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Trouble in Paradise (1932)
 
There is no need to repeat the accolades that Trouble in Paradise film has received. The film is witty, glamorous, and charming - it shows Lubitsch's direction at its best. So why do I feel that the film could have been so much better? Why is it we remember films such as It Happened One Night but have forgotten Trouble in Paradise?

Partly this is due to the censorship of the 1934 Hayes Code that would fall like a dead hand on all artistic endeavours. There was no chance the studio could reissue a film where the main players were criminals who not only go unpunished, but are cohabiting even though they are not married. But even if it had been reissued I expect Trouble in Paradise would still have fallen into oblivion.

The film is a professional critic's delight. It has the seal of approval of people like Peter Bogdanovitch and Pierre Truffaut. Academics could build a course in film directing around it - and probably have. But why is it that Lubitsch himself would rarely talk about it? Could he have been disappointed with the way it turned out?

There are - to my eyes - a few things that jar. The famous opening scene where an operatically-inclined dustman is emptying garbage into a gondolier is a very clever introduction to Venice but it seems oddly awry with the sophistication of the rest of the film. So too does the nudge-nudge-wink-wink vulgarity of the title which shows the words Trouble in overlaying an image of a double bed before the phrase is completed with Paradise. Lubitsch at his hammiest.

The rest of the opening is also at variance with the main mood of the film. We could be looking at the beginning of a murder mystery. It is night, and for an instant in the gloom we glimpse a man leaping over a wall. Then a head in silhouette is pulling off what is obviously a disguise. We pan to the interior of the building where a man lies on the floor of a hotel room. Outside the door two 'ladies of the night' are complaining because the client who has called them is not answering the bell. Inside the man struggles to his feet only to collapse again. We would not be surprised to learn he was dead.

This violent episode seems alien to the rest of the film. There is also a discontinuity in the characterisation. Later Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) and François Filiba (Edward Everett Horton) exchange whispers about the goings-on in the harems of Constantinople - but it is difficult to believe that the wimpish François Filiba1 who finds this childish sexual innuendo titivating is the same individual as the man who called not one, but two, prostitutes to his hotel room. Similarly can the charming Gaston Monescu who waxes lyrical on the balcony, telling the waiter that he wants "to see the moon in the champagne", be the same person as the thug who bludgeoned Filiba into unconsciousness only a short while before?

In fact this is a formulaic opening. This is the way Raffles (1930) opens, or Bat Whispers (1930). One wonders if Lubitsch chose to open the film this way to demonstrate that he could do it better than anyone else. (Which of course he could.) Lubitsch lived in a very competitive artistic world.

Another minor weakness of the film is Miriam Hopkins. She is effective as Lily the crook, but we never believe in her as the Countess of Venice. She would never have passed for an instant in "smart" company. Fortunately she only has to play at being a Countess in one scene: in her disguise as a secretary she is much more convincing.

In the dinner scene, Herbert Marshall, born and raised in England, handles his knife and fork with true European upper-crust aplomb, the fork always held tines down, and the knife more a tool for pushing food onto the fork than for anything as vulgar as cutting meat. But Hopkins cannot pull it off. Her utensils are grasped awkwardly as she struggles to make the transition from the different American tradition. And to European eyes, when she leans over her plate and saws at her steak she is instantly déclassé and not the sort of person the bon chic bon gen would ever associate with. In the Europe of the Thirties that was the way workers ate.

Of course Gaston and Lily are only acting that they are members of the aristocracy, but I suspect Hopkins' performance at the dinner table is due to lack of ability rather than a clever ploy to show she is just a working girl under her finery. If Lubitsch wants to depict the down-to-earth side of a character, he can be much more subtle. Madame Colet (Kay Francis) hides from her secretary the fact that she has acquired a taste for the working-class habit of dunking food in her coffee, taking a quick bite when the secretary isn't looking. A scene repeated by Lily, although she trying to hide what she is doing from Gaston, who is not only acting like an aristocrat but has adopted the manners permanently.

But the above are only minor niggles. In my opinion the main reason that the film is so little remembered is that it only appeals to the mind, and never the heart. Our emotions are never fully engaged, and yet this is something a showman such as Lubitsch would have known was essential to a successful romantic comedy. After a performance of Trouble in Paradise, the audience should have left the theatre glad that Gaston and Lily were together again, but at the same time sighing for a love that might have been. But that certainly isn't my reaction. There is no 'feel-good factor' in Trouble in Paradise.

I doubt very much that Lubitsch planned it this way. Essentially the problem lies with the casting of Herbert Marshall as the leading character, Gaston Monescu.

Gaston loves Lily, but is attracted to and falls for Madame Colet (Kay Frances). It is Gaston's dilemma and the film focuses on him throughout. The whole film revolves around Gaston. And yet Herbert Marshall who plays the part only gets third billing behind Miriam Hopkins and Kay Francis. Nor is he the highest paid actor on the set.2

Normally the main character - the person who has to carry the film - is a recognized star, someone who can insist on top billing, someone with a persona an audience can relate to.3 As the consummate professional, Lubitsch would have been aware of this. But he was now very much part of the Paramount system and Paramount budgetary constraints. He had to make the best of Paramount players even though he had someone else in mind when he started on the project.

