Friday, September 2, 2011

#170: Trouble in Paradise

(Ernst Lubitsch, 1932)

There aren't many of them, but Trouble in Paradise is a perfect movie. The movie is centered around the love affair of two thieves and the woman (or money?) threatening to tear them apart. The plot itself is light and entertaining but - like most Lubitsch films - the main appeal lies in the dialog. Everyone gets great moments here, but especially Herbert Marshall as celebrity thief Gaston Monescu, "the man who walked into the Bank of Constantinople and walked out with the Bank of Constantinople." Lubitsch would go on to work with much more heralded actors, but Marshall holds his own with charm, wit, and cunning, all achieved mainly by speaking 10% too fast and being naturally debonair.

The writing itself is the real star, however. People often speak of the "Lubitsch touch," and while it's in its infancy in Trouble of Paradise, it's everywhere - beginning with the visual joke of a garbage gondola in Venice and running through to the last moment, when the valuable handbag reaches its final owner. The handbag itself is a stunning device, used by Lubitsch and his frequent co-screenwriter, Samson Raphaelson, to establish the heiress's character, prompt the relationship between the heiress and Monescu, and finally reunite the two lovers - all with a handbag! Beyond structure, the film's one-off jokes are some of the best in Lubitsch's catalog (saying a lot):

"Marriage is a beautiful mistake that two people make together... But with you, Francois, I'm afraid it would just be a mistake."

"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."
"What would you do if you were my secretary?"
"The same thing."
"You're hired."

"Yes, that's the trouble with mothers. First you get to like them, and then they die."

The biggest problem with the film (other than that it ends - this is one of those 80 minute movies that is the perfect length but leaves you desperate for more) is that it is decidedly uninterested in judging its characters. This led to the film being banned once the Production Code kicked in a few years later - it wasn't shown in the US until the late 60s, and at one point a musical remake was rejected. It simply wasn't possible during the code era to make a film about two thieves who are more charming and cunning than the good guys and end up getting away with it in the end (the sexual innuendo didn't help either).

This may be the main reason the film was never released on VHS, making this disc imho one of the greatest things Criterion has ever done. I first saw Trouble in Paradise at the Silent Film Theater in LA (it was a special talkie night). Years before, I had read about the film and was shocked to learn it wasn't available on video. I knew some movies obviously hadn't made the transition, but this was a purported classic by one of the greatest and most influential directors of all time. Having never lived in a time before VHS - when all movie fans were at the whim of the local repertory theater or TV schedule - it was extremely frustrating to have to wait to see a movie I knew I would love.

When I finally saw the film it surpassed all of my expectations. I love His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, It Happened One Night, and The Lady Eve, (and Lubitsch's own Heaven Can Wait is a personal favorite and one of my few successful requests to Criterion for release) but for my money Trouble in Paradise is the greatest romantic comedy ever made. I only got to see it one more time before it was mine - a lucky channel surf that landed me on TCM. The day Criterion released this film I was first in line - possibly crying - and I think I watched it ten or fifteen times in the next few months. I loved Criterion before Trouble in Paradise, but rescuing this film from obscurity made me a fan for life.

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