Trouble in Paradise (1932): Lubitsch’s Pre-Code Comedy, Starring Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis, and Herbert Marshall

Ernst Lubitsch displayed his famous subtle touch in Trouble in Paradise, a pre-Code romantic comedy, starring Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis, and Herbert Marshall.

Many critics consider it to be Lubitsch’s greatest achievement, due to its subtle tone of merriment and elegance in both dialogue and visuals, but I much prefer his 1940’s The Shop Around the Corner.  This tale is a bit repetitious and the characters are not layered enough, not to mention the fact that they portray, after all, thieves.

Even so, the movie still offers many rewards, displaying the director’s unique talent for sexual innuendos (Kay Francis caressing the doorways is priceless) and delightfully witty repartee that goes beyond clever one-liners.

Grade: A- (****1/2* out of *****)

 

Trouble in Paradise
Trouble in Paradise (1932 film poster).jpg

Theatrical release poster

Based on the 1931 play The Honest Finder (A Becsületes Megtaláló) by Hungarian playwright László Aladár, the central triangle is composed of a gentleman thief and a lady pickpocket who team up to con a rich beautiful woman.

Like most of Lubitsch’s films, the tale is set in Europe, depicting the European capitals of Venice and Paris in a charming, fictionalized mode that made them appealing to American viewers, especially those who have not traveled abroad.

In Venice, Gaston Monescu (Marshall), a master thief masquerading as a baron, meets Lily (Hopkins), a beautiful pickpocket posing as a countess. The two fall in love and decide to team up.

In Paris, Gaston steals a diamond-encrusted purse worth 125,000 francs from Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), owner of perfume manufacturer. Mariette offers reward for its return, and Gaston claims it under the name of Lavalle.

Gaston charms Mariette, and when he says he’s broke, she hires him as private secretary. He arranges for Lily to be employed in Mariette’s office, and stands up to Mariette’s board of directors, led by Monsieur Adolph J. Giron (C. Aubrey Smith), the manager who becomes suspicious of him.

Having observed Mariette open her safe (and learning the combination), Gaston persuades her that she should keep a large sum there, including half of her next installment.

Mariette has two suitors, a major (Charles Ruggles), and François Filiba (Edward Everett Horton), who was robbed in Venice by Gaston (posing as doctor). François sees Gaston at a garden party, and is sure they have met. Fearing discovery, Gaston and Lily flee with what’s in the safe (without the installment).

Mariette is invited to dinner party given by the Major, and after hesitations, she goes. Meanwhile, Lily realizes that Gaston has fallen for her rival.

At the party, the major tells François that he once mistook Gaston for a doctor. François tells Mariette about Gaston, but she refuses to believe it’s true.

Lily robs the safe after confronting her partner. Mariette returns home and probes Gaston, who admits that the safe has been cleaned out. He tells her that Monsieur Giron has stolen millions from the firm over the years.

Lily then admits that she stole the money from the safe. An argument ensues, and eventually, Mariette allows the two thieves to leave together.

In the last, delicious scene, Gaston steals a necklace from Mariette that Lily had her eye on, and in turn, Lily steals it from him, displaying it to him as the taxi takes them away, hugging each other.

Though the entire trio render sublime performances, it is Marshall who offers the biggest surprise, using his famously velvety voice to deliver his lines with an impeccable timing and grace.

One wonders how Cary Grant, who was a rising star at Paramount at the time, would have interpreted Marshall’s role, particularly in the scenes that called for rendering witty banter at a breakneck pace.

Kay Francis, usually associated with playing suffering heroines in weepies (women’s pictures), matches Marshall with her elegantly wry line readings and glamorous styles in her seductive dresses.

Hopkins, one of the most underrated and maligned actresses (by co-stars such as Bette Davis and others), also rises to the occasion, and her characteristically brittle and feisty persona, is restrained here by the director, resulting in one of her subtlest performances.

Critical Status:

The New York Times placed the film on its Ten Best list of 1932.

In 1991, Trouble in Paradise was selected for preservation by the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”

Intertextuality:

Wes Anderson has said the movie was an inspiration for The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), though there is not comparison in the level of subtlety or artistic quality.

In 1934, when the Production Code was being enforced, the film was not approved for reissue, and subsequently, it was not seen again until 1968. Paramount tried to make a musical version of the film in 1943, but that idea was rejected, too.

Cast
Herbert Marshall as Gaston Monescu / Gaston Lavalle
Miriam Hopkins as Lily Vautier
Kay Francis as Madame Mariette Colet
Edward Everett Horton as François Filiba
Charlie Ruggles as The Major
C. Aubrey Smith as Adolph J. Giron
Robert Greig as Jacques, Mariette’s butler

Credits:

Produced, directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay by Samson Raphaelson; Grover Jones (adaptation); Lubitsch (uncredited)

Based on The Honest Finder (A Becsületes Megtaláló), the 1931 play by Laszlo Aladar
Music by W. Franke Harling (music); Leo Robin (lyrics)

Cinematography Victor Milner

Production, distribution: Paramount Pictures

Release date: October 21, 1932

Running time: 83 minutes
Budget $519,706
Box office $475,000 (US/Canada)