Sunday, December 20, 2009

52 Perfect Movies: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

This is probably going to be one of the lesser-known films of this series, but it belongs nevertheless. From the first time I saw it at a special screening in New York's Greenwich Village, I have been in love with Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise--a shining example of an era in time and in cinema that is forever gone.

Trouble in Paradise is of a certain genre of movie that simply doesn't exist anymore, and for which there is no equivalent. A sly, sophisticated and slick romantic comedy, it is about as far as you can possibly get from the so-called "chick flicks" of today, offering viewers a sublime experience if they but open themselves up to it.

Director Ernst Lubitsch, a German expatriate who had come over to Hollywood during the silent era, became known for a very specific trademark style. In a time when studios controlled content and most directors didn't have anything like the kind of leeway they later would, Lubitsch managed to carve out a unique feel for his work, which became known as "The Lubitsch Touch". This can be seen in such films as The Merry Widow, Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not to Be, and Heaven Can Wait.

But before any of those was this one, a delicious comedy starring Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall as a couple of con artists who attempt to fleece a millionairess of her fortune. Along the way, Marshall begins to fall for his prey (played by Kay Francis), drawing the jealousy of his typically cool-as-a-cucumber accomplice/lover Hopkins.

Hopkins and Marshall are amazing, tearing into a delightful script provided by Hungarian playwright Aladar Laszlo--on whose play the movie was based--and Hollywood workhorse Grover Jones, who pulled off the screen adaptation. This was before the enforcement of the censoring Hayes code, and it's absolutely delightful how much innuendo and biting satire the writers were able to effortlessly weave into almost every line of this terrific screenplay.

This is movie screenwriting as it has never been done since those heady days of the early 1930s--intellectual without being pretentious, brimming with outrageous wordplay without being vulgar or obvious, and pulsating with grace and class from beginning to end. Along with Marshall and Hopkins, benefiting from this treasure of a script is a cast boasting such character actors as C. Aubrey Smith, and the one and only Edward Everett Horton.

Horton was a comic genius on screen, who nearly stole every Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers vehicle he was in, and nearly does the same here, playing his patented bumbling middle-aged dandy to the hilt. He is one of my very favorite character actors of all time, and its always a pleasure to watch him work.

Those who equate movies of this time with the more chaste material of the late 1930s and 1940s are in for a bit of a surprise at the level of frank bedroom humor that goes on. In fact, although it would never draw such a rating today, the picture was given the equivalent of an "R" in some foreign countries, and was even banned in Finland. But it's all in good, harmless fun, and one can't help but chuckle at nearly every line of what is, for my money, a completely perfect script.

When the movie code went into effect in 1934, the movie was effectively prevented from being reissued to theaters, and so became something of an obscure little oddity for decades. In fact, it was never issued on VHS, and not on DVD for many years, leading lovers of the Lubitsch gem to seek it out at film festivals and from celluloid dealers. Thankfully, it was recently released on DVD, and I strongly urge lovers of 1930s cinema to immediately give it the Netflix treatment if they haven't seen it.

Lubitsch had a way of creating an atmosphere that was all his own, and this movie might very well be the earliest example of the "The Lubitsch Touch" fully formed. Although the script is largely what makes this such an unforgettable movie, it wouldn't have have been able to be so fully realized without the effortless richness and panache that Lubitsch brought to every production with which he was associated. He had a way of evoking elegance and suggestiveness at the same time, leaving much to the viewer's imagination, yet also making sure they got the point.

As I've said in previous entries, the early 1930s was a time of such exuberant experimentation in American film, and Trouble in Paradise is a beautiful example of that exuberance at its best. You know how they always say, "They don't make 'em like this anymore"? Well folks, in our far courser modern culture, they very literally do not make 'em like this anymore. But we'll always have Trouble in Paradise to remind us of when grace and class were at a premium in Hollywood moviemaking.

NEXT UP: Top Hat (1935)

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