erasing clouds

Is It Really a Great Movie? Part Twenty: Trouble in Paradise

by dan heaton

Using Roger Ebert's Great Movies book as a guide, this series of articles will focus on all films included on his list that previously have escaped my notice. Since all lists are subjective, I am not treating Ebert's choices as the essential selection of films. However, his essays offer the perfect chance for me to explore both classics and lesser-known pictures from around the globe.

Ernst Lubitsch was once a famous Hollywood director, but he almost never receives mention today when experts discuss great early filmmakers. During a distinctive career that spanned more than 30 years, he shot more than 70 films, including Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner (remade as 1998’s You’ve Got Mail), and To Be or Not to Be. Hailing from Germany, Lubitsch moved to Hollywood in 1922 and crafted films of great wit and sophistication. Trouble in Paradise is a clever comedy with a modern tone, but I’d heard nothing about it prior to this series. The film was preserved by the National Film Registry in 1991 and is ranked #37 in comedies by users of the Internet Movie Database, but it remains an unknown commodity to many film lovers. Created prior to institution of the Hays Production Code, this gem’s less-restrictive look at sex and crime kept it off movie and TV screens for many years.

Herbert Marshall stars as Gaston Monescu – a master thief who glides through high society and flawlessly steals their valuables. His partner in crime (and love) is Lily (Miriam Hopkins), a cute thief who shares his passion for the trade. They appear destined for great riches when Gaston masquerades as Count La Valle and becomes the secretary of the very rich, very bored Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis). Charming her and learning secrets on the inside, Gaston enacts a plan that will secure them tremendous wealth. However, several complications ensue that could jeopardize everything. First of all, Mariette falls in love with him, and it’s possible that he may share these feelings. Secondly, some of her acquaintances begin to question La Valle’s past, which could reveal his true agenda.

The basic plot appears to promise a standard romantic comedy, but the “Lubitsch Touch” converts this formula into a classic film. The seamless editing includes several remarkable sequences that present a series of brief events in swift, refreshing fashion. During Mariette’s shopping trip around town, Lubitsch cuts the entire sequence into a series of “yes” and “no” statements, which injects great energy into some possibly dull scenes. Another impressive device is the use of the two doors entering Gaston and Mariette’s bedrooms. Using this simple set-up, he reveals key details about their changing relationship in a very brief timeframe. Clocking in at a brisk 83 minutes, this engaging story remains exciting and completely avoids the lag time that dooms similar pictures.

The energetic tone also comes from the rapid-fire dialogue that resembles conversations from the best screwball comedies. However, this story retains a classy style that misses a few cheap laughs but offers a more poignant story. Gaston and Lily are risk-taking thieves, but their adult demeanor makes their plight easily understandable. While she worries about his growing relationship with Mariette, we relate to this pain and his feelings because they’re not over-the-top characters. They do speak quickly and with considerable wit, but this approach never overwhelms the primary story. We want them to get away with everything and don’t believe punishment is needed for robbing snooty rich people. Also, Mariette is not an evil figure, and her sad loneliness complicates both Gaston and our reactions to her character.

Trouble in Paradise succeeds because it never forces the comedy or the drama, and flows smoothly through each scene. Roger Ebert hails the fluid camera and the character’s sophisticated polish, and I cannot argue with either assessment. Lubitsch never shows us one direct act of stealing, but we believe that Lily and Gaston are master thieves. Instead of wasting time on master plans and clever ruses, he focuses on their manners and grace. Herbert Marshall actually walks with a wooden leg due to a war injury, but his refinement and some inventive editing never reveal this fact. It’s unfortunate that this charming film has reached such a limited audience. The Production Code prevented it from showing in theaters for 35 years, and the DVD release finally occurred in 2003. This film stands as a lost Great Movie that deserves new life from modern audiences.

this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright (c) 2007 erasing clouds