That person was probably Ronald Colman. Lubitsch always wrote with specific actors in mind, and the lines he and Samson Raphaelson wrote for Gaston are typical Ronald Colman lines. Herbert Marshall even sounds like Colman, the same accent, the same brittle delivery, but without the warmth that made Colman a star.

In the balcony scene, Marshall delivers his lines with an aristocratic panache. The dinner he and the waiter are planning for his tryst with Lily has to be marvellous, even though "we may not eat any of it". He tells the waiter that he wants to "see the moon in the champagne", but when he delivers the line "as to you waiter, I don't want to see you at all", the effect is blunt and insensitive. Colman could have delivered that line to full humorous effect without giving the least offence. Colman could charm the birds from the tree, but Marshall could only act at being charming. There is always a twinkle in Ronald Colman's eye, but never in Herbert Marshall's.

Do we really believe that Kay Francis' Madame Colet has fallen in love with Herbert Marshall's Gaston? Gaston is smooth, urbane, and miraculously efficient, but that is the sort of quality the rich could buy at an employment bureau. But we can imagine Madame Colet falling for the sort of debonair scoundrel with a heart of gold that was Ronald Colman's stock in trade. If we compare Colman's character Willie Leyland in The Devil to Pay! or his Barrington Hunt in The Unholy Garden with Herbert Marshall's Gaston Monescu, Colman wins the devil-may-care scoundrel stakes hands down.

If we imagine Ronald Colman in the lead part, everything falls into place. There is no need to change a word in the script, and yet the film would be reborn. We can believe Madame Colet would fall for him to such an extent that she doesn't count the cost to her reputation or her bank balance. Similarly we can believe that Lily would be insane with jealousy when she found out about his dalliance with Madame Colet. And we can also believe that Ronald Colman's Gaston could charm his way out of the situation, leaving Madame Colet with only nostalgic memories rather than a broken heart. But Herbert Marshall, despite the fact that he was a sexual athlete off screen4, could never put that across to an audience.

There is no evidence the Lubitsch wrote Trouble in Paradise with Colman in mind, however everything points to it. The dialogue is typically Colmanesque, and even the screenplay pays tribute to Colman's films. As mentioned earlier, the opening could come from Raffles which starts with a crime being committed at night, and the dilemma over two women could come from The Devil to Pay! (1930). There is even the same class-divide between the two women. In The Devil to Pay!, one (Dorothy Hope played by Loretta Young) is a high-class socialite and the other (Susan Hale played by Irma Loy) is a down-to-earth actress.

In The Devil to Pay! Colman has the delicate task of informing his former mistress Susan Hale that they must part because he intends to marry Dorothy Hope, while at the same time having promised Dorothy that he will never see Susan again. His dialogue while he ruminates over the matter with his pet dog George is just as stiff-upper-lip stilted as Gaston Monescu's. He considers a letter, but comes to the conclusion that that is a shabby way out, and not the way a gentleman should act. "It just won't do," he says to the dog. Eventually he decides that he will not be transgressing Dorothy's command if he "accidentally" bumps into Susan in the street. If those lines had been delivered by Herbert Marshall we would much more aware of the deceitfulness of the solution, but with Ronald Colman we have sufficient faith in the integrity of his screen persona to accept it as no more than a harmless white lie.

After Trouble in Paradise, being stuck with a second-rank leading player was something Lubitsch would try to avoid. For the next few years his leading men would have a true star's persona. In If I had a Million (1932) the star was Gary Cooper, in One Hour with You (1932) the stars were Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, in Design for Living (1933) it was Gary Cooper again, and The Merry Widow (1934) was another Chevalier and MacDonald film.

But it was not without difficulty. In Design for Living Lubitsch again had Ronald Colman in mind for one of the principal players, the other two roles being destined for Leslie Howard and Miriam Hopkins (again). But Howard refused and a studio contractee Frederick Marsh was appointed. When Ronald Colman's casting also fell through, Lubitsch cast another well-known personality in the role, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. But this too fell through, but rather than take another studio contractee - however good an actor - Lubitsch cast the unlikely Gary Cooper in the role. Cooper - who was never renowned for his intellectual abilities - had not yet proven he could handle romantic comedy, and even Cooper himself was unsure he could play the part. To the studio it seemed a strange choice.5

But Lubitsch stuck to his guns. He explained his position on the casting of Design for Living with "... the people who do not read reviews or care about them will love it ... Gary Cooper means something to them ..."6

Lubitsch knew the emotional value a real star's persona brought to the screen.

NOTES

1     
In his commentary for the Criterion Collection DVD, Scott Eyman refers to Filiba as a eunuch.
2     
In the commentary quoted above, Scott Eyman relates the salaries earned by the players. Kay Francis received the most at $4,000 per week, while Herbert Marshall and Edward Everett Horton level-peg at $3,500, as do Miriam Hopkins and Charlie Ruggles at $1,750. (Hopkins, a Lubitsch favourite, got an extra two hundred bucks for expenses.)
3     
For example old favourites such as It happened One Night (1934) don't work merely because of the plot, but because of the players, in the case Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Similarly we love all the Billy Wilder commedies that star Walter Mathau and/or Jack Lemon, no matter how risqué, but without them (or the stars Wilder is believed to have wanted, Peter Sellars and Marilyn Monroe), Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) fell flat on its face.
4     
A praiseworthy feat indeed for a man with only one leg.
5     
Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise, Scott Eyman, New York, 1993, p. 208-9.
6     
Eyman 1993, p. 209.