Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Ernst Lubitsch and Trouble in Paradise

I’m very pleased with my DVD of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 classic Trouble in Paradise. Apart from the main feature – a lovely, elegant romantic comedy that provides immediate evidence of the fabled “Lubitsch touch” – the disc includes a silent film directed by him in Germany in 1917, long before he crossed the Atlantic to grace Hollywood with his distinct sensibilities. This older film, titled The Merry Jail and adapted from a Strauss operetta, is very much a product of its era – a jerky, broad comedy with hammy acting – but as a comedy of manners, mutual deceit and misunderstandings it provides glimpses of themes that would run through Lubitsch’s more mature work. The early films of great directors can be very revealing that way.

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!”

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.
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.

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...”

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!”
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.

[A few earlier posts on Old Hollywood: Swing Time, Duck Soup, The Talk of the Town]


  1. I get a feeling that Billy Wilder was greatly influenced by Lubitsch. Their films have a similar cynical tone. However, they resist the tendency to turn preachy and censure the deviants which is spotted in many Frank Capra films of the thirties.

    I prefer Lubitsch's 'The Shop around the Corner' to 'Trouble in Paradise'. The storyline in the former is perhaps more conventional and less 'sophisticated'. However, I thought it was a superior film with greater spontaneity and some remarkably moving performances.

    The performances in 'Trouble...' in contrast seemed wooden. Actually, a lot of the early Pre-Code talkies I've seen share that 'wooden' quality. Somehow, they lack the fluidity of the best films of the late thirties.

    Perhaps the star culture which evolved later in the decade helped improve the watchability-quotient of the films.

  2. Yes, Wilder worked with Lubitsch on Ninotchka and was probably influenced by him - though I'd guess they had very similar outlooks on life to begin with. Good observation about their work being cynical without getting preachy or looking for obvious villains to pin the blame on - that's a commendably mature approach to art and life.

    Generally speaking I'd agree that performances in most films made in 1932 (just 4 years into the sound era) were more wooden than in most films made eight years later, but I thought the acting in Trouble in Paradise was very fluid. Even in scenes that appear stagey in places (the great seduction scene at the hotel table, which I mentioned), it's justified - because Gaston and Lily are each putting on a show. The artifice is underlined and meant to draw attention to itself.

    Also, bear in mind how different the backgrounds of the characters in Shop Around the Corner are compared to the fops and air-kissers in Trouble in Paradise.

  3. Shrikanth hit the nail on the head! When I read the description of Trouble ... the depth of dialogues and styles were highly reminiscent of The Apartment...

  4. wow, that's lots of information and I had no idea there was anything like Hollywood Cricket Club much less that Cary Grant was one of its members.

    Some of these elements of what you call mature approach to art and life is also evident in Howard Hawks' films. I think one needs to be a little older to appreciate some of its humour and get the "seriousness of intent" beneath what seems only lightweight fluff. I am going through the same process after watching and rewatching some of Hawks films. Now I think To Have and Have Not is a more "mature" film than Casablanca though it may or may not be better. And Only Angels Have Wings has some profound things to say about life and it is not just macho lightweight action movie that I thought it was.

    I don't remember it right now but there is a nice quote by Wilder about Lubitsch about something he said after his death.

  5. Re your list of recommendations: There is also "Heaven Can Wait" but (IMO) it errs on the side of sentimentality, sexism and ageism. (Or may be it is just that I need some more maturity!)

    The Shop around the corner (followed by Ninotschka) is my favourite of all his films. I haven't seen Design for Living or The Student Prince yet..

  6. Was just going through the Ninotchka script on the Internet Movie Script Database.

    ANNA (fingering the piece of lingerie)
    They must have wonderful materials
    to make a thing like this soft...
    something you don't even see.
    You feel it, though.
    ANNA (hesitantly Ninotchka, I wouldn't bring this up if we weren't such good friends.
    What is it, Anna?
    You know I told you that Pavlov and I are going to get married when he comes back from the maneuvers. Would it be asking too much...
    You want this?
    Just for the honeymoon.

    Now, isn't it amazing that this met the approval of the Hays Code in '39!

  7. http://uncyclopedia.org/wiki/Samit_Basu

  8. Alok: haven't seen Heaven Can Wait and saw Ninotchka too long ago to remember it well. Agree about Hawks, especially Only Angels Have Wings.

    I'm not sure Cary Grant was a particularly active member of the HCC - it seems more the case that any British-born actor who was working in Hollywood in the 1930s became an honorary member.

  9. Hi Jai,
    Like SRK and Salman Khan Fan hope you are Abhishek Bachan's fan too.

    Abhishek Bachchan as Aditya from the film Drona went all the way to meet Chamki, the adorable muppet from Galli Galli Sim Sim. Abhishek revealed about his new role in Drona and shared his experiences of doing the film with Chamki. He enjoyed his day in the Galli and was totally bowled over by the detective look of Chamki.

    Catch their conversation on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kU4fPs9CikA

  10. Anon: stay on-topic please. If you want to promote AB or Chamki, do it by email.

    Btw, does AB Jr realise that Chamki is just a muppet? You make it sound like he doesn't.

  11. Hi Jai...was introduced to your blog by a friend of mine this year and since then have spent many happy hours reading the posts!! Was curious if you have seen the new Anupam Kher-Nasseruddin Shah movie, A wednesday. Would appreciate your thoughts on that.

  12. This blogpost made me revisit Trouble in Paradise today.

    I must say my first impression of the movie was all wrong. Appreciated it a lot more this time. An extremely compact film with almost each take meriting analysis. It reminded me of Citizen Kane in this regard.

    You see, TIP was one of the first Old Hollywood films I saw over a year ago. For a first-time viewer who is not familiar with the acting styles of the period, some of the acting may seem affected. I remember being annoyed by Edward Horton's mannerisms last time. Having seen Horton in a number of fine films since then(Top Hat, Arsenic and Old Lace, Holiday), the mannerisms today gave me the comfort of being in the company of an old acquaintance!

    Just goes to show the extent to which the familiarity of the cast can influence one's impressions of the film.

  13. Very feisty post. In fact, I'm grateful for a few tips here and there.