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Ernst Lubitsch

Friday Film Review: Trouble in Paradise

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.”


Friday Film Review: Ninotchka

Friday Film Review: Ninotchka

Ninotchka (1939)
Genre: Comedy, Romance

I’ve now seen 4 Ernst Lubitsch films. I know there are plenty more I need to try but for now, I’m batting average with him. I did not care, at all, for “The Shop Around the Corner” while Ninotchka earns a somewhat lukewarm B-grade.

It’s 1939 and the Soviet Union’s glorious new people’s republic needs cold, hard cash. To that end, delegates are traveling the globe, hawking treasures confiscated during the Revolution. Three delegates are in Paris to sell the jewels of the Grand Duchess (or former Grand Duchess, as the Soviets call her) Swana. They quickly fall prey to the delights of the City of Lights. So much so that another delegate is sent to check up on them and the job they’re doing.

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Comrade Nina Yakushova ‘Ninotchka’ Ivanoff (Greta Garbo) is all business and no fun. She views Paris as just another city which she will study to learn it’s technical secrets and has no interest in flirting with charming Count Léon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas) who tries his best to win her over to the decadent West.

Just when he thinks he’s won, Ninotchka, along with Iranoff, Buljanoff and Kopalski suddenly depart for Moscow. Léon doesn’t know what happened but he’s going to get Ninotchka out of Russia, or himself in, if he has to deck every Russian visa official in the world to do it.

I like that Garbo underplays her role. It fits with a woman from the gray Soviet Union being introduced to the delights of Paris and the West. It’s funny that even though the picture is in B&W, it wasn’t until the scenes in Moscow that I truly “saw” the movie colors as dull. It says something that I laughed more during the famous “Garbo laughs” scene because of the joke Douglas tells and how much the working class men eating in the restaurant enjoyed it than because of Garbo laughing. What I did like is the scene when she first tastes champagne. Again she downplays it but the look that crosses her face as the takes the second sip, then downs the glass, is priceless.

Melvyn Douglas does a likable job he just comes across to me as a supporting man, as in his great role in “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House,” and not a lead. He does have some charming dialogue and I’ll give him points for being able to carry his scenes when Ninotchka was still in her dour mode. His final resolution of not being able to get a visa to travel to the USSR after Ninotchka is inventive but what would he have done had she decided she still wanted to stay in her homeland?

The three third-level apparatchiks made the movie for me. They’re so much fun to watch falling in love with the West and becoming favorites of the cigarette girls at the lavish hotel in which they’re staying. The Grand Duchess Swana could have been either fluff or a bitch but instead she’s given a much better role. Her true dignity is seen after she gets “her” jewels back and comes to negotiate with Ninotchka. She’s a woman of the world who has faced her life post-Russia, made the best of it and has enough strength and street smarts to get what she wants from this hard line Communist. I loved Swana’s line about how the Soviets had taken everything from her. But she’s still standing.

I’m still puzzling out why the last part of the film went flat for me, like a bottle of champagne that’s been left uncorked for a day. I just didn’t buy Ninotchka in her silly new Parisian hat. When she first sees it, she says it’s silly and I agree with her. It’s horrid. And I could never “buy” her falling for it and suddenly cracking and being Miss Bubbly. But once she was back in the USSR, I liked her better. Lubitsch never tried to make one side look “bad” or make fools of his characters, as one person says about the film, there’s a warmth to his feelings about these people and he shows it.

This is the kind of movie that I liked but didn’t really like. One day, if I’m aimlessly channel surfing and happen to come across it, I might watch a bit of it but it’s not a movie I would seek out again nor want to own. The Billy Wilder dialogue is good but not up to the level of some of his later films. Perhaps the film just couldn’t live up to all the hype and rave reviews I’ve read but it didn’t wow me.