not in our stars, but in ourselves
You ducks are lucky indeed this week, because you’re getting TWO pre-Code movies! Two! For the price of one! I mean, really, I’m the lucky one, because I get to watch them, but shh. The reason for the double-whammy is that Trouble in Paradise (1932) is an all-time favorite film, and I refuse to categorize it as anything else. It is a perfect specimen not only of a pre-Code romantic (i.e., sex) comedy. It is also a perfect specimen of the much-lauded Lubitsch touch: director Ernst Lubitsch’s extraordinarily deft handling of sex, comedy, sophistication, and style. If my life were a movie, I’d insist on Lubitsch as director. Accept no substitutes. I mean, look at this title card. LOOK AT IT!
After several seconds of deliberately implied trouble in bed, the word “Paradise” wafts onto the screen – and for the next hour and a half, that’s where you are.
We open in Venice, as they say, with renowned thief Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) masquerading as a baron in a swanky hotel. He has just robbed the hapless François Filiba (Edward Everett Horton) while masquerading as a doctor, asking to see Filiba’s tonsils. Gaston is now cooling his heels, waiting for the lovely Lily (Miriam Hopkins) – who is herself a pickpocket masquerading as a countess. During dinner, they size each other up as consummate thieves, and can’t keep their hands off each other. A financially and sexually thrilling union is born.
Some years later, slightly down on their luck, they’re in Paris. The charmingly scatterbrained Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), president of Colet et Cie perfume, has “lost” her 125,000 franc handbag. That is to say, Gaston took it from her while she was at the opera. Mme Colet places an advertisement in the paper, promising a 20,000 franc reward for the bag’s return, and the thieving lovers decide to do the “honest” thing and return it. Gaston charms his way into a job as her secretary – thus raising every eyebrow in Paris. He plots a grand heist, but alas: Mme Colet quite obviously has the hots for him, and he’s not exactly repulsed by her. This is bad news not only for Lily, but also for Mme Colet’s two suitors: the aforementioned Filiba and the Major (Charlie Ruggles).
Things work out. Don’t worry.
If I could watch this movie every day, I would. Here are some of my favorite lines. It is a constant source of heartache that I cannot find more excuses to work them into my daily conversation:
Gaston: Madame Colet, 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.
Mme Colet: What would you do if you were my secretary?
Gaston: The same thing.
Mme Colet: You’re hired.
The Major: See here, my good man. You’ve been saying good-bye for the last half hour and staying on. I wish you’d say “How do you do” and go.
The Major, again: Because I hate him because I love you!
Gaston: A member of the nouveau poor.
Radio jingle: Cleopatra was a lovely tantalizer/But she did it with her little atomizer!
Communist: Phooey! Phooey, phooey, and phooey!
You know, I bet I could find a way to work that last one in. Anyway. Whether you get the idea from this very brief sample of the perfection that is Trouble in Paradise or not, let me assure you: every minute sparkles. Every minute is brimming over with sex and fun and wit and loveliness. I can’t imagine a more ideal universe – I really can’t.
Roger Ebert summarized the immense pleasures of this film:
When I was small I liked to go to the movies because you could find out what adults did when there weren’t any children in the room. As I grew up that pleasure gradually faded; the more I knew the less the characters seemed like adults. Ernst Lubitsch’s “Trouble in Paradise” reawakened my old feeling. It is about people who are almost impossibly adult, in that fanciful movie way — so suave, cynical, sophisticated, smooth and sure that a lifetime is hardly long enough to achieve such polish. They glide.
It really is a fantasy of adulthood: beautiful, remarkably competent people who know every trick in the book, and still like to let themselves fall for one every now and again – just for the hell of it.
Everyone in this is a national treasure. I would like Marshall to read me bedtime stories, or the phone book, every night. I dream of being as quick and vibrant as Hopkins. I also dream of being as utterly charming as Francis. And if Horton and Ruggles were vying for my hand, I think I’d just about die of happiness and/or giggles. I am dead serious: this may be the most perfect movie ever made. Comparisons between this and champagne are inevitable: the finest intoxication available or imaginable. Why would you ever tolerate anything else?