Today: February 28, 2024

Trouble in Paradise

Most romantic comedies are rubbish.

Most romantic comedies are rubbish. The reason for this is that the
people who make romantic comedies want as broad an audience as possible and
assume that the only way to reach this broad audience is to keep the subject
matter simple-minded in order to make it accessible. This terror of alienating
audiences has resulted in a cinematic culture in which romantic comedies tend
to either be about actual teenagers (e.g. Juno
and 10 Things I Hate About You) or
about emotionally stunted adults who behave like teenagers (e.g. High Fidelity and Amelie). The reason why genre classics such as Annie Hall, His Girl Friday
and The Apartment have endured while
the likes of My Big Fat Greek Wedding
and What Women Want have faded from
view is because these classic romantic comedies speak of grown-up relationships
in a way that ensures their continued relevance to generations of grown-up film
lovers. Indeed, if the measure of a romantic comedy’s greatness is its level of
emotional sophistication then few romantic comedies come anywhere close to
rivalling the magnificence of Ernst
Lubitsch
’s Trouble in Paradise.

The film opens on a Venetian hotel
where two jaded aristocrats flirt over jewels and cocktails. Their primary
subject of conversation is a series of crimes that appears to be plaguing their
hotel. However, despite theatrical expressions of outrage at the criminality
that surrounds them, the two aristocrats eventually recognise that it is they
who are responsible for the crimes. Thus, the enigmatic Baron is revealed to be
the career thief Gaston (Herbert Marshall)
while the outraged countess is revealed to be glamorous pickpocket Lily (Miriam Hopkins). Needless to say, the
two crooks immediately realise that they are kindred spirits and promptly fall
in love.

A year later, the pair are in Paris
where they find themselves in possession of a jewel-encrusted handbag belonging
to a wealthy heiress (Kay Francis).
Spying an opportunity to rob her blind, Gaston inveigles his way into the
heiress’s confidence and begins to run her life as her private secretary.
However, the more Gaston comes to be respected by those around the heiress and
the more he comes to enjoy the heiress’s trust, the more he comes to question
his aim of fleecing her. What if he didn’t have to go on the run? What if he
could marry the heiress? What if, rather than pretending to be an aristocrat,
he actually became one? What if he didn’t stay with Lily?

Made prior to Hollywood’s
self-censoring adoption of the infamous Hays Code, Trouble in Paradise is a
gloriously amoral piece of filmmaking. Littered with both sexual innuendo (“I
want to make it… tough… for you”) and explicitly sexual imagery (the shadow
cast by Gaston and the heiress against a large double bed), the film uses
banter and protocol to explore not only issues of class but also the
differences between the kind of emotionally-simple but sexually rewarding ‘fun’
relationship that Gaston has with Lily and the more emotionally substantial connection
that Gaston appears to have with the heiress.

Beautifully shot, wonderfully acted
and imbued with a profound understanding of the emotional complexities involved
in being an adult, Trouble in Paradise is as funny and entertaining as it is
mature and socially aware. Modern audiences may find its adherence to period social
protocol somewhat puzzling but once you realise that the affected mannerisms of
1930s high society are just the roles people played at the time you will marvel
at the complex ways in which Lubitsch allows his characters to reveal
themselves to each other. For example, the film opens with Gaston and Lily
breaking character and falling in love. Lubitsch then reprises this scene at
the end of the film but this time we know better, we know that Gaston is not
the fun-loving thief he plays with Lily but the principled gentleman he was
with the heiress. Though united in perfidy, Gaston and Lily are very different
people; Lily plays an aristocrat in order to fund her freewheeling lifestyle
while Gaston has assumed a freewheeling lifestyle in order to gain the
opportunity to pass himself off as the person he really wants to be.

Restored and presented in its
original aspect ratio, Masters of Cinema’s release of Trouble in paradise comes
with a booklet as well as an extended discussion of the film by Dan
Sallitt and Kent Jones. Unfortunately, while these types of discussions can
really open up older films, this particular conversation is dry, inaccessible, incoherent,
rambling and boring: Um… y’know… um… Lubitsch… talkies… um. However, despite
the paucity of the supporting material, Trouble in Paradise remains a
brilliantly funny and brilliantly insightful romantic comedy that dares to
treat its audience like grown-ups.

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