Being that the subject of our discourse is that there really is no Trouble in Paradise (USA, 1932, Lubitsch) when you are in the hands of a master filmmatist like Ernst Lubitsch.
I can't tell you how much this film entertained and impressed me. Because I am essentially ignorant of the main directorial streams in the development of Hollywood, the foundations Lubitsch laid are only partially appreciated by me. Yet, I fully comprehended Bogdanovich's analysis of the European infusion into the American scene to establish a new model beyond the original one provided by Griffith. That this was achieved through verbal comedy seems to me to be not accidental. What else could constitute a departure from silent action? Also very informative, the liner notes in the case, exceptionally helpful. It made sense towards the end to learn that the author had studied under Raphaelson, so on the pulse of the creators was the commentator. But enough historiography.
What a wonderful film. I am no different than anyone I suppose for being enchanted by the elegant mixture of humour and eroticism. It's very funny and it's very sexy. I realize the Hayes Act would soon repress this, so what a joy that Lubitsch was able to make this one without puritanical constraints. Looking at it today, the film as a whole reminds me of Fred Astaire's dancing. This dancing is not the sexiest. Gene Kelly is sexier and there's also less technically accomplished dancing that compensates by being even sexier still, (a naked woman humping a brass rail, for starters.) The outstanding feature of Astaire, though, is the seeming effortlessness. The hack phrase about dancing on air is only a first approximation to the grace the guy gives off. He makes it all look perfectly natural, so easy, piece of cake. Trouble in Paradise is the same. It just rolls along, so pleasantly, like flirting when both parties know nothing will come of it, a game, freedom. Meanwhile, the thing is scripted and staged and acted and shot and edited - absolutely brilliantly. Staggering really. Perhaps the key evidence of this is the pace of it all. Brisk enough to keep us on our toes and interested but slow enough to keep us really interested, to let us taste each delicious joke and every dirty moment. The film charmed the pants off me.
Bogdanovitch points out that we never actually see anyone stealing anything. (In fact, we do, near the end when the blond takes the money from the safe. But basically Bogdanovitch's point is correct.) He discusses the theft of the purse by way of example to demonstrate Lubitsch's narrative economy and editing prowess. The flip-side of Bogdanovitch's observation is that we constantly see the thieves returning stolen goods, the purse, each other's possessions when they first met and fall for each other. Not witnessing them engage in criminal acts and witnessing them playfully confirm their genuis for crime by negating it, returning stolen goods, allows us to care for our characters as the aristocrats they pretend to be. In this way, Lubitsch gives us our cake and let's us eat it too. Yet at the same time - and you know that personally I was thrilled by this - the Depression is repeatedly acknowledged as the realistic context for all the charades.
But here's the genius of that, the contemporary economic situation is acknowledged not with some dull, humourless resolve but the exact opposite, more jokes. He tells her that he is a member of the nouveau poor, she cuts the salaries of the board of directors rather than the wages of the workers, and many other great bits, the most Monty Python-like being the intrusion of the Bolshevik. The class consciousness is acute from the get-go; the singing gondolier is a garbage man! But of course, when our chief thief gets to give a brief speech about the double standard applied to working-class robbers and robber barons, for just a second, the kidding around stops.
But here's the fabulous artistic thing at that point, the kidding around has stopped about everything. Our con man extraordinaire has fallen in love with his would-be victim and is confessing this to her. Everything comes to a pinhead of seriousness, on which we spin for, well, just a spin and then we are again waltzed off our feet into the comedy. Masterful, just masterful.
Another way to indicate the greatness of the film is to declare that I did not know how it was going to work out and what is even more astounding, I did not know how I wanted it to work out. I could have gone for him with either woman, would have been fine by me. Hell, I would have accepted the two women ending up together at the expense of the man. I was rooting for all of them, at the same time, proof that Trouble in Paradise is a benign orgy. This is emotionally powerful considering the film is seemingly a bunch of fluff. Add the intellectually stimulating aspect that the plot was clever enough keep me guessing, the result is low entertainment that feels like high art.
I want also to mention that contra Tarkovsky's advocacy for The Image and not visual symbolism, Lubitsch makes use of the latter to great comedic effect, (and Tarkovsky makes use of the former to no comedic effect, so there.) I missed the one right in the opening credits that Bogdanovich points out, but there are a number of in-your-face sexually symbolic shots that both titilate and amuse, the embracing shadows on the bed, to name just one. Editing too is used to create jokes, but I'm rambling now.
The performances. Killer, spot on. The leading man is off the charts great. Mind you, with lines like that to deliver, it is not necessary to win the ballgame, just be sure not to lose it. Still, he has what it takes. And what it takes is just enough male virility to be enticing but not so much as to be threatening. Monica introduced me to a new term in order to address this and I think she is on to something: Metrosexual. Have you heard of this? A hetrosexual man who has feminine interests. Not feminine behaviours, that would be Fay. And clearly not Gay. A straight guy who likes stuff that chicks dig, fashion, interior design, make up, indeed, scores with women precisely by being genuinely interested in the same stuff they are. I think the leading man in Trouble is a Metrosexual - as written and as performed - and that is an essential ingredient in the successful dynamic of eroticism and humour of the characters.
And Dan replies:
As usual, you make me wanna see the film over again, for two reasons. First, you remind me of why I gave the film 94/100 (it might be the highest score I've ever given to a straight-out comedy) when I reviewed it several years back, and second, I need to revisit it so I can better engage with the very specific elements of your laudatory review.
While details of some of the scenes you mention remain somewhat elusive in my memory, what remains is the terrific, European cosmopolitan humour, and unrelenting sexiness of it all. This is about as erotic as you can get and still keep all your clothes on (the scene where they exchange items they've pilfered off each other. Rowr!) It is remarkable to me that the film got made within the studio system, considering how completely non-Hollywood it is in its urbanity, sophistication and all-around sensual delightfulness. It is the proverbial cinematic feast.
The film reminds me somewhat of vintage Sturges, sort of an elaborate blend of My Lady Eve and Sullivan's Travels (perhaps Sturges's two best films), a wickedly smart and sexy comedy also sports a keen social conscience. As you noted, it is pretty much impossible to predict where the film is going to go; Lubitsch does a masterful job of toying with our expectations and shifting our allegiances, so that we are always kept a little off-kilter, but in a very good way. In my review I commented that ,"this criminally under-heralded romantic comedy is so elegantly written and so beautifully conceived that, while I could always see where I was going, I could not for the life of me tell where it was going to end up." The criminal couple are so obviously meant for each other; Miriam Hopkins is so confident and smart and smokin' hot and Gaston Monescu the epitome of what Dennis Hopper called Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet, "one suave motherfucker," that it seems impossible that they can end anywhere else but together at the end. And so it turns out to be, but not before Kay Francis turns all of our heads with a performance of equal parts elegance, charm and allure so that we're left not sure who to root for.
I love the lack of sentimentality throughout. These are grown ups, not teeny boppers, and their problems require grown up solutions. Huzzah to Lubitsch, who takes one of the tautest and smartest scripts ever written, cast his film perfectly, then cut this fucker so that every single moment was made to count. I love this film so goddamned much. I must watch it again.