Lubitsch is often credited with bringing modernity to American cinema, taking Hollywood into its next phase after the D W Griffith era. He must have been a huge presence from the late 1920s to the early 1940s: whenever I’ve seen a reference to him in a memoir of a movie personality from that period, it’s obvious that he was among the most respected filmmakers of the time. Fellow directors envied his seemingly effortless, fluid touch and stars of the time queued up to be cast in his films. [Coincidentally there's a riff on this in another excellent film I watched recently, Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels, in which the starlet played by Veronica Lake wants only to be introduced to Mr Lubitsch.] His name is synonymous with sophistication, but what tends not to be mentioned so much is that there is always warmth and affection beneath the stylishness of his work. On the surface, Lubitsch films are full of impeccably well-dressed and well-spoken high-society types tossing bon mots at each other, but the people in his cinema never reach for cleverness at the expense of humanity; they are essentially likable and reveal unexpected depths just when you think you’ve got them marked down as stereotypes.
The very charismatic performances of Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins and Kay Francis in Trouble in Paradise exemplify this. The quietly suave Marshall plays gentleman thief Gaston Monescu and the spirited Hopkins (one of the most underrated actresses of the time and a personal favourite) is a small-time pickpocket named Lily. As the film opens in a Venice hotel, each is posing as a member of nobility and during the course of a superbly performed dinner scene-cum-seduction, it transpires that they are aware of each other’s masquerade. Thus they realise that they are kindred spirits.
Lily: When I came here, it was for a little adventure, a little game which you play tonight and forget tomorrow. Something's changed me; and it isn't the champagne. Oh, the whole thing's so new to me. I have a confession to make to you. Baron, you are a crook. You robbed the gentleman in 253, 5, 7, and 9. May I have the salt.
Gaston: (passing the salt) Please.
Lily: Thank you.
Gaston: The pepper too?
Lily: No thank you.
Gaston: You're very welcome. Countess, believe me, before you left this room I would have told you everything. And let me say this with love in my heart: Countess, you are a thief. The wallet of the gentleman in 253, 5, 7, and 9 is in your possession. I knew it very well when you took it out of my pocket. In fact, you tickled me. But your embrace was so sweet.
On reflection, it isn’t enough to simply read this exchange: you have to watch Marshall and Hopkins act it out – to see how they transcend the slickness of the dialogue by showing the characters’ growing admiration for each other, the childlike delight they take in their misdemeanors, the affection that soon turns to love.
A year or so later, the scene having shifted to Paris, they decide to con a wealthy heiress named Mariette Colet (Kay Francis): Gaston contrives a meeting with her, passes himself off as a member of the “nouvelle poor” (the world’s financial markets are in a bad state) and gets hired as her secretary – which gives him control over her daily affairs and proximity to her riches. But then Gaston and Mariette become close and this sets up the romantic triangle.
Lubitsch was, by all accounts, not just a great filmmaker but an affable, bighearted man. In his delightful book Bring on the Empty Horses, David Niven has a chapter on his experience as a nervous young greenhorn playing a supporting role in Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. Excerpts:
...he sat me down on a sofa and proceeded to act out all my scenes – giggling and hugging himself as he explained the visual “business” he was intending to incorporate into them...he put his arm around my waist (because he could not reach my shoulders) and led me to the door. “Everyone will be nervous on the first day,” he said, “even the electricians in case they set fire to the studio – but we’re all going to be together for many weeks and I promise you, it’ll be fun! You’re a member of the family now!”I think this kindliness comes across in his work. Watching Trouble in Paradise, you get a sense of how the gentle, all-encompassing humanity of a Satyajit Ray or a Kieslowski might be accommodated in a sparkling Hollywood romantic comedy. For starters, the film is completely non-judgemental about its protagonists (who are, after all, crooks) and their sexual mores. The critic David Thomson pointed out that it was a rare example of a truly amoral film made in Hollywood, and it’s worth noting that it could only have been made before the Hollywood Production Code was enforced in 1934. Under the strictures of the Code, there’s no way Gaston and Lily would have been allowed to carry on blithely without getting their comeuppance, and some of the sexual innuendo – notably a dialogue about spanking – would have had to be toned down. Incidentally, there's an almost orgasmic quality to the moment when Lily, obviously aroused by the realisation that Gaston is a master thief (he stole her garter without her noticing it!), jumps up, sits on his lap and breathlessly demands that he tell her everything about himself. This is followed by their first tryst, with her reclining on a couch, his bending over to kiss her (“My little shoplifter. My sweet little pickpocket. My darling”), and the two of them simply fading from the shot, leaving the empty couch behind – a subtle visual suggestion that they’ve moved somewhere more comfortable; perhaps to the bed shown in the film’s opening credits.
