If one takes pleasure in the delectable delights of language, silence, music, design, photography, and the way all these elements are put together to create that wonderful art known as the motion picture, then a case can be made for TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932) being the pinnacle of the form. Add the thrills of sophisticated subversion and perfect chemistry among the performers, and there can be no doubt that Ernst Lubitsch’s sparkling concoction is that rarest of achievements: a masterpiece that still feels modern and continues to entertain and inspire audiences more than eighty years after its creation, despite being pulled from circulation once Hollywood’s self-imposed code of censorship kicked in, in the mid-1930s, and not seen again until the late sixties.
Much of the excitement of watching this film lies in its unexpectedness. Lubitsch was an early master of the cinema during the silent era in Germany, and continued to bring that inventive spirit to his work after the introduction of sound, a development many at the time saw as detrimental to creativity. Far from being merely a static film of “people talking,” as Alfred Hitchcock once called the unimaginative movies he saw being made around him, Lubitsch’s creation darts and dances, coming from odd angles and constantly upending viewer expectations. The entire opening section is striking in that respect, teasing the audience with strange inversions, silent stretches and bursts of song and frantic dialogue in Italian before we hear a word of English. Later, carried along by the sheer pleasure of the narrative, we find ourselves among new characters and situations without consciously registering how we have arrived. Throughout the story characters disappear from the frame, reappearing elsewhere, while entire scenes may be constructed simply with shots of props, dialogue drifting in mysteriously. The effect of these moments cannot be underestimated, their presence infusing the more traditional sections of the film with the shock of the unfamiliar. After the famous clock montage, when Lubitsch finally ends the suspense and fulfills our desire to see a human being again, the image is so striking as to have the force of a physical blow.
Naturally, none of Lubitsch’s structural playfulness would amount to much if the story he was telling wasn’t an entertaining one, and here again the director achieves the highest peak of success. Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins seem as though they were born to inhabit their roles of the elegant thieves Gaston and Lily, and Samson Raphaelson’s script highlights brilliantly their instant connection as kindred spirits in a world of stiff, humorless bores embodied perfectly and with awkward precision by the great character actors Edward Everett Horton, Charles Ruggles and C. Aubrey Smith. These men, with all their laughable limitations and simplicity, provide a hysterical contrast to the more subtle, sublime exchanges between our heroes. But there is never a spirit of meanness or derision in the world of Lubitsch, perhaps the most democratic in the cinema, wherein all viewpoints are considered, and representatives of all walks of life are always welcome to contribute to the story without fear of judgment. Part of the eternal joy of Lubitsch is that he pointed the way toward a classless society by holding class and status up to ridicule. Con artists masquerade as royalty, while the truest and most succinct wisdom can come from waiters, butlers, or servants. The essential thing, to paraphrase another Lubitsch-Raphaelson masterpiece, is that people’s’ minds meet.
When the mind of Gaston meets that of the exquisite perfume magnate Mariette, played by Kay Francis, it sets into motion the engine that drives TROUBLE IN PARADISE into cinematic immortality. For suddenly there is a third character worthy of the spirited high life and flirtatious repartee he indulges in, and the complications that follow, orchestrated by Raphaelson’s masterful subtlety and Lubitsch’s deft misdirection, and brought to glorious life by the perfectly restrained performances of Francis, Marshall and Hopkins, reach a height of eroticism virtually unmatched in the heavy-handed decades since. Without any overt display, yet with a blatancy that would have had the censors in an uproar, TROUBLE IN PARADISE not only recognizes an attitude of sexual freedom and openness, but ties that attitude to superior intelligence, style, wit and good humor. Somehow, that acknowledgment still seems fresh and exciting today, and that freshness and excitement, combined with the aesthetic beauty of the gorgeous art deco décor and nudged along by W. Franke Harling’s perfect musical score, elevates the film to the highest possible level of enjoyment. Thanks to the miracle of film and the ever-turning wheel of censorship and permissiveness, today the pleasure is all ours for the taking. Paradise waits.