Monday, February 16, 2009

Trouble in Paradise (1932) - #170

"Trouble in paradise..." I know you've heard the cliche and most likely even used it yourself to signify a seemingly perfect situation in which something is not quite right. I have no idea if the saying was already in common parlance back in 1932 but I have to conclude that this popular film from that year played a large part in cementing the phrase into popular consciousness back in that low-point of the Great Depression. When I googled the phrase by way of finding the artwork and videoclips for this blog, I had to scroll pretty far down the list past a whole host of artists and writers who've put it to their own use. Kind of a shame, really, because even though I didn't bother to check out all those links, I am pretty confident that few if any of them are able to rival this film in terms of creativity, panache and that always elusive quality of savoir-faire.

Ernst Lubitsch is the creative genius who deserves the bulk of our thanks for leaving this splendid little gem of a movie for future generations to enjoy. Lubitsch may not be a big name to many of today's movie goers but we owe him a huge debt for introducing a distinctly Continental and sophisticated wit into the conventions of cinema. He came over to Hollywood in the late 1920s, after achieving significant but not massively influential success in Germany. His place in the history of film would have been assured by his role in creating the first full-fledged musical comedy, The Love Parade, starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette McDonald. This movie, and three other light romps that preceded Trouble in Paradise, are all available in a four-disc set that Criterion released last year through their Eclipse subsidiary. I own that set but won't review it here since this blog is strictly aimed at the Criterion Collection itself. They are delightful films whose entertainment value transcends their simple historic appeal as early works in a major genre. But it wasn't until Lubitsch put this production together that he could be said to have produced a true masterpiece that evokes its era splendidly while depicting timeless truths about human relationships in all their confusion and quirkiness.

The "paradise" referred to in the title is the world inhabited by the ultra-rich, the uppercrust who reside in the old capitals of Europe. In this particular case, the action takes place in Paris, though the action starts in Venice. We don't quite know that when the film begins though - the first shot we see is of a doorway and a garbage can, that a man picks up, hauls over and dumps into a large bin. The bin happens to be sitting in a gondola, and the gondola is parked dockside along the Grand Canal. The trashman bursts into an imprompto rendition of "O Solo Mio" and we are underway!

A professional pickpocket, Gaston Montescu, and his lady companion Lily have successfully put on the airs of aristocracy and gained entree into a fine hotel, where he manages to pull off a successful job, purloining a wallet holding 20,000 francs. While the victim realizes his misfortune and makes his futile pleas for assistance to the Italian police, Gaston and Lily make a smooth getaway. They proceed to France where he executes a purse snatch one evening at the opera. The handbag's owner, one Mme. Mariette Colet, a wealthy widow who's inherited control of the prosperous Colet & Co. perfume business, offers a generous reward for her lost item, which draws Gaston (and a large crowd of desperate down-and-outers) to her parlor as they all seek to cash in on the extravagant payout she promised. Gaston breezes into her life, knowing he holds her bag, and fortuitously wins her confidence by relieving her of the harassment of an unkempt young Communist who scolds her for her wastefulness in such dire economic times. Gaston, ever the master of smooth talk and falsely-won confidence, quickly maneuvers his way to a position of intimate confidence with Mme. Colet, much to Lily's chagrin. Lily is a pretty sharp cookie herself and has little trouble deciphering what's going on between her man and this refined, elegant and impeccably fashionable (and did I say, "rich"?) young widow, who's mistaken him for a man of manners and integrity.

So the love triangle develops, taking viewers through many comical twists and turns. Mariette also has two gentleman callers who have been trying unsuccessfully to win her affections and they provide some rich moments as they fuss and feud with each other, each attempt to woo her and thwart their rival proving more ineffective than the last. Gaston meanwhile is pulled back and forth in his affections, daring to believe one minute that he might really have a chance at something with Mariette, but returning quickly to Lily's charms (and schemes) when she manages to get a clear and unimpeded shot at him herself.

Thus unfolds the plot and it's all amusing enough. However, those machinations are just the rough framework on which a rather polished and charming story is woven. In his day and in ours, these films were marketed and characterized as possessing "the Lubitsch touch" and there's a fair amount of literature to be found elaborating on just what that touch consisted of. The quickest way to describe it in just a few words is: sly innuendo delivered with smooth and carefree delicacy. Lubitsch was never vulgar, never moralistic or excessively sentimental. He dealt with provocative topics - there's a lot of lust and connivery and "fooling around" in his films, but it's always portrayed with a light touch that manages to avoid both frivolity and tragedy. It's clear that if real people were going through the kind of reversals of affection and fortune experienced by the characters in his films, their emotions and attitudes would reflect a lot more stress, pain and fatigue than we ever see portrayed on the screen. But that quality provides a wonderful opportunity to reveal aspects of human nature in a way that makes them easier to understand and accept. Lubitsch knows the foibles of our hearts and the complicated motives we all carry around and are only partially successful at concealing. By putting these conflicting motives in motion in idealized, "paradisical" settings with characters who suffer only faint traces of the real life consequences that we would if we tried this at home, we get an opportunity to sort out just what is going on inside ourselves as we contemplate our wandering affections, our fantasies, our wishes, our cravings... and perhaps by doing so get just a little tighter grip on the reins that link our minds to those desires of our hearts.

Here's a nice clip that I found, splicing a variety of scenes together over the course of five minutes, introducing you to the main characters, the beautiful sets and costumes, the talented actors who brought the roles to life and most pricelessly some very funny lines that become all the more humorous once you get to know the characters in context of the story.

Lubitsch, in this film, laid the foundations for another sub-genre, the "screwball comedy," (described by one critic as "a sex comedy without the sex") that would go on to produce a nice line of classics up through the years of World War II. We'll get a chance to view several of them as we proceed, including one from later in Lubitsch's career, Heaven Can Wait. You may also be interested in knowing that this film was effectively censored for over 30 years, due to the introduction and enforcement of the Hollywood "production code" that disapproved of the adult situations presented in the film. After 1935, the movie was not shown publicly until 1968 and was never released on videotape. It wasn't until Criterion got the rights in 2003 that the film became available to the general public. So I recommend you find a copy, see it for yourself and strike a blow for freedom. I'm confident that your personal moral values and ethical principles can handle it!