The single greatest romantic comedy ever made starred a man with a wooden leg and a woman who spoke like Elmer Fudd. Their disabilities were overcome by the effortless, immaculately stylish direction of one of the most famous and powerful directors in Hollywood – Ernst Lubitsch.
Never heard of him? Not surprised. For some reason he’s fallen out of style, while self-proclaimed imitators like Frank Capra and Billy Wilder (great directors, both) are remembered instead. According to legend, Wilder had a sign above the door of his office that read, “How would Lubitsch write it?” In Hollywood around 1930, everyone was talking about the “Lubitsch touch.”
What is the Lubitsch touch? The definitions are as numerous as the critics who write about it. But the general consensus is that it’s about effortless elegance, a sort of champagne effervescence that is found in every scene of a Lubitsch movie. Consider the obstacles Lubitsch overcame in making “Trouble in Paradise.” Herbert Marshall’s mannerisms and vocal talent are the epitome of masculine elegance, but he lost his leg in World War I and wore a wooden prosthetic, and thereafter walked with a (barely perceptible) limp. But you’ll never see the limp in “Trouble,” no matter how closely you’ll watch. Instead, you’ll see Lubitsch’s ingenious editing – whenever Marshall moves across a room, you never see him walk. The camera never pans as he moves. You see a step, and then a cut to where he’s going(the bed, the desk, wherever,) and then he enters the frame. The impeccable style of Lubitsch’s scenery replaces the troublesome gait of an otherwise impeccably styled actor. That’s the Lubitsch touch.
And Miss Kay Francis? She was known around Hollywood as the “wavishing Kay Fwancis,” due to a certain speech impediment. Hardly the dialect of a breathtakingly beautiful, achingly elegant French perfume millionaire. So Lubitsch wrote her scenes around her, leaving out difficult R words. There’s only one scene in which I’m able to detect her impediment. Otherwise, It’s simply written out of the movie. That’s the Lubitsch touch.
“Trouble in Paradise” is a movie about a love triangle – two criminals and the woman they are trying to rob. Herbert Marshall is the greatest thief in the world, but not above having his pockets picked by Miriam Hopkins. Kay Francis is a millionaire widow, but not above taking financial (and cosmetic) advice from a handsome stranger. It’s a truly legitimate love triangle, except that love never enters the equation. There are reasons Marshall could choose both women, and it’s not clear until the very end which he will choose. There may be even some debate between viewers about whether he made the right choice or not. How rare is that?
A spirit of cheerful cynicism pervades all of the characters; for these three, life is a game, and the only crime is taking it too seriously. The plot thickens along those lines; it’s just when one or two (or possibly all three) characters are on the verge of taking things too seriously that the tension builds. But Lubitsch perserves the tone; we escape the movie with that cynical, effervescent sensibility intact, and are happier for it. This is not a coming of age movie; nobody matures or changes their ways. This is comedy.
Ms. Francis’ two other suitors, played by Charlie Ruggles and Edward Everettt Horton, provide a counterpoint to the love triangle. Self-important, overly earnest men, devoid of style and not the slightest bit sexually interesting, they try to play the game, and fail, spectacularly. They are tiresome and dull, and in this champagne world, being dull is a much more serious crime than being a jewel thief.
“Trouble in Paradise” is a movie full of little, wonderful things far more than it is a movie about anything. The scenes play like exhibits in a museum show – yes, they are held together by a common theme, but that theme was really just an excuse to get all these beautiful tchotckes into one room. Watch the costumes. Watch the props and scene pieces, and the way Lubitsch uses them – the clocks and mirrors especially. Watch the way the scenes are edited, the way the cameras pan. Watch the minor characters –the butlers and waiters. Watch “Trouble in Paradise”more than once, and you’ll begin to see why this is a movie worth remembering.
Perhaps “Trouble in Paradise” and its masterful director have fallen from public attention because they are just too sauve, sophisticated and cynical for American taste. We are the land of the Wild Wild West, after all, and we want grit, and heart; blood, sweat and tears – all things terribly foreign to the world of the perfume widow and the jewel thief. We like Cary Grant, but we prefer Humphrey Bogart. Filmed in 1932 – the very pit of the Great Depression – perhaps it played for Americans of that era more as a dream, a realm of escape, a place where style was substance for a people who had lost everything but their sense of things. It quickly disappeared; in 1935, when the notorious Hayes production code gained enough muscle to start banning films, “Trouble in Paradise” was not approved for reissue, and disappeared until the demise of the Code in 1968. Even then, it wasn’t available on DVD until 2003, when Criterion released it, in their usual meticulously restored, richly featured fashion.
Is it great because it’s important?
Yes. As Jean Renoir once said, Lubitsch is responsible for “Modern Hollywood.” Movies for decades after would emulate the Lubitsch touch.
Is it great because it’s fun to watch?
You know, I didn’t think so on the first viewing. It felt too light and silly, a comedy of manners with no real substance. Then I watched it again, and its silliness looked like cynicism, and its lightness a great asset. Also, it’s one of those films that’s more fun the second time through, because once you know what’s going to happen in a scene, you can appreciate everything else about the scene. So yes, it’s fun to watch. But watch it more than once.