That Lubitsch Touch

trouble in paradise
IMDb

Ernst Lubitsch was born in Berlin in 1892 and had a long career in Germany as a comic actor, writer, and director. Britannica says Lubitsch directed over forty films before coming to America in 1923.

After seeing a Lubitsch film, people often ask, “What made Ernst Lubistch different?” Especially directors and writers, because they all want what’s called The Lubitsch Touch, an elusive quality of filmmaking that no one can quite pin down. The phrase was first coined by a journalist and soon people inside and outside of the industry were using it.

ernstlubitsch
UCLA Film & Television Archive

Even though everyone has a different idea of what The Lubitsch Touch is, no one can quite duplicate it, although many have tried. His films were marked by sophistication, intrigue, and sexual overtones that must have made Mae West green with envy. Not even the Code could stop Lubitsch from being Lubitsch.

Today, though, we’re going to look at one of Lubitsch’s Pre-Code films, 1932’s Trouble In Paradise, a Deco-themed fantasy of intrigue, bed-hopping, and klemptomania gone wild. Without further ado, we’re going to dive right in.

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The movie opens at a tony canalside hotel in Venice, where the fancy are rubbing elbows. Upstairs the very elegant Baron (Herbert Marshall) is expecting someone for dinner. He wants the moon reflected in the champagne. He wants everything just so.

Soon the young lady (Miriam Hopkins) in question stumbles in. Her name is Lily and she’s pretending to be a countess. What she really is, though, is a pickpocket, which makes she and the Baron a match made in heaven. He’s not really a baron, but Gaston Monescu, a famous thief. He steals her brooch. She steals his watch. He steals her garter. She hops into his lap and soon there’s a “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging on the door.

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Lily and Gaston plot their next move: They want money and lots of it. It just so happens that in Paris resides a young widow, Madame Mariette Coulet (Kay Francis), who owns a high end fragrance company. Money is no object to this active socialite, whose every wish is everyone else’s command.

Mariette has just bought a purse for the tidy sum of a hundred thousand francs, and she goes to the opera with it. To her horror, the purse disappears and no one can find it, so she puts out a newspaper ad offering a twenty thousand franc reward for its return. Naturally, Gaston seems to come through for Mariette, who sees how self-possessed and savvy he is and hires him as her personal secretary on the spot.

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Gaston sets about making over everything. He increases Madame’s insurance amount just in case she’s robbed…funny, that. He makes sure to stay close by when Mariette rifles around in the safes she has all over her house. He’s basically Mariette’s watchdog, threatening the board of directors at Mariette’s perfume company with paycuts if they don’t play ball.

One of them, Adolph (C. Aubrey Smith) gets especially suspicious, telling Gaston he knows there’s something fishy about him. Gaston retorts that he can spread some dirt on Adolph if Adolph gets too chatty.

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Coincidentally (yeah, not really), Gaston is so busy that he brings Lily in as a secretary. Lily pretends to be a poor working class girl who just wants to make good, but she’s biding her time until Gaston’s plan goes into effect. Gaston wants to steal Mariette blind, then make off with Lily and the loot, and he’ll go to any lengths to get there. Now if only he can avoid being recognized by anyone in the society set, seeing as they all run in pretty tight circles. One fellow, Francois (Edward Everett Horton) is as inquisitive as Adolph, and he just so happened to be staying at the same hotel as Gaston in Venice.

Trouble In Paradise is immensely clever. The dialogue is awesome, the sets look fabulous, and the story goes down like a fine wine. Every minute we hope that Mariette gets wise to Gaston, Gaston gets wise to himself, or maybe Lily gets a clue. Everything we want to happen happens and none of it does.

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The adjective most often used to describe Lubitsch films is “sophisticated,” but I would also add “modern,” because Trouble In Paradise looks very fluid and not like an early sound film at all. The first scene has very few cuts in it, effectively setting the tone for the film in seconds. We see a garbage collector on the Venice canal, and then the camera pans up to Francois passed out in his hotel room.

Trouble In Paradise is a litany of contrasts. It’s luxury next to squalor and morality alongside immorality, oftentimes merely separated by a door or the space out a window. There’s plenty of movement througout the film, showing how the line between the two states of being is often blurred or just closer than we think.

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The sexuality of the film is modern as well, although understated. Trouble In Paradise is unapologetically racy and leaves little to the imagination. Nothing overt is ever shown, but beds are a frequent motif, and the characters going the way of all flesh is heavily implied. In one scene, Mariette and Gaston’s silhouettes are reflected on a bed while the two of them embrace passionately. Yeah, that’s not subtle.

In fact, the movie is so risqué that Trouble In Paradise was barred from reissue in the United States due to the Production Code. An attempt was made in 1943 to remake it as a musical as well, but that was a no-go.

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At the time of Paradise’s release, though, audiences were both charmed and a little scandalized, and it was considered one of the best films of 1932. Vanity Fair’s Pare Lorentz called it “a pretty bit of frosting, so well-contrived that you barely mind the fact that there is no cake whatsoever under the tasty puff.”

So what makes The Lubitsch Touch The Lubitsch Touch? Again,there’s no single definition, but this is how I sum it up: An Ernst Lubitsch film is light while cynical, teasing while pithy, and witty while serious. In short, it’s what effective filmmaking should strive to be, and Trouble In Paradise is quintessential to the Lubitsch catalogue.

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On Monday I’ll be posting my entry for Kristen’s Peter Lawford Blogathon. As always, thanks for reading, and hope to see you then…


Trouble In Paradise is available on DVD from Amazon.

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