- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2003

Ernst Lubitsch’s “Trouble in Paradise” is one of those movies that promises sophisticated playfulness from its opening credit: a cartoon illustration of a bed with the title superimposed in a left-to-right swipe over the headboard.

Now available in a DVD edition, “Trouble in Paradise” remains a cinematic landmark of urbane, benignly amoral romantic farce. Lubitsch himself had elevated the genre to new peaks of artistry with, first, his 1920s drawing-room comedies at Warners and, later, the Paramount musical comedies that brought film stardom to Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald in the early talkie era.

One of the Chevalier vehicles, “The Smiling Lieutenant,” kept the hero, a Viennese officer, in a state of romantic suspension between Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins, who had little in common except their consort but did reach a memorable meeting of the minds in a number called “Jazz Up Your Lingerie.”

“Trouble in Paradise” also revolves around a romantic triangle. In this case, it poses a threat to what seems a near-perfect mating of professional thieves, Miss Hopkins’ Lily and Herbert Marshall’s Gaston. They know they’re meant for each other when, during an early dinner rendezvous in Venice, they exchange items skillfully lifted from each other: a brooch, a wallet, a watch, a garter.

One of the hallmarks of Lubitsch’s assurance is that he finds it unnecessary to depict literally the light touch of these mutually smitten pickpockets. We don’t see Gaston lifting the garter that nestles in his jacket pocket, waiting to be returned to its owner with such debonair absurdity. Instead, the pair’s mutual admiration supplies all the “proof” necessary of their astonishing prowess.

Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson are so humorously detached from workaday or domestic reality while depicting the environment of luxury that attracts Lily and Gaston that we are given license to suspend our normal concern with social justice and moral uplift. Taking up residence in Paris, the thieves are not oblivious to hard times, but their targets are wealthy and idle by definition. Determined to prosper as high-society predators, Lily and Gaston use infiltration, stealth and deception as tools of their trade.

Gaston’s principal victim in Venice was a fop named Francois, a stuffed-shirt role tailor-made for Edward Everett Horton. In Paris he reappears as one of two hapless suitors (the other is Charles Ruggles as a retired military officer, the Major) attending a glamorous, free-spending widow named Mariette Colet, who has inherited a perfume fortune. Enter Kay Francis as Madame Colet, superbly abetted by costume designer Travis Banton, best known during his Paramount years for helping immortalize Marlene Dietrich.

Miss Francis and Mr. Banton seem as blissful a team as Lily and Gaston or Lubitsch and Raphaelson. Her elegant figure is oddly enhanced by the verbal incongruity that punctures her aura — a lisp that proves especially tricky when she must navigate a phrase such as “ruin my reputation.”

There’s a marvelous “striptease” interlude in which she removes only the fur wrap around her handsome shoulders and then the jewelry adorning an equally handsome neck and wrist. The very modesty of these gestures seems to magnify the erotic impact — a seductive resource in vintage movies that has been sacrificed in the rise of blatant and indiscriminate sex on the screen.

Gaston seizes an opportunity to steal Madame Colet’s diamond-encrusted handbag at the opera — another caper whose practical attainment defies analysis, just like the lifting of Lily’s garter. When she offers a reward that far exceeds what a fence would pay, Gaston presents himself, restores the missing item and proves so ingratiating that he is soon managing Madame’s affairs and drifting toward a liaison that could wreck his partnership with Lily.

The fact that he declines to wreck it testifies to another civilized grace note in the material. In formulating this romantic confection, the filmmakers provide the characters with reserves of gallantry and generosity. For example, Madame Colet may find it impossible to deny herself luxuries, but she is also loathe to approve salary cuts or layoffs at Colet & Cie. Despite their social climbing and dishonesty, Lily and Gaston also have a populist core: You’re certain they’re American and British commoners who find it both convenient and enjoyable to pose as swells or functionaries.

Because he is seriously in love, Gaston has a poignant choice to make when he’s obliged to stick with Lily or Mariette. In all likelihood, he’s following his conscience at the expense of passion and sheer greed — a becoming gesture in a man whose habits have accentuated the mercenary and insincere, albeit with a delicate, deferential touch.

By the time Ernst Lubitsch emigrated to the United States in 1923, he was already famous in Germany for historical spectacles that emphasized intimate and mocking characterizations of monarchs. In Hollywood, he acquired a different specialty: romantic comedy with a knowing outlook and a flair for pictorial innuendo. This flair was later overpromoted as “the Lubitsch touch.” Perhaps the best isolated example in “Trouble” is a shot sequence that begins with the mirrored reflections of Kay Francis and Herbert Marshall on the wall over Madame Colet’s bed and concludes with their shadows on the bedspread. Clocks also play a very prominent role in documenting the way trysts linger into early morning hours.

In Lubitsch’s case, the knowing elements often were spared from smugness or brittleness by the impression of genuine affection for amorous characters in compromising situations. This emotional generosity eventually extended his social range as a romantic humorist. The most satisfying of the Raphaelson-Lubitsch collaborations is “The Shop Around the Corner,” which deals with lovelorn characters of the lower middle class. Also derived from an obscure Hungarian play, it seems as accomplished as “Trouble in Paradise,” but it belongs to a lyrically commonplace social environment.

The late Samson Raphaelson recalled their collaboration, which extended over nine movies between 1929 and 1946, in a memoir titled “Freundschaft” (friendship). Originally published in the New Yorker in 1981, it was reprinted in “Three Screen Comedies,” an anthology of screenplays that begins with “Trouble in Paradise.” The essence of the “touch,” in Mr. Raphaelson’s estimation, came down to a recurrent Lubitsch question about keeping invention fresh: “How do we do that, without doing that?”

It’s a pity that Hollywood has forgotten the answer.

TITLE: “Trouble in Paradise”

RATING: No MPAA rating (made in 1932, decades before the advent of the rating system; systematic sexual innuendo)

CREDITS: Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Screenplay by Samson Raphaelson, based on the Hungarian play “The Honest Finder” by Aladar Laszlo. Cinematography by Victor Milner. Art direction by Hans Dreier. Costumes by Travis Banton. Music by W. Franke Harling. Lyrics by Leo Robin

RUNNING TIME: 82 minutes

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