Trouble in Paradise is full of perfectly executed scenes. In one, the globetrotting, debonair scoundrel Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) returns a stolen evening bag to its rightful owner, Mariette Colet (Kay Francis). A Parisian socialite and heiress to her late husband’s perfume empire, she’s so immediately smitten with Gaston that she fails to realize that he’s the actual thief, arriving incognito to reap a 20,000 franc reward. Gaston is smitten as well, but his mind is as much on money as it is on sex. When Mariette opens her safe to pay Gaston, she finds 100,000 francs that she did not know she had. Gaston, seeing an opportunity to steal even more from Mariette, works his way into her confidence with a seductive admonition:
Gaston: “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.”
Mariette: “What would you do if you were my secretary?”
Gaston: “The same thing.”
Mariette: “You’re hired.”
This charged exchange exemplifies the “Lubitsch Touch,” the urbane style of director Ernst Lubitsch, who virtually invented the screwball romantic comedy. His actors wear gorgeous suits and evening gowns, his sets are smartly Art Deco, and his dialogue sounds like music, sly innuendo epitomizing the cool eroticism prevalent in pre-Code Hollywood. As Gaston says of a date with his larcenous girlfriend, Lily (Miriam Hopkins), “It must be the most marvelous supper. We may not eat it, but it must be marvelous.”
As glamorous as it looks, Trouble in Paradise proposes that there’s a base reality beneath its glistening surface. In the opening scene, set in Venice, Lubitsch focuses not on the city’s canals, but on a man hauling garbage in a gondola. Gaston and Lily appear posing as aristocrats, then quickly reveal their humble origins and criminal intentions (hilariously, while stealing from each other, their version of foreplay). Eventually, they plan to con Mariette out of those 100,000 francs, after Gaston becomes her secretary and Lily becomes his assistant.
Witty and elegant, Gaston possesses confidence and keen social awareness. When Mariette attempts to seduce Gaston, he musters enough resolve to resist, despite his attraction to her, because he must retain her trust for his plan to succeed. He’s the only redeemable figure in the film, true to his principles and Lily. He is easily one of the most flattering portraits of a criminal in the history of film.
The movie’s women characters are less sympathetic, despite winning performances. Hopkins is part Carole Lombard, part Clara Bow; her Lily is spunky, garrulous, and just shy of irritating. Unfortunately, she’s also prone to jealousy and covetousness. She lacks Gaston’s resourcefulness and intelligence, and when she suspects that he has become captivated by Mariette’s “assets,” she simmers and virtually foils their plan by confronting both of them in an outburst befitting a child. It takes Gaston’s charm to calm the situation.
Mariette, too, is deeply flawed. Delicate and beautiful, but also obtuse and naïve, she neither understands business, nor cares to. Most of all, she’s emotionally superficial. She has fallen for Gaston, but when he reveals his identity and purpose — when, in effect, he betrays her — her reaction is stunted. Sad but not distraught, Mariette is left looking grateful for her few moments with Gaston.
If Lubitsch’s women are stereotypes, his aristocrats are caricatures. These remnants of the old European order — military men, financiers, the idle rich — are impotent, pompous, insufferable, stupid, and thoroughly dishonest. The seemingly noble Giron (C. Aubrey Smith), chairman of Mariette’s perfume company, has been embezzling from her for years — and she’s ignorant of this as well. Francois (Edward Everett Horton), one of Mariette’s suitors, is arrogant and empty-headed, failing, throughout the film, to recognize Gaston as the thief who robbed him in a Venice hotel.
To a certain extent, you feel pity for these characters. Not only are they driven by corrupt desires that belie their appearances, but they are also fodder for Lubitsch’s skewering of conventional notions of money, sex, power, and the physical and emotional transactions between men and women.
As Lily observes, “One gets so tired of one’s own class.” Trouble in Paradise does seem tired. When the lower class thieves and upper class buffoons become interchangeable, sophistication becomes merely stylistic. Indeed, were it not for its sharp repartee, Trouble in Paradise wouldn’t be funny at all; rather, it would be mean-spirited and insubstantial. Its plot is conventional, its supporting characters briefly defined by distinguishing flaws: Mariette’s vanity, Giron’s dishonesty, Francois’ stupidity. Though it examines the emotional destructiveness of money and jealousy, it also refuses to take anyone’s — particularly Mariette’s and Lily’s — emotions seriously.
Given these shortcomings, does Trouble in Paradise warrant its reputation as one of the greatest comedies of manners? In its delectable allure and sly handling of sex, it certainly does, exemplifying the precision of that Touch. Lubitsch’s influence is perpetually visible, in work by directors from Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, and Preston Sturges, to Billy Wilder, Peter Bogdanovich, and Cameron Crowe. Appropriately, Criterion includes some of their written tributes to Lubitsch on this DVD. Additional features include Lubitsch’s 1917 German silent film, Das fidele Gefängnis (The Merry Jail), and a 1940 Screen Guild Theater radio program with Lubitsch, Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert, and Basil Rathbone.
Most notable are the DVD’s restored image and sound, revealing Lubitsch’s visual economy. He frames only what’s necessary, builds tension with simple, smooth camera movements. At the climax, when Lily arrives at Mariette’s home, Lubitsch closes in on Gaston through a window, then Lily through another window, and then Mariette through a doorway. Such imagery grants Trouble in Paradise an admirable nuance, even as it skirts some social and emotional realities.