Trouble in Paradise is the most fondly memorable—if rarely seen—Hollywood screwball comedy. Its combination of suaveness, hilarity, and sexiness has had a mighty influence. There would be no Bringing Up Baby, no The Lady Eve, no Pat and Mike, without the delicious trouble Ernst Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson stirred up.
What’s called “The Lubitsch Touch” is, essentially, sophistication. Ernst Lubitsch’s lightly served innuendoes—often in discreet visual metaphors—display an urbane worldliness about sexual relations. Only during Hollywood’s pre-Code era, before the industry’s official crackdown on all things improper, base, or illicit, could Lubitsch have shown such glancing eroticism. It makes Trouble in Paradise the peak example of his gift. Reveling in early Hollywood’s openness to sex, Lubitsch took it as an opportunity to be sly, presenting human foibles for grown-up delectation.
While his contemporaries von Sternberg, von Stroheim, and DeMille made sexual dramas, Lubitsch made sexual comedies. The difference comes not just from humor, but also from careful avoidance of the era’s tendency to be shocking or literal about sex. (In Trouble in Paradise a neon sign of a nude woman bathing, nipples aglow, reminds us how naughty early movies could be.) A laugh in a Lubitsch film arises from the frisson you get when titillation vies with control. It’s the adult pleasure of knowing what sex is, then knowing—and enjoying—the difference between sex and romance and love.
Trouble in Paradise takes its title from the folksy acknowledgment of marital woe. Yet, in a whimsical twist, none of its lead characters—Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall), Lily (Miriam Hopkins), and Mariette Colet (Kay Francis)—are married to each other. Still, Lubitsch rocks the boat of their entanglement, emphasizing discord among three sexually enlightened free spirits.
Trouble in Paradise followed Lubitsch’s delightful series of romantic musicals (many starring Maurice Chevalier) that transposed the European operetta to film, flirting with notions of romance and infidelity—satires of conventional mating habits. By modernizing familiar stage farces as well as foreign and period storybook settings, Lubitsch commented upon Depression-era anxiety (lightly, as always), but viewed that trouble in a romantic delirium.
Set first in canal-laced Venice, then in a Paris of art deco dreams, Trouble in Paradise conjures up romantic locales. These are perfect platforms to spotlight worldly men and women acting out their libidos. Lubitsch is neither a hedonistic fool nor a moralistic scold; he’s able to indulge carefree behavior because it is undergirded with his appreciation of life’s hard facts: Gaston, Lily, and Mariette are as concerned with work, economics, and desire as they are with jewels, opera, and sex. Trouble’s exotic reverie is balanced by American big-city toughness: it’s seen in the way Gaston and Lily affect European titles, though they are in fact thieving roustabouts scrounging the continent. These con artists—in love with each other’s effrontery—live out their amoral impulses until they plot to rook Madame Colet (Francis), an heiress whose own audacity exposes Gaston and Lily’s soft spots.
But Trouble in Paradise never turns mushy—and never slows down—due to Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson’s cosmopolitan insight about the capriciousness and fluidity of romantic attraction. It is among the most astute movies ever made about the joys of sex even though it is, primarily, a sparkling abstraction. Each character’s cultured civility only covers up criminal, sexual, human instinct. Within their tuxedos and satin gowns, they reveal animal appetites, recognizable weakness, and enviable wit.
“My little shoplifter!” Gaston regales Lily. And she describes him as “A self-made crook.” The affectionate badinage is part of Lubitsch and Raphaelson’s carefully wrought humanism. None of the characters are exalted. It’s significant that Trouble in Paradise begins with a Venetian garbage man hauling waste in a gondola (while singing!) as Gaston, within earshot of his baritone, plots his next job while leaning on a terrace. The film’s caprice is a working-class fantasy worked-up out of Lubitsch and Raphaelson’s class-conscious dreams and real-world intelligence. Lubitsch had come to Hollywood after a career in Germany, and Raphaelson’s screenwriting career followed his success as a playwright (the ethnic-crisis The Jazz Singer, which became Al Jolson’s classic vehicle). Filming during the Depression, these men made bemused acknowledgment of the world’s troubles through Mariette’s refusal to cut her factory workers’ salaries and Gaston introducing himself to her as “a member of the nouveau poor.” Lubitsch and Raphaelson stay true to a working-class ethic, a sign of their integrity and seriousness even when indulging whimsy.
One of Trouble’s most fantastic inventions occurs when Mariette sends out a notice to retrieve her stolen handbag. It’s a Cinderella-like scene of prospective reward-seekers—including Gaston who enters the scene suavely, like a suitor. This modern fairy-tale moment shows the mythic giddiness of which the Lubitsch-Raphaelson imagination was capable, yet it includes a satirical tonic: when a rowdy Bolshevik barges in and begins to chastise Mariette’s wealth, Gaston dismisses him then assures Mariette that the radical’s “phooey is worse than his bite.” Lubitsch-Raphaelson weren’t simply providing escapist avoidance of the political world, but responding to it with the same taste, civility, and fluid sense of propriety that informs their characters.
Today, this Depression-era masterwork transports us back to the performance styles of the late ’20s and early ’30s, but it also preserves that period’s dream of swankiness—of achieved grace that only looks effortless. This is crucial to fully understanding Lubitsch-Raphaelson’s keen sense of that period’s strained human experience. “You think everything will be alright again?” Gaston asks Lily. “Prosperity is right around the corner.” Money itself is nothing—as Jeanne Moreau insists in Jacques Demy’s Lubitsch-inspired Bay of Angels—but Trouble in Paradise uses Depression-fetishized currency as a symbol of what people hold dear. You can hear that poignantly in Marshall’s purring mid-Atlantic plea “Make it out to cash.” Hopkins’ Southern sass rasps its value, saying, “This is what I want! This is real! Money! Cash!” All along, their thoughts are more personal. They say cash but think sex. Think sex but feel love. Trouble in Paradise is a Depression dream. That’s what distinguishes it from Lubitsch-Raphaelson’s also-great collaboration The Shop Around the Corner (1940), a supremely gentle work of comic naturalism.
Artifices abound in Trouble in Paradise, but as one of Raphaelson’s students at Columbia University just before his death, I observed his dedication to conscientiousness and craft when he assigned potential screenwriters the task of composing an essay on their personal relationship to film: “Who Am I When I Watch a Movie?” Raphaelson himself had learned from Lubitsch that no matter how elaborate, fantasy and fiction need the bedrock of experience and awareness—yet it should never be blatant. There is an autobiographical element to Trouble in Paradise—the authentic distillation of Lubitsch and Raphaelson’s knowledge of sex and complex human relations. They reveal their deepest selves (our basic selves) in this bubbling cocktail. They reveal who we all truly are when we watch a movie.
Trouble in Paradise is a triumph of sexual awareness that treats the feints, twirls, and innuendo of romance as steps in every lucky human’s sojourn. These characters seem to be waltzing through the swamp of sex, and though they live the high life, their emotions bring them down to earth, in touch with their mortality. A faintly chiming clock can be heard during Mariette’s heartbreak; and Lubitsch shows her anticipated future with Gaston (“weeks, months, years”) in a classic existential montage.
Lubitsch and Raphaelson set the screwball comedy standard, treating hard-on material with dignified aplomb. Trouble in Paradise’s teasing insight into the machinations of the heart has influenced every romantic comedy to come after it. But no other movie can match the way Gaston, Lily, and Mariette’s rendezvous make you laugh, sigh, and reflect. It steals the heart of every lucky person who sees it.
Armond White's film criticism has been published internationally. His collected pop culture criticism appears in the book The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture that Shook the World.