Trouble in Paradise

(Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1932)


"If there’s something missing, that signifies trouble in paradise!" Is there any wonder that the radically-minded critics of the 1960s gleefully seized on one of Ernst Lubitsch’s greatest masterpieces (in a career chock-full of masterpieces) – for its high-style cynicism, its insistence on money as the basis of all interpersonal exchange (including the erotic), its effortless foregrounding of every manipulative trick and corny convention reigning in 1930s Hollywood?


The final scene of Trouble in Paradise runs for scarcely 45 seconds. It is a simple framing of two actors – Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall (both superb) – sitting in an obviously artificial car prop, with a back-projected bit of filmed traffic. Only one shot, and only one, excited word over the musical score, uttered by Hopkins just before the closing fade-out: “Gaston!” So simple – and yet many of the techniques that made Lubitsch such a masterful director of comedy coalesce in this exhilarating ending.


The action films of Fritz Lang or Samuel Fuller usually follow a rule of thumb for exposition: start right in the middle of something physical (an explosion or robbery) to hook the spectator, and save the explanations in dialogue for the following, more sedate scene. Lubitsch went one better in the genre of comedy by mirroring this trope in an inverse symmetry for the ending: the penultimate scene may contain a lot of smart gab, but the finale should be, as completely as possible, wordless, expressing itself only in looks and gestures.


This is exactly how Trouble in Paradise is built. The scene before the ending has traced a complicated denouement, sorting out the difficult triangle formed by the thieving lovers, Lily (Hopkins) and Gaston Monescu (Marshall), plus the society lady who has come between them, Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis). This scene is itself a small masterpiece of twists and surprises: Lily at first righteously refuses the generous donation of 100,000 francs that Mariette has offered (in a roundabout way) in order to “buy” Gaston from her, but Lily manages to recuperate it before making her grand exit out the door (Lubitsch loved doors).


Elaborate off-screen action ensues: Mariette is sad as she hears Gaston’s footsteps die away, but perks up when she hears those same footsteps returning. But it turns out to be a last, florid goodbye from Gaston (“It could have been marvellous … divine … wonderful”) – capped off by his frank admission that he has also surreptitiously stolen an expensive string of pearls  (“Your gift to her”).


Now the film dissolves into its crowning 45 seconds. A tense stand-off between the pair: Lily angry, with her arms folded; Gaston watching her, helpless. Then he smiles, as if remembering he has the gift of pearls up his sleeve. But his gestures quickly become frantic, searching in one pocket after another: it’s gone! He freezes, and they look at each other; Lily then unfolds her arms and slowly produces the “gift” she has already secretly stolen from him. As she places it in her purse, the music surges and quickens, and Gaston smiles in appreciation. Or is it another kind of smile? He modulates into a poker face as she, too, realises that something else is missing from her purse. He produces the 100,000 francs from his pocket, and triumphantly jams them into her open purse (the purse-lap combo has a clear erotic connotation). All tension relieved, they threw their arms around each and kiss. She cries: “Gaston!”


This is not the first time that Lily has cried out Gaston’s name with such orgasmic joy. (Hopkins had already proved in a previous Lubitsch gem, The Smiling Lieutenant [1931], how suggestively and subversively she can deliver even the most innocent or banal line.) In fact, the ending is a compacted, pantomime-like repetition of a much longer scene early in the film, when these two characters meet for the first time over a quiet dinner.


Both are pretending to be someone they are not – a Baron and a Countess. In the course of the scene, each exposes the other’s true identity. And then we are treated to a string of revelations concerning the small but decisive acts of theft they have already committed: he’s swiped her pin, she’s taken his watch (whose time she has also regulated) … and he, in further, complete defiance of all screen realism, has pinched the garter she was wearing! It’s this last coup that prompts Lily to fly into his arms and hurl the inaugural “Gaston!”


Even the music (composed by W. Franke Harling) gets in on the joke here. The score that accompanies the ending is associated with a radio broadcast we see within the film’s first 20 minutes; in it, backstory about Gaston’s misadventures is mingled with a sung advertisement for Mariette’s perfume business, “Colet and Company”. In the penultimate scene, Lily acidly farewells “Madame Colet … and company”; and this Madame’s final line, referring to the pearls, is “with the compliments of Colet … and company”.


The so-called “Lubitsch touch” is renowned, endlessly evoked by critics (from Herman Weinberg to Serge Daney), filmmakers (from Billy Wilder to Wes Anderson), and even critics-turned-filmmakers (from Peter Bogdanovich to Edgardo Cozarinksy) alike. In truth, this touch is not one, single effect – if it were, his admirers might be able to emulate it better. It is, rather, an integration of structures and moves at every level of cinematic craft: the plotting in the script, the staging of action, and the direction of actors – as well as the careful editing patterns and placement of musical cues that Lubitsch foresaw down to the last detail.


Yet Lubitsch is never simply inside or outside the Hollywood codes; while he up-ends every appearance (as much through sound counterpoint as through framing and editing games) – from that very first, startling spectacle of the garbage-man breaking into a Venetian aria – he also lets us enjoy the sly virtuosity, the infinite caginess, and finally even the mutual tenderness between his principal thieves.


Through the form of its intricate, nested repetitions, and in the content of its class-conscious satire, Trouble in Paradise endures.


MORE Lubitsch: The Shop Around the Corner, Angel, The Man I Killed, To Be or Not to Be


MORE Lubitsch (book review): How Did Lubitsch Do It? by Joseph McBride

© Adrian Martin August 2011 / February 2017

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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