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Ernst Lubitsch’s sparkling and elegant comedy, Trouble in Paradise, centers around three characters: a male thief, a female thief, and a wealthy widow. The bare bones of the characters suggest predation and immorality, but the storytelling subverts the more obvious outcome into a comedy of manners, morals, and romance, with a complete snubbing of several established moral and social conventions. In fact, two of the main tenets of most Hollywood movies, the triumph of love and the importance of honesty, are turned on their heads; their very opposites are showcased. It is a surprising and very un-Hollywood type of 1930s film, and very much a product of its studio, Paramount. Ernst Lubitsch, its director, was allowed to espouse truly upper class and even criminal sets of morals, within a sophisticated and polished package.
As probably best typified by Lubitsch, whose sly, stylish comedies contrasted so vividly with Capra’s open, homespun films, Paramount pictures were decidedly nonegalitarian. They didn’t ennoble the audience; they whisked them away to a world of sheen and sex where people spoke in innuendo, acted with abandon, and doubted the rewards of virtue (Gabler 204).
In contrast with other films of its era, such as 1933’s Gold Diggers, there is no poor girl with a heart of gold who wins the heart of millionaire. There is no triumph of honesty and disregard of social distinctions, such as when Brad tells all and sundry he plans to marry Polly despite the vast difference between their social stations (and succeeds). Rather, Lubitsch’s glossy, clever comedy embraces class snobbery to the degree that Gaston and Lily pretend to be a baron and a countess. These two professional thieves make their living preying on the upper class, and they revel in their parasitic existence and their deceitful lives as members of the class they prey upon.
They even make wry jokes about them, referring back to their own method of theft and profit. When Lily discusses her imaginary friends the dukes, counts, kings, and marquises, she sighs heavily and says, “Everyone always talking shop. Trying to sell jewelry.” These thieves have no compunction whatsoever about what they do, and what they are. As Gabler says, Paramount was able to balance its films between “sophistication with a certain hard-edged realism – the gentleman with the con artist, the civil with the steely, the genteel with the tough” (205).
From the start of Trouble in Paradise, the film’s story and people are suspect. The opening sequence, as Peter Bogdonavich points out in the DVD commentary, sets the scene in a neat and unobtrusive way in Venice, by showing a garbage man singing in Italian and loading his gondola with refuse. Yet Lubitsch is also alerting us to the fact that everything that the two main characters are about to say – their whole long romantic discussion about their imaginary upper-class lives – is false. Indeed, “our gondolier is a garbage man, our Baron a jewel thief, and our Countess a cutpurse” (Poague 77).
Similarly, nothing about the hero and heroine is typically “Hollywood,” even before the audience knows they are criminals. The “Baron” Gaston is handsome and suave, but not as masculine as such movie stars as Cary Grant; rather, he has a very upper-class testiness and effeminacy (particularly evident in his discussion with Madame Colet about her shades of lipstick and face powder). Likewise, Miriam Hopkins as Lily, though certainly a beauty, is dressed and portrayed throughout most of the film as cute, small, perky, and competent (at pick pocketing) in opposition to the portrayal of Kay Francis as Madame Colet as the most sublime and elegant beauty.
The typical Hollywood version would, as in Gold Diggers of 1933, portray the heroine or heroines of the film as the most beautiful woman or women in the film (as Ruby Keeler and Joan Blondel are). Thus, when the viewers meet Madame Colet later in the film, the sympathy automatically switches to her, rather than remaining with Lily, the “true love” of Gaston and his partner in crime.
These strange inversions of “who is the heroine?” and “is the hero really a hero?” continue in the film not only in the appearances but the actions of the characters. Gaston is able to plot not only a major theft from Madame Colet, but also to manipulate and engineer a scandalous act of fornication and betrayal of his own Lily, also with Madame Colet. When neither takes place the character does not seem redeemed, because he is not at all sorry.
The “long con” Gaston plays on Madame Colet is not even mitigated by a Robin Hood ideal – it is clear that Gaston and Lily will only use the proceeds of a theft from Madame Colet for their own frivolous and work-free lifestyle, not to give to the poor or use the money for some other worthy cause. As Eyman writes, “Lubitsch never tries to make the characters conventionally warm or likable” (Eyman 193). Gaston and Lily are unalloyed opportunists, and in fact the criminal nature of each of them seems to be sexually exciting to the other.
Lily goes so far as to say “I love you as a crook”, and the minute their true identities are revealed to each other, the sexual tension breaks. Gaston locks the door, shakes Lily bodily (ostensibly to get back his wallet), and steals her garter, and she throws herself into his arms. In fact, the next scene we have of them is a domestic one, with no mention of a marriage certificate. The implication of sex without a wedding is clear.
