What was the ‘Lubitsch touch’ exactly? It has been pondered ever since director and émigré, Ernst Lubitsch, ventured to the sunny climes and riches of Hollywood from acclaim at Ufa. His first American assignment was a Mary Pickford vehicle, Rosita (1923). The trail was blazed for other European filmmakers to follow.
Unlike many of those, Lubitsch replicated the wild success of the old country in the new. Eminent critic Andrew Sarris, however, warned caution with the ‘Lubitsch touch’ tag for it “is to reduce feelings to flourishes. A complex directorial style is reduced to its most transparent techniques”.
Lubitsch’s 1932 comedy, Trouble in Paradise, features Miriam Hopkins, Herbert Marshall and Kay Francis. Who would claim to know these once glowing stars, today? Icons and memories may fade but a ‘shot’ at immortality is provided by the big screen. From the light of the projector or digitised memory file they return to life for a couple of hours before back into the darkness they go.
Lubitsch had a reputation as a master stylist of “enjoyable bijou fluff”, as Gilbert Adair commented in Flickers (1995). He never won an Oscar (in competition) and many critics and historians still debate – along with the ‘Lubitsch touch’ – what the director actually ‘gave’ to cinema. One need only look at Trouble in Paradise to answer with a resounding: “Well, actually quite a lot”. What is and isn’t ‘perfection’ is in the eye of the beholder but Trouble in Paradise – dare I say it –is that rarest of cinematic beasts ‘the perfect film’.
Lubitsch’s bijou fluff ‘feels’ like a motion picture record of the Jazz Age hangover. The 1920s were the time to frolic and screw around and here we are in the early 1930s with economic reality having chomped down hard. The champagne tastes different, the party well and truly over and replaced with a devil-may-care attitude to life. Yet the glitz and glamour pertained to hide the rotten reality of Hoovervilles and bread lines. Hollywood is the Dream Factory, after all, and luxury productions – such as the cinema – will give us our dreams, even if there’s a hint of vulgarity.
Suave Herbert Marshall and delicious Miriam Hopkins play professional thieves who fall in love over supper in an opulent Venice hotel neither could afford without their sneaky play-acting and skills. The pair set off across Europe living the good life courtesy of their rich marks.
The depiction of Europe recreated on a Hollywood sound stage – all Art Deco set designs (by Hans Dreier, uncredited) – is artificial and at the same time possessive of an anarchic spirit that makes villains sympathetic and a terrible scheme to dupe an heiress and love-struck millionaire (played by Francis), into a fun game.
The script was written by regular Lubitsch collaborator Samuel Raphelson (they made nine pictures together) and based on a play nobody had heard of in the USA (as was Lubitsch’s typical method). Trouble in Paradise takes place in a playground vision of Europe that allows us to swank around in high-class locales whilst scoffing that these rich folk have far too much money. The finer things in life are enjoyed by everybody, irrespective of their social standing. What’s incredible about Trouble in Paradise’s duplicitous duo is how utterly unconcerned they are about ever getting caught. It’s almost nihilistic. The good times never last – so by hook or by ‘crook’ – enjoy yourselves, the movie seems to impart.
Gaston Monescu (Marshall) and soul-mate Lily (Hopkins) share some of the most delicious dialogue cooked up for the movies. “Do you remember the man who walked into the Bank of Constantinople, and walked out with the Bank of Constantinople?” Or how’s this for a romantic declaration: “I love you. I loved you the minute I saw you. I’m mad about you, my little shoplifter … my sweet little pickpocket … my darling.”
There’s an unbridled joy very much evident in Trouble in Paradise that crosses over from screen to viewer. These characters are wicked, yes, but aren’t they also fun? David Thomson has noted in his review of the film, in the weighty tome ‘Have You Seen?’, that Trouble in Paradise celebrates ‘theft over loyalty’.
As Gilbert Adair noted, and I’m prone to agree, “Trouble in Paradise is a masterpiece of delivery, the most mellifluous, the most perfectly spoken, film in the history of American cinema.”