It’s Film Class Wednesday, folks. (A regular title is still in the planning phase.) The next few weeks see us exploring screwball comedy starting with Trouble in Paradise. My excitement for watching this was high as I’ve heard only amazing things about it and it’s eluded me for awhile. I infamously had it sent via Classicflix where it got lost in the mail. Prophetic? Well, no matter because I’ve watched it and absolutely adored it! This is one I need to purchase (from the Criterion Collection, no less) ASAP, and so should you!
Famous thief Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) and his equally thieving girlfriend, Lily (Miriam Hopkins) settle on one final score which will set them up for life. Gaston infiltrates the upper-echelon world of flighty heiress, Madame Colet (Kay Francis) in order to seduce her out of a great deal of money. Unfortunately, Gaston starts to fall under Madame Colet’s spell, leaving Lily to wonder if she’ll lose her lover forever.
Trouble in Paradise was cited as one of the more scandalous movies to come out pre-Code, and in fact wasn’t certified for a re-release after the Code went into effect. The main reason for its expulsion from cinemas was director Ernst Lubitsch’s ability to combine sex and crime. The first time Lily and Gaston sit down for dinner, it’s becomes part parlor game/part seduction as the two steal from each other, culminating with Gaston having the ability to steal Lily’s garter (which he keeps). Crime certainly looks good when Marshall and Hopkins are the criminals, and their chemistry is sizzling on top of being highly comedic. These are two characters who understand each other, and love each other despite their faults. When Gaston plans a hasty exit for the two of them, Lily is able to understand his codes and do what needs to be done, even rushing abruptly into whatever accents he requires of her. It’s why the audience sympathizes with Lily once Madame Colet becomes her main rival. Gaston has to lie to Madame Colet, and once he becomes enmeshed in her world other people judge him as a social climber. Lily could care less about his status; she loves Gaston Monescu, international thief.
It’s hard to sympathize with Francis as Colet, in spite of the beautiful dresses she wears, because Hopkins’ character is the more realistic of the two women. Madame Colet wants Gaston to be someone he isn’t, and it’s hard to understand why Gaston is so intrigued by Madame Colet. The only options are her money or prestige. The two barely interact with each other in any meaningful way, so when he decides between Lily and Madame it just appears that he sticks with Lily out of obligation. Thankfully, Lubitsch does away with any fears of their reconciliation being false at story’s end. Francis does well as the flighty heiress, particularly showcasing the character’s entitlement and general ambivalence to anything around her. It’s striking to watch this opposite It Happened One Night (next week’s review) because Madame Colet couldn’t be more different from Claudette Colbert’s Ellen Andrews. Madame Colet spends exorbitant amounts of money on a handbag, which she quickly loses (it’s actually stolen by Lily and Gaston as a means of gaining entry into Madame’s house), and treats every with a general indifference, except for Gaston.
The verbal comedy within this film is the best I’ve seen, and it’s coupled with some fantastic acting by the trio involved. Herbert Marshall is sophisticated and enticing as Gaston; a softer George Sanders. The stand-out, for me, is Miriam Hopkins as Lily. She’s game for anything, whether it’s playing the svelte thief by night and demure, buttoned-up secretary to Madame Colet by day (complete with glasses), or giving Francis the side-eye when they’re talking about Gaston. She’s the one you sympathize with throughout, because she understands the way the story should play out. If this was reality Gaston would leave her for Madame Colet. As Lily says, money is real and Madame Colet has plenty of it. There’s a bit of self-awareness in this moment, and the movie reasserts the fantasy by having Gaston decide to go off with Lily, even though she is the woman who truly accepts him. I’m eager to watch Marshall and Hopkins in more; Design for Living, starring Hopkins and directed by Lubitsch just took a leap up my Netflix queue.
Trouble in Paradise is the best movie I’ve watched in class, so far. It’s a witty tale of sexual one-upping via crime and comedy. Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall delight, flirting their way into each other’s pockets and into your heart.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.