Thus, other than the repudiation of traditional ideas of legal ownership and theft, the sexual ideas of marriage, monogamy, and fidelity are also thrown out on their ears. None of the main characters are married (including the comedic characters played by Edward Everett Horton and Charlie Ruggles,) and, it appears at the end of the film, that none of them will marry. Madame Colet even says “Marriage is a beautiful mistake which two people make together.” It is tacitly acknowledged that Gaston loves both Madame Colet and Lily, or at least desires them both, but he is nevertheless loved by both women, and is taken back by his girlfriend Lily in the end.
There is a direct parallel of the more conventional state of affairs, where the beautiful woman (Madame Colet) has two suitors (the Major and Monsieur Fileba), whom she chastely holds off and does not love. Gaston has two women who he does love, and he intends to be intimate with both of them. That is the compelling and interesting triangle, rather than the ridiculous and comic triangle of the two unsuccessful suitors. Lubitsch is definitely throwing off the normal ideas of romantic intrigue for a more modern and cynical one.
“Trouble in Paradise is perhaps Lubitsch’s clearest statement yet on the tenuous nature of romantic relationships, and on the necessity of variation and some gentle mutual deceit to stave off lethargy and boredom” (Eyman 193). It seems to embody a sort of upper-class idea of sexuality, where it is accepted for a man (there was undoubtedly a double standard) to have not only a wife (or a girlfriend, in Gaston’s case) but also a mistress, such as kings and aristocrats did. Gaston is not condemned for his double-love, except by the injured party (Lily) – it adds to his aura of glamour.
There is also a level of blatant physical and sexual dominance that Gaston exhibits over the women in his life that is unsettling and not at all playful. Both Lily and Madame Colet sneak dunks into their coffee when Gaston isn’t looking. It is apparent that he wouldn’t like such a vulgarity. During their first meeting, Gaston boldly suggests to Madame Colet that, hypothetically (as her father, or her secretary) he should spank her. When Gaston and Lily have their rendezvous in Venice he, in a sickening moment suggestive of date-rape, locks the door and grabs Lily quite roughly. He regulates what Madame Colet eats, what she wears, and that she exercises. There is less of the romantic admirer and more of a control freak in Gaston, further complicating his hero status.
In fact, the main attractions of all of these characters, particularly Gaston, are their looks and charm. It appears to be a case of the beautiful people getting away with more than the unattractive people. The Major and Monsieur Fileba, for example, are given no sympathy when they are robbed or thrown over by Madame Colet, and their bumbling antics are contrasted with grace and brilliant runs up the stairs by Gaston.
Gaston’s masterful management of the boardroom and bedroom matters matter here, not his moral code or checkered past. It is a case of might makes right – might being social grace, good appearance, and charm. The beautiful and elegant people – Gaston and Madame Colet – form the “erotic center” (Eyman 192) of the film. It is their love affair, the most illicit one in a film full of illicit or failed romantic relationships, which is the important one.
It is not at all the kind of ending one would expect, either, where the compensation for the injured party in the triangle (Lily) is the cash and jewelry of her boyfriend’s lover. Lily, is sexually attracted by Gaston’s skewed morals, and her good graces can be bought back Gaston stealing from her romantic competition. The juxtaposition of romance and finance is so blatant that Gaston says (and at the time the viewers are not entirely certain if it is true or not) that “As far as I’m concerned all her (Madame’s) sex appeal is in that safe!” There is no idealization of love here – it is based primarily on the mutual financial and sexual benefit of both parties. There is an element of like-mates-like, in that Lily is attracted by another thief, but Lily is always shown as the more besotted of the pair of her and Gaston. The main drivers of love in this film are sex and money, with an amoral, socially dangerous attitude toward both. “Love and larceny not only coexist, they positively bask in each other’s company”.
The fact that any of these characters are appealing to the audience at all is a testament to the direction of Lubitsch and the skill of the actors. The morality is so unconventional as to border on the absurd. The aesthetics of the film rescue it, however, and not only in the appealing looks of the protagonists. The film is shot in beautiful interiors, with the finest gowns and furs and hairstyles, giving a sheen of gorgeous unreality to everything. Gaston and Madame are depicted as the very upper crust of society (Gaston’s manners must have come from some ruined nobility – he is possibly the most sophisticated and suave thief in cinema up until Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief). Thus, their morals, or lack thereof, could have been dismissed by the viewers as being upper-class, rather than middle- or working-class customs. The movie twists conventional morality so much, in fact, that Madame’s most redeeming acts are the fact that she doesn’t prosecute Gaston for stealing from her, and paying off her lover’s girlfriend.
Lubitsch successfully constructed a world in which the beautiful are forgiven for all of their crimes, and crime and dishonesty triumph. It is a refreshing twist on normal Hollywood mores, and the elegant settings and characters make it possible to be enjoyable. The satire is there, certainly, in the references to the poor of “these uncertain times” and the Marxist in Madame’s sitting room, but the focus is always on the character’s personal decisions, rather than the social implications of what they do. In the Hollywood dream factory, Trouble in Paradise was the ultimate kind of fantasy, a vacation from the accepted strictures on sex, money, crime, and love.
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