Trouble in Paradise (1932). 83 minutes. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Starring Herbert Marshall (as Gaston Monescu/Gaston Lavalle), Miriam Hopkins (as Lily Vautier), Kay Francis (as Madame Mariette Colet), Edward Everett Horton (as François Filiba), Charles Ruggles (as the Major), and C. Aubrey Smith (as Adolph J. Giron).
Roger Ebert begins his wonderful review of Trouble in Paradise by observing that this movie is a comedy about adults, not the typically juvenile characters that masquerade as adults in modern-day Hollywood films. I would go so far as to say that Trouble in Paradise’s characters are the ultimate adults of the Golden Age of Hollywood: witty, wry, sophisticated, infinitely engaging, amusing, and immaculately dressed and groomed. In particular, the movie not only creates a mature atmosphere laced with champagne, erudite talk, and subtle scheming but also offers us grown-up sexuality, which its characters allude to frequently in word and action, and practice with refinement and enthusiasm. Even more than other daring Lubitsch comedies such as Ninotchka (1939) and To Be or Not to Be (1942), Trouble in Paradise offers a take on amorous mores that is decidedly risqué.
Elite American thieves Lily and Gaston, masquerading as nobility, meet in Venice and fall in love. Upon joining forces and relocating to Paris, they decide to defraud the wealthy Mariette, owner of a successful perfume company. Gaston contrives to work for Mariette as a secretary and adviser, and soon he and she are on intimate terms. He finds himself in hot water when François Filiba, one of Mariette’s suitors and a victim of his thievery in Venice, begins to piece together who Gaston is, and Lily begins to resent Gaston for spending time with Mariette. The two thieves plan a getaway, but not before they are exposed and Gaston has a falling out with Lily. Gaston and Lily reunite, however, and when they leave town they reveal that not only their love for each other but also their thieving instincts remain strong.
When I watch one of Lubitsch’s comedies, I often have the feeling that I am watching something perfect. As his characters go about their rich and variegated, cosmopolitan lives, they are accompanied by the pervasive, sparkling lightness known as the “Lubitsch touch,” that signature and intangible quality of effervescence named for the film’s director. His movies have a playful, easy-going atmosphere that is difficult to describe, and it coexists with tremendous sophistication, so that while Lubitsch movies are described as frothy (much like the airy foam floating atop a glass of champagne), they are nevertheless substantial. Moreover, that lightness, perhaps ironically, actually contributes to Trouble in Paradise’s heft: the witty dialogue both charms us and deepens Gaston and Mariette’s characterization; the rich look of the costumes and sets, as well as characters’ expensive tastes, conveys impossible wealth and suggests complex, intangible backgrounds; and the perfect appearance of the characters, with nary a hair or eyelash out of place, evokes immaculate grooming rituals that make up a part of their private lives and are largely unseen by us.
The movie offers us many such juxtapositions—light and weighty, low and high, criminal and victim—that collapse as its themes are mixed into a polished celebration of urbanity and pleasure. The first minutes of the film are a good illustration of this activity. Along a Venetian canal, we see a gondolier emptying vegetable waste into his gondola. He is a refuse man, but as he gathers trash in the night and sets off into the canal, he begins to belt out “O Sole Mio” in proper operatic fashion. The garbage collector does his work in style, and of course, only moments later we meet another character who blends the low with the high: the protagonist Gaston Monescu. We first see Gaston properly as he stands on his Venetian balcony ordering dinner. His instructions to the waiter are precise, the details planned are minute, and he looks and sounds like a million dollars in his finely tailored suit, with his almost indescribable voice. Gaston orders his waiter to bring him a glass of champagne in which he can see the moonlight’s reflection, and actor Herbert Marshall’s voice sounds as perfect as the cocktail he asks the waiter to produce. And yet when the waiter bends down at the end of that exchange, he finds a leaf stuck to Gaston’s suit. That is when we realize that Gaston, who is the definition of elegance, is also the thief who has just robbed François Filiba in a nearby hotel suite.
