I had always heard about this movie and the Lubitsch touch and finally caught it in on Netflix. If you haven’t seen it, do it! If you have, re-view it. This 1932 movie shows what an ingenious director can do in the face of technical challenges. It was shot at the beginning of the “talkie” era when sound recording equipment famously “chained the camera” because it was too bulky and noisy to move.
Director Ernst Lubitsch had a superb cast and script (written by Samson Raphaelson) and knew what to do with the camera. In the dialogue scenes it stays put but he cuts away frequently to break things up, shoots from all angles, and cheat actions. Watch this seminal scene below. It not only sets up the characters but engages us so much that when it cuts away to the door and then the curtain, we don’t notice that Gaston Montescu (played by Herbert Marshall) doesn’t close the curtains – they close themselves – after which he re-enters the scene to be with Lily (the extremely talented Miriam Hopkins).
Natural born thieves, natural editing Modern editing
The editing for this 83 minute movie is as sly and sophisticated as its amoral characters, professional thieves by trade and choice. And even sexier. The cutting intimates intimacy – Gaston sleeping with two gorgeous women – which scored its being banned after three years under the Hays code and not seen in the U.S. from 1935-1968. Even better, the women and the men, both rich and scheming, are not stereotyped, but seen as equals in their sexual desires, silliness, and attitudes toward money.
Wealthy widow and perfume company owner Mariette Colet (Kay Francis, terrific as always) employs the thieves.
Trouble in Paradise is superb study in editing for its comic timing and economy of edits. It is no stale, slow moving classic movie. Although the camera pauses for the dialogue scenes, they are well-written and timed and Lubitsch kept the camera or actors active when words don’t need to be recorded. The director also employs sound effects along with deft picture cuts to move the movie along.
As with the best of comedy, the cuts and the plot points they move to counter to expectations. The opening scene counters clichés by showing a Venice gondolier poling a bag of garbage along the canal. Nothings is conventional about this movie as it counters are expectations time and time again. Lubitsch also creates some clever scene transitions. One uses a series of deco clocks to show the advance of an affair; another has the Eiffel tower broadcasting frequency waves like the RKO logo to signal the thief couple’s move from Venice to Paris.
We enjoy spending time with this couple as do the uber-rich people they swindle, though we know we’d have to watch our wallets and jewelry around them I also enjoyed seeing character actor Edward Everett Horton – younger and rounder than I’d ever seen him before.
Finally, this movie sets a high standard for romance, comedy, and editing because goes beyond the glitzy world of its characters to look at how to accept of life in the face of the sometimes gritty, soul-challenging business of living it.
Rival suitors played by Charles Ruggles (l) and Edward Everett Horton (r).
Like many Jewish director-producers in the 1920’s, Lubitsch escaped the hard lives of his parents in Europe and crossed over to the U.S. to create Hollywood and its movies. For a premiere look at this subject, check out Neal Gabler’s award-winning, highly readable book, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood.)
The Lubitsch touch
Many of have tried to describe the spin Lubitsch puts on his movies. One of them, director Billy Wilder, another Jewish European escapee, had a sign in his studio office that said, “How would Lubitsch do it?” Many more have appreciated the Lubitsch touch, as I suggest you do, simply by experiencing his films (filmography below). Biographer Scott Eyeman, expresses the touch this way:
With few exceptions Lubitsch’s movies take place neither in Europe nor America but in Lubitschland, a place of metaphor, benign grace, rueful wisdom…To the unsophisticated eye, Lubitsch’s work can appear dated, simply because his characters belong to a world of formal sexual protocol. But his approach to film, to comedy, and to life was not so much ahead of its time as it was singular, and totally out of any time.
The Lubitsch touch apparently extended to women in his personal life. He died at 55 in 1947 of a heart attack, purportedly while entwined with an aspiring actress. How’s that for a Lubitsch ending?
Lubitsch Filmography (U.S.)
The Shop Around the Corner (also prod.) 1940 Remade in 1998 as You’ve got Mail.
That Uncertain Feeling (also prod.) 1941
To Be or Not to Be (also co-prod. co-story) 1942
Heaven Can Wait (also prod.) 1943
A Royal Scandal (prod. only) 1945
Cluny Brown (also prod.) 1946
That Lady in Ermine (completed by Otto Preminger post humous) 1948
Paramount on Parade (co-dir. with 10 others) 1930
Monte Carlo 1930
The Smiling Lieutenant (also co-sc.) 1931
The Man I Killed/Broken Lullaby 1932
One Hour With You 1932
Trouble in Paradise (also prod.) 1932
Design for Living 1933
The Merry Widow 1934
Desire (prod. only) 1936
Angel (also prod.) 1937
Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (also prod.) 1938
The Marriage Circle 1924
Three Women (also co-story) 1924
Forbidden Paradise 1924
Kiss Me Again 1925
Lady Windermere’s Fan 1925
So This Is Paris 1926
The Student Prince/The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg 1927
The Patriot 1928
Eternal Love 1929
The Love Parade 1929
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