Tonight I watched Trouble in Paradise, directed by Ernst Lubitsch in 1932. The movie is about Lily, a beautiful pickpocket, who falls in love with Gaston, a suave jewel thief. Over dinner, the tease each other by stealing different things from each other until Lily leaps into his lap and calls him Darling. They decided to rip off a woman who runs a perfume empire, Madame Mariette Colet, but Gaston finds himself torn between his feelings for the two women.
It's important to know a little about the history of film censorship to understand why critics fawn all over this movie. It was produced before the strict and, frankly, horrible, Hays Code. The Hays Code was extremely limiting to films -it's why a lot of classic older films try to hard to imply sex and sexual relationships without showing them. Most of the time, directors weren't allowed to maybe re-cut their film like they are today (which still bothers me), but scenes were simply just removed before the films were shown. Since this film was made before the Hays Code, it could get away with much more frank sexuality and raunchiness that most films of this time period. Trouble in Paradise is like many comedies today, where its' a sexual comedy, not just a romantic one. It's so much more modern in this way that most older comedies. The characters aren't involved with each other for love, they want each other and they flirt with each other shamelessly. However, it's not over the top or gross, it's somehow still..sensual? The way they talk to each other is simmering with heat, and it's really fun to watch.
The director is famous for the publicist-coined term "The Lubitsch Touch", although it's not clear to Ebert or myself what that means. I mean, obviously this director had a distinct style that seemed to elevate his material. I'm not familiar with him, so I can't say for sure. Ebert is, and at the end of his essay, he writes, "Watching "Trouble in Paradise,'' what I sensed even more was the way the comic material is given dignity by the actors; the characters have a weight of experience behind them that suggests they know life cannot be played indefinitely for laughs. Andrew Sarris, trying to define the Touch, said it was "a counterpoint of poignant sadness during a film's gayest moments.'' Consider the way Gaston and Mariette say goodbye for the last time, after it is clear to both of them that he loved her, and stole from her. How gallantly they try to make a joke of it" (The Great Movies, 465). It's this sort of complex tone that he added in, a way of showing how multi-dimensional life and our relationships are. Not all moments consists of only one easy to define emotion, which Lubitsch shows in this movie. There is sadness mixed with humor, as there is in life. I really liked that, and it was interesting to hear Ebert's take on it.
I really liked this movie - it was a great comedy, and I was really fascinated by the characters. The film really succeeds because it isn't constrained by the Hays Code It's easy to watch and it feels really modern because of this, so check it out and let me know what you think!
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Trouble in Paradise
Criterion Essay by Armond White