Like Roberto Rossellini, Ernst Lubitsch is a filmmaker whose greatness is both clear and very difficult to articulate. Penetrating and illuminating writing on his work (like that on Rossellini’s) is something of a rarity, and the availability of his films on DVD has been somewhat patchy. But Eureka has already released a ‘Lubitsch in Berlin’ collection, and now they bring to us the Hollywood masterpiece which may be the director’s signature film – Trouble in Paradise. It is the signature film to the extent that it most fully encapsulates those qualities with which Lubitsch is habitually associated: technical precision, structural ingenuity, energy, restraint, fierce wit, erotic intensity, and tact. As Dan Sallitt tentatively suggests in his conversation with Kent Jones (included here as a bonus feature), Trouble in Paradise may not be as profound as The Shop Around the Corner (1940) or To Be or Not To Be (1942). But though in many ways it is not as ambitious as these films, its execution is startling.
The film follows the exploits of two professional criminals, Gaston (Herbert Marshall) and Lily (Miriam Hopkins), as they attempt to swindle a rich Parisian heiress, Mme. Colet (Kay Francis), with whom Gaston falls in love. It is one of the film’s many remarkable qualities that Gaston seems to genuinely love both women, and although the ‘triangle’ is mined by Lubitsch for its comic potential, its resolution is a truly thoughtful (and moving) one. And just as the treatment of romantic love is far more complex than a plot summary would suggest, so Lubitsch’s take on the wealth/love dynamic deftly avoids the trite money-can’t-buy-happiness platitudes we have come to expect from romantic comedy. Of course, Trouble in Paradise makes the most of the seduction/thievery analogy which it establishes in the opening minutes, but never in a way which trivializes the human drama we see unfolding. One can imagine an alternative version of this film, based on the same premise but directed by a less imaginative and sensitive filmmaker, populated by cheap jokes and familiar innuendos.
Those who take Lubtisch seriously as an artist have often been frustrated by the language used to broadly characterise his output, suggesting as it often does a kind of default cynicism, an auto-pilot sophistication. Not only are Lubitsch’s films more diverse than this (those three masterpieces – Trouble in Paradise, To Be or Not to Be, The Shop Around the Corner – are deeply distinct from one another), but the variety of achievements within his films can often go unnoticed. In Trouble in Paradise, we are guided through a series of remarkable scenes, each of which is its own success story. Describing this quality, James Harvey rightly acknowledges the central role of screenwriter Samson Raphelson: ‘At almost every point Lubitsch and Raphelson find some new and surprising way of narrating a scene or telling a joke or even just conveying information. It’s as if they had set out to test the expressive limits of indirection – to make those closed Lubitsch doors achieve a kind of maximum eloquence’ (1998: 49). If there is (or was) such a thing as the Lubitsch touch, the flexibility of that touch is always apparent in Trouble in Paradise.
The film’s opening is justly celebrated. We see a man collect a garbage can, but seconds later see him deposit the contents onto a Venetian gondola. The gondolier begins to sing, and his song carries over to the next shot, in which we see a man leap from a darkened (but clearly opulent) room; cut to a silhouette of that man removing his disguise. The technical economy here is remarkable, and more than once in Trouble in Paradise viewers might be surprised by the other filmmakers who come to mind: Eisenstein, Bresson, Hitchcock. Lubitsch is not really thought as an orchestrator of cinematic effects, but a central scene in Trouble in Paradise invites comparison with Hitchcock. In it, Mme. Colet is hosting a lavish garden party, in which she is showing off Gaston (ostensibly her secretary, actually her lover) to Parisian society. She briefly introduces Gaston to one of her guests, who in fact was the victim of Gaston’s crime in the opening scene. Of course, Lubitsch does not wring out the suspense, and Gaston’s response to the situation soon becomes comic, but the careful balance struck between humour and tension, societal expectations and private passions, would not be out of place in Strangers on Train (1951).
However, the more obvious – and perhaps more necessary – comparison is with Frank Capra. To watch Trouble in Paradise with Capra in mind, one is guided to ask about the film’s treatment of class, of democratic inclusiveness, and of the Depression. Is this a Depression film? It is full of irresponsible opulence, but seems uninterested in judging those who revel in it. William Paul (1983) suggests that the Depression provides the general sense of uncertainty which runs throughout the film, and that is probably as close as we can get to a socio-political reading of the film that does it any justice.
Eureka’s Masters of Cinema once again does not disappoint when it comes to matters of design and quality. The extras here are not bountiful, and the conversation between Kent Jones and Dan Sallitt takes a good while to warm up, but the dynamic between the two makes for some genuine insights. In his contribution to the 2012 Sight and Sound poll, Masters of Cinema producer Jon Robertson chose Lubitsch’s The Merry Widow (1934); in his accompanying note, Robertson complains that Lubitsch’s film is very difficult to see, declaring that a culture unable to embrace Lubitsch is ‘a culture in trouble’. We should be thankful that the director never seems to have taken himself quite that seriously, and equally thankful that DVD producers do.
Adam O’Brien is Teaching Fellow in Film and Television and the University of Bristol, where he completed his PhD in 2012. His main focus is on ecocriticism and film style, and he has recently published articles in Journal of Media Practice and Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism.
Harvey, J. (1998) Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges. New York: Da Capo Press.
Paul, W. (1983) Ernst Lubitsch’s American Comedy. New York: Columbia University Press.
Trouble in Paradise was released by Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema series. Special features include a new high-definition transfer, a new 40-minute video conversation between critics and filmmakers Kent Jones and Dan Sallitt disccussing the film and Lubitsch’s oeuvre, and a 44-page booklet featuring writing by screenwriter Samson Raphaelson about his years working with Lubitsch along with rare archival imagery.