When Lubitsch described us as his “family”, it was no understatement and we all had complete respect for the father figure. I never once heard him raise his voice and he loved to be given suggestions, listened patiently to them and then just as patiently explained why they wouldn’t work.
It’s all too easy for a film with a witty screenplay to get tripped up by its own cleverness, but Trouble in Paradise never does; it’s considerate about its characters and their feelings. Gaston, Lily and Mariette have a fatalistic sincerity – an ability to shrug their shoulders, cut their losses and move on – which makes this “lightweight comedy” poignant in a way that many dramatic films can never be. It’s also very mature in its treatment of the love triangle: Mariette is neither a simpering victim nor a cold-hearted society lady who deserves to be robbed. She’s a pragmatic woman, capable of her own brand of tenderness, but with a firm head on her shoulders, and when she and Gaston part ways, there is a dignity to the moment that makes the scene very effective.
There's no mean-mindedness even when it comes to the treatment of such characters as the befuddled Monsieur Filiba, one of Mariette’s suitors who, in most other films of this type, would have existed only so the audience could get some cheap laughs at his expense. (The supporting cast is superb: Edward Everett Horton, Charlie Ruggles and C Aubrey Smith – who, by the by, was the founder of the Hollywood Cricket Club! – are just three among the dozens of fine performers who played stock supporting roles in 1930s Hollywood.)
The features on my DVD include a 10-minute introduction by the director/film historian Peter Bogdanovich and a feature-length commentary by biographer Scott Eyman. Taken together, these provide many insights into Lubitsch’s work and life: for example, that he had a lot of sympathy for actors doing bit roles as butlers or valets, which probably came out of his own experience playing such parts when he was an actor. This resulted in his giving these bit-players a few extra seconds of screen time when the spotlight was on them – it creates delightful little touches such as the scene in Trouble in Paradise where Mariette keeps changing her mind about whether or not she’s going to a dinner and her corpulent butler murmurs inaudibly to himself each time he has to descend the staircase with a fresh set of instructions. It's a wonderfully spontaneous moment.
Lubitsch’s acting experience also led him to perform each scene – right down to the most insignificant roles – while directing his actors. Bogdanovich speculates that this probably led to the idea of the “pure Lubitsch performance” to describe why actors were notably different while performing for Lubitsch than for other directors. From Niven’s recollections:
We started the comedy scene and I noticed that Lubitsch was crying. “Cut!” he sobbed helplessly at the end. “That was wonderful! You made me laugh so much I nearly choked. Now, just a couple of little suggestions...”There’s no better introduction to the stylish 1930s Hollywood comedy than Trouble in Paradise – the only hitch being that nearly everything else in the genre will seem anti-climactic by comparison. Other Lubitsch films I recommend highly: The Student Prince, To Be or Not to Be, The Shop Around the Corner, Design for Living.
We probably played the scene a dozen times, each time our efforts were saluted by paroxysms of mirth by the master director and each time he managed to blurt out a “couple of little suggestions” before climbing back on to his perch. By the time we had performed the scene to his complete satisfaction we had, of course, like many before us, given performances of “pure Lubitsch”, and as Claudette Colbert pointed out, “And why not? He’s better than any of us!”
[A few earlier posts on Old Hollywood: Swing Time, Duck Soup, The Talk of the Town]