That crime is not victimless; we see Filiba in the shadows of his suite, knocked over on the floor, slowly coming to. There seems to have been an altercation, a physical confrontation, possibly as Gaston escaped. It is harder to say that Gaston and Lily’s ensuing crime against Madame Mariette Colet makes a victim of her. Here we see another dichotomy, of criminal and victim, that converges and collapses. Mariette seems to be a willing participant in Gaston’s scheme, playing along with his pretending, his sexual availability—although she makes at least as many overtures as he does. What is more, although he is an impostor with designs to defraud her of her wealth, he also seems to be enjoying himself a fair amount. It is not clear what either of them expects from the relationship. She goes back and forth about whether to stay home or go to a party one night (staying at home pretty clearly implies sleeping with Gaston), and he stays out late with her on another evening when the two become more than friendly.
But this is part of what makes the movie so adult, as Ebert asserts: whereas in a modern Hollywood comedy, we might expect extra-marital sexuality to lead to obligatory flare-ups, confrontations, and hurt feelings from which there is the threat of no recovery, Gaston and Mariette seem to know what they are getting involved in and are satisfied with the results, even if those results mean that they are not together in the end. Their mature attitude towards sex, and the movie’s frequent implications that sex is being alluded to, being contemplated, or possibly taking place, is part of what makes it a terrific example of pre-Code Hollywood filmmaking. Pre-Code films were made during the period before the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code by the Breen Office, which cracked down on expressions of sexuality, acts of violence, and allusions to social practices that were determined to be unacceptable for public consumption. It is amusing to think that a movie as refined as Trouble in Paradise would later struggle to be made under a code that strove to make movies more palatable. When Paramount sought to revive Trouble in Paradise in musical form in 1943, the Breen Office refused to grant the studio permission, and in fact declined requests to re-release the movie throughout the period of Code enforcement.
Trouble in Paradise’s sexual innuendo is, of course, largely verbal. For example, we hear the following exchange when Gaston becomes acquainted with Mariette:
Gaston: If I were your father, which fortunately I am not, and you made any attempt to handle your own business affairs, I would give you a good spanking—in a business way, of course.
Mariette: What would you do if you were my secretary?
Gaston: The same thing.
Mariette: You’re hired.
Perhaps one of the reasons that Trouble in Paradise was distressing to the Breen Office in subsequent years is that its sexual content, exemplified by an exchange such as this one, is so playful. Indeed, even Gaston’s final parting with Mariette is charming. And in the movie’s finale when he reunites with Lily in the cab on their way to the station, neither one of them can stay angry at the other. Instead, Gaston and Lily recreate a game that we have already seen them enact at the beginning of the film in Gaston’s Venetian hotel room. While seated at dinner, Lily and Gaston, who are slowly revealing that each one knows the other is a master thief, gradually also reveal that they have been stealing from each other during their encounter. He has taken her pin, she his wallet, and finally he discloses that he has (ludicrously) obtained her garter (it is not clear how). The two are eating dinner, cutting into pieces of meat with cocktails nearby, and yet they are engaging in a kind of foreplay, each one undressing the other.
And, of course, as they dine and steal and reveal their theft, they also undress in another way: he has been posing as a baron, and she as a countess, but both come to reveal that they know the other is lying about their status. The fact that they are unpeeling each other’s layers, both conceptual and physical, without asking for permission makes their encounter seem both more daring and less formal, more intimate. The garter detail would have been an obvious point of contention with the later-established Breen Office, but the disarming nature of their exchange would also have been a problem.
I will close by observing how unrepentant Trouble in Paradise is, and how wonderful its conviction in its alternative mores remains even today. In order to better elucidate this point, it might be helpful to note that the other expression that ends with “in paradise” that I am aware of is the idea of a thief in paradise, a concept that stretches back to the biblical episode where Christ, hanging on the cross, acknowledges the repentant thief beside him and proclaims that on the same day the thief will be alongside him in the afterlife. But Lily and Gaston are not repentant thieves, nor are they punished for their criminal activities. Moreover, they are unrepentant for their romantic activities. Trouble in Paradise is thus a great example of a pre-Code film that does not aim to reinforce mainstream morality for its audience. True, the movie seems through its immaculate perfection to acknowledge that its audacious ethics are a fantasy, but it also affirms that they are a desirable fantasy. It succeeds when we feel liberated by its suave characters, when we reach the end and feel that we can be as adult as they are. That it assumes we can is all the more reason to admire its charms.