Trouble in Paradise
It's always tempting to look back on an earlier period and see it as somehow simpler than today; they didn't have this or that, whether it was electricity or jet planes or digital effects in movies. We mistake the new for the good, or at least for the better. We mistake technology for progress, and rather than look at the works created we look only at how they were done. But when we suffer through a spring that's given us films like "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days," and its corollary "Down With Love," we know, uneasily, that the truth is likely to be just the opposite: Back then lay, if not greatness, at least an art that took itself seriously. In fact the brilliant works of irony of the nineties - "Pulp Fiction," "Run Lola Run," "The Usual Suspects" - made the point so well that we, some of us, hoped that Hollywood studios had finally understood that film is an art form and not just sitcom television writ large.
I am not claiming that Ernst Lubitsch, whose "Trouble in Paradise"(1932) has just opened the series called "The Lubitsch Touch" at Film Forum in New York, was a great film artist. He was not. But at his best, as here, he could spin sugar into gold thread, and that is something just as rare. So when, about an hour after an opening nighttime shot across a canal in Venice in which we have seen in silhouette what appears to be an assault in a hotel room, we hear Edward Everett Horton complain that "The man said he was a dentist - he had me open my mouth and say ahhh - and that's the last thing I remember," and the opening scene comes clear to us, we know we're in the presence of a master. (And that of his favorite writing partner Samson Raphaelson, who adapted Aladar Laszlo's play into this scrumptious tidbit.)
Lubitsch's genius - and it is possible to be a genius without being 'great' - lay in his ability to have us enter his films as guests, almost literally to step into the lives of his people; we feel we have all the time in the world to be with them. No one grabs us to pull us in, to shock or startle us or overwhelm us with a racing plot engine. The motor of his film is so quiet we barely notice it. There is a deftness, an understated, unhurried quality that lets us cradle ourselves comfortably in his arms.
For me, "Trouble in Paradise" is his masterpiece, the rare film that rewards us anew with each successive viewing. It's the story of a pair of jewel thieves, Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins, conning and robbing their way across Europe in that delicious, brief but timeless era of dinner jackets and satin evening gowns that marked so many films of the thirties. He is Gaston Monescu, she is Lili Vautier, his consort and partner. But when we meet them, at the end of that long opening tracking shot, we know only that Gaston, as a baron, is ordering a special meal in his hotel suite for a dinner with a countess. That she turns out to be Lili we learn only when they begin a sexual pas de deux in which, as pickpockets, they remove more and more intimate objects from each other, ending with his taking her garter and their falling into each other's arms. (This was, after all, pre-Code.)
There is a delicacy to everything in "Trouble in Paradise." Gaston and Lili spot a diamond-encrusted clutch bag in the hand of Mme. Mariette Colet (the very bright and pretty Kay Francis), widow of a perfume manufacturer. But instead of a theft or a simple con, Herbert Marshall finds his way into Mme. Colet's life as her secretary. She is no fool; her native wit matches his elegance; she knows he is not who he seems, but enjoys the play of the game. And around the edges of the plot stand Horton, a suitor for Colet's hand; Charlie Ruggles as his competition; and C. Aubrey Smith as her business advisor. Her perfect butler is played by Robert Greig. Every moment of the film is a step in this dance of manners and gestures.
Some others of Lubitsch's American films are not, for me, so successful. The emblematic "Ninotchka," always attached to the line "Garbo laughs!" is also burdened by the fact that she was a mediocre farceur; more plot-driven than "Trouble in Paradise," "Ninotchka" is too busy for its own good. "The Shop Around the Corner," from which Nora Ephron took "Sleepless in Seattle," is too earnest to be funny. James Stewart seems entirely wrong for the part, playing so heavily as to appear driven; against Margaret Sullavan, whose vulnerability is a part of her wit, he weighs the script down. And "To Be or Not to Be," which has both a daring premise and the astounding pairing of Jack Benny and Carole Lombard (how in the world did Lubitsch know that it would work?), shares the flaws of Mel Brooks's films: ideas that are greater than their execution on screen.
Nevertheless, we must not even think of looking the gift horse in the mouth. We have received it, it is delicious, and we are grateful.