook but who is one of equal skill herself.

The film is art deco and Bauhaus galore. Its characters are dripping with money in a time when most of the world wasn’t but it gave audiences a chance to fantasize for a while and somehow managed to make them still like this wealthy woman who tossed money around like confetti. That must have been almost as criminal to the viewers of 1932 as Gaston and Lily’s cons and thieving. In fact, there’s not but one character I disliked and that was because of his hypocrisy. There are two other characters, the co-beaux, whom I adore.

This is not a frantic screwball comedy. Instead it is a measured, delicious, shimmering comedy of manners. I think it benefits from repeated viewings and the Criterion DVD I have includes an intro from Peter Bogdanovich (is he doing anything but these intros now?) along with commentary by Lubitsch’s biographer which shines light on the evolution of the film and of the times in which it was made. Give it a try and see one of the best examples of “the Lubitsch touch.”

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

14 Comments

  1. Jake
    May 28, 2010 @ 07:13:29

    This is one of my favorite films of all time. Glad to see you enjoyed it. I first saw it in a theater in San Francisco when it was restored a few years ago. The theater was filled to capacity and we all just felt like we found pure gold.

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  2. Darlene Marshall
    May 28, 2010 @ 07:23:05

    A friend took me to see this a few years back and I loved it. I remember thinking at the time that the purse was still a symbol of conspicuous consumption–think Judith Lieber minaudieres–which helps make the movie even more relevant in these tough times.

    Thanks for the reminder of what a great film this is.

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  3. Claudia Dain
    May 28, 2010 @ 07:43:32

    I can’t believe I’ve never seen this film! Thanks for the review; I’ll be looking for it now.

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  4. Jayne
    May 28, 2010 @ 07:45:24

    @Jake: Oh, I’m so jealous. I bet it looked fabulous on the big screen.

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  5. Jayne
    May 28, 2010 @ 07:47:00

    @Darlene Marshall: I love that purse! I want it. And I can only imagine what women of the day thought about it.

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  6. Jayne
    May 28, 2010 @ 07:51:01

    @Claudia Dain: You’re welcome. I hope you enjoy it. ;)

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  7. Darlene Marshall
    May 28, 2010 @ 09:31:31

    Just as an interesting aside, the star, Herbert Marshall, only had one leg. His other leg was amputated during WWI following a war injury, but he worked so well with his prosthetic that few people realized he was an amputee.

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  8. Evangeline
    May 28, 2010 @ 09:38:02

    This is such a delightful movie–and so sexy too. My biggest draw to TiP is Kay Francis–I love this woman. Beautiful, tall, languid, and liberated (her diaries are still shocking in their frankness and independence to this day), and she made some of the best pre-code women’s pictures at Warner Bros. One thing I love about Lubitsch’s films is the suppleness to the direction. Many films made in the early talkie years can look stage-bound or static, but not Lubitsch’s films; they move, they undulate, they twine, they waft. Plus, the lighting and sets were superb.

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  9. Susan/DC
    May 28, 2010 @ 10:54:33

    Your mention of how the two thieves fall in love over their oneupsmanship makes me think of the scene in “Up in the Air” with George Clooney and Vera Farmiga, although that movie is very different in tone and ending.

    Part of what I love about Lubitsch and his peers was that they created great sexual tension without turning the women (or the men) into sex objects or stereotypes. The women were fully formed characters, never mere compilations of body parts.

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  10. Jayne
    May 28, 2010 @ 17:31:27

    @Evangeline: Yes, yes, yes. I hadn’t heard or seen much of Kay Frances before this movie but she is all you say personified. And wasn’t her private life eye opening.

    I often find myself slightly bored with the static look and feel of the early talkies but that’s definitely not the case here.

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  11. Jayne
    May 28, 2010 @ 17:33:52

    @Susan/DC: “Up in the Air” is in my Netflix queue but the last time I checked it was listed as “long wait.” I’ll look for this scene when I watch it.

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  12. Cristiane
    May 29, 2010 @ 17:10:13

    Since you loved this so much (who wouldn’t – it’s one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time), you might want to check out Jewel Robbery (1932). It’s another naughty pre-Code comedy, starring Kay Francis and the ever-fabulous William Powell. Great fun.

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  13. Jayne
    Jun 02, 2010 @ 16:27:47

    @Cristiane: Thanks for the rec. I’ll see if I can get it in my Netflix queue.

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  14. dri
    Oct 30, 2011 @ 02:03:34

    Ahhhhhh, you had me at Lubitsch.

    *runs off to find it*

    ReplyReply

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