For some people, that’s all you have to say. He was one of the first “star” directors, a director whose films people would go see regardless of who the actors were, which meant he could get top stars like Greta Garbo begging to work with him. I could populate an entire Top 10 list with only Lubitsch’s films, and if I did, the number one spot would be a tough, tough call between Trouble in Paradise and 1942's To Be or Not To Be. But we’re talking about Pre-Code films here so, for today, Trouble in Paradise is going to take the top spot.
This is one of Lubitsch’s nine collaborations with New York playwright Samson Raphaelson, who also wrote two other beloved Lubitsch films, The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and Heaven Can Wait (1943). But much as I love those films, they can’t hold a candle to Trouble in Paradise.
Most writers remember the song coming first, followed by a reveal of the garbage, and interpret the moment as a comment on something being rotten underneath a facade of beauty, but I think they’re wrong. By having the sight of the garbage come before the beautiful voice, I think it’s a comment that there can be beauty even in the midst of garbage, so we shouldn’t be too quick to judge our lying, thieving, con artist leads as bad or immoral people. There can beauty and love even between criminals.
The film is fast-paced and cuts between storylines right from the start. On the one hand, we have the unfortunate Francois (Edward Everett Horton), who is robbed while he’s waiting for two … business associates (who are clearly hookers) to arrive at his Venice hotel suite, rooms 253, 5, 7 and 9. In another suite at the same hotel, we have the budding romance between a countess (Miriam Hopkins) and a baron (Herbert Marshall), neither of whom is who they are pretending to be.
After Gaston and Lily consummate their partnership, we’re introduced to the woman who will be the third leg of the triangle, Mme. Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), who is that favorite figure of Depression-era films: a rich aristocrat with a heart of gold who pretends to be more stupid and frivolous than she really is. When the board of directors of Colet and Company propose cutting employee salaries, she refuses, lightly claiming that this is all too, too complicated for her … so employee salaries must stay just as they are.
For Depression audiences, this would signal to them that she’s a good millionaire, one that’s okay for them to like. And the film is clearly aimed at Depression audiences – one of Gaston’s laugh lines is Herbert Hoover’s “prosperity is just around the corner.” Times are tough, even for thieves.
When Mariette attends the opera with her current love triangle, Francois and his rival the Major (Charlie Ruggles), Gaston spots her new bejeweled handbag and contrives to steal it, much to Mariette’s distress. In a cozy domestic scene the next morning, Lily spots an ad placed by Mariette that promises a 20,000 franc reward for the handbag, which is more than they could possibly fence it for. It seems like easy money for Gaston to go and “return” the handbag to claim the reward.
Once he meets Mariette, though, Gaston immediately concocts a new scheme. Billy Wilder, who started his Hollywood career as a protégé and writer for Lubitsch, said Lubitsch told him, “Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.” We can see Gaston doing addition throughout the scene, but it’s the audience that realizes his instant attraction to Mariette is part of the calculation.
Gaston quickly establishes himself as the authority in the household, smoothly taking care of all of Mariette’s business as her secretary. On the one hand, he’s conning her, convincing her to arrange to get an additional 850,000 francs in cash to keep in her safe at home so he can rob her. On the other, he’s careful to make sure that she won’t be too badly harmed by his actions, instructing her insurance agent to increase her burglary insurance by the necessary amount.
Gaston has secured Lily a position as his secretary, ostensibly so they can more easily steal Mariette’s money once it arrives, but Lily discovers that Mariette has another plan:
Most commentators talk about Lily and Mariette being opposites and, physically, they are. Hopkins is short, blonde, and energetic; Francis is tall, brunette, and languid. But the film shows us several times that Lily and Mariette are actually very similar – Lily is shown secretively “dunking” in an earlier domestic scene, just as Mariette is shown secretively “dunking” in this scene. Each of the women tells Gaston "I have a confession to make to you" and then tell him something about himself. In many ways, they are sisters under the skin – if Lily had been born rich, she would have been like Mariette, and Mariette would have been as clever a thief if she had been born poor like Lily. No wonder Gaston has a hard time choosing between them.
(The dunking joke is especially funny to people who’ve seen The Shop Around the Corner and remember Felix Bressart’s classic reaction to an act of dunking, but that’s beside the point.)
Gaston and Lily’s scheme is going along swimmingly until Gaston encounters Francois at Mariette’s tea party. Gaston tries defusing the situation by being the first one to ask Francois if they’ve met before, but only succeeds in getting Francois to rack his brain to try and figure it out. It takes several more scenes and a chance remark by the Major, but the truth finally dawns on Francois:
Lily and Gaston know the jig is up and come up with a plan to immediately steal the 100,000 francs currently in Mariette’s safe and leave for Berlin. But Gaston is unable to resist Mariette’s charms even as the net is closing in from two sides: Francois has recognized him and M. Giron (C. Aubrey Smith) has found out his true identity. Fortunately, Gaston’s close examination of the books has unveiled Giron’s longtime embezzlement from the company and seals Giron’s lips.
Gaston still hopes for one last night with Mariette, but his hopes are foiled when he spots Lily getting ready to clean out the safe. Lily confronts Mariette and Gaston:
Shocked to find out that Gaston is not only a thief, but is already in a longtime relationship with Lily, Mariette sadly lets him go – yes, it would have been glorious … but that terrible policeman. She’s even willing to let Gaston take the pearl necklace that Lily coveted as a gift to her.
The film ends with a taxicab reprise of Gaston and Lily’s hotel room meeting at the beginning of the film. She is able to forgive him because, ultimately, he chooses their life together over a life of luxury with Mariette and to be the thief she loves rather than the “gigolo” she feared he would become.
During Lubitsch’s lifetime, many reviewers and critics talked about “the Lubitsch Touch,” the easy sophistication that he brought to his films. Fortunately for Lubitsch, chief censor Joe Breen was not immune to Lubitsch's charms, and even in the Production Code era Lubitsch was allowed much more leeway with his subject matter and innuendos than most other directors. But you can see that famous Touch even in the freewheeling Pre-Code era with the repeated farce of people not being in the bedrooms that the butler expects and the use of various clocks to show Gaston and Mariette’s relationship becoming dangerously close. The audience knows what it all signifies, but Lubitsch lets us add it all together ourselves and, as he predicted, we love him for it.