A Look, a Glance
Daniel Witkin on Trouble in Paradise
“We have a long time ahead of us, Gaston: Weeks, months, years…” Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis) muses to her handsome secretary Monsieur LaValle (Herbert Marshall), the protagonist of Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise. She is, of course, mistaken. In short order, urbane Gaston LaValle will reveal himself to be Gaston Monescu, gentleman thief—not merely a crook but one beholden to another woman—and unfortunate Mme. Colet will be left disappointed, alone, and robbed. For the moment, however, things have at last begun to break in her favor. As she begins to project their romance further into the future, Lubitsch frames the couple in a mirror, holding a rapturous pose like lovers immortalized in a painting. He then cuts between each word: “Weeks, months, years...” The first, capturing the couple in a rounder tabletop mirror, is perhaps the most violent and mysterious in the film, a sharp discontinuity that can only draw attention to itself. The next shot exchanges the couples’ mirrored reflections for shadows on a bed, pushing their embrace further away from materiality and into abstraction. Lubitsch atomizes and distorts what is essentially one still moment over the course of three strenuously stylized images, imbuing their embrace with a sense of timelessness; but in doing so he also lays bare plasticity of cinematic time and space, the ways that physical reality can be transformed by thought, feeling, and desire––and his own total mastery over this process. Over the course of these three shots, the director teases a release akin to transcendence, but one that will sadly not be forthcoming. No sooner does the moment announce itself, seeming to last forever, then it’s gone. Earlier, Mme. Colet complains of “Wasting all this marvelous time with arguments…” She doesn’t know how right she is.
In Lubitsch’s movies, love simmers and strains, but it’s equally likely to materialize within the space of a single gesture. Monescu and Lily (Miriam Hopkins), his partner in love and larceny, fall for one another when each manages to rob the other over the course of an elegant dinner, essentially accomplishing through sleight of hand what was supposed to develop over an extended seduction. Even so, the instantaneous eruption of passion hardly disturbs the somewhat formal rhythm of their conversation. She unmasks him as a crook, then nonchalantly asks him to pass the salt. He graciously obliges. Later, he will get himself hired as Madame Colet’s secretary in order to rob her, winning her trust—and more—by means of his rigorous adherence to a certain personal standard. “I believe in doing things correctly,” he tellingly informs the unlucky woman attempting to entice him. For some time, he resists her attractions, though it’s unclear whether he does so out of fidelity to Lily, sympathy for Mme. Colet, or simply for the pleasure of prolonging the chase. Finally, she announces her willingness to ruin his reputation “like this,” with a snap of her fingers, and gets her man.
Lubitsch is famous for commanding the “Lubitsch touch,” an immortal triumph of branding that understandably casts the filmmaker as a sort of magician, a Midas-like figure enlivening his work with a single, aristocratic flick of the wrist. In reality, Lubitsch’s approach to directing was something rather more physical. Born in a middle-class Jewish family in Berlin, Lubitsch defied his family’s wishes and went into the theater before becoming an early German film star specializing in slapstick Semites. His performer’s instincts would remain in force throughout his directorial career, to the point of pantomiming roles himself in order to give the actors a sense of rhythm and gesture—a tendency that would inspire some and irritate others. His control went beyond the set as well. According to Scott Eyman’s biography, Lubitsch identified first and foremost as a writer, taking a lead role in crafting his scripts, often based loosely on the premises of Hungarian plays, and was one of the few Hollywood directors of the era to cut his own films. Lubitsch’s obsessive, workaholic attention to every stage of his productions helps give his films their remarkable unity and distinctly immersive quality, a three-dimensional integrity that characterizes his work better than any single point of contact.
Accordingly, his films take place in a world separate from our own. Lubitsch was marketed as a European director, and his films would be almost exclusively set in the Old World, which had the double advantage of providing them with a touch of the exotic and excusing his characters’ very human transgressions as a sort of regional eccentricity. Yet his European cities bear little resemblance to their real life counterparts, nor are they intended to—in a revealingly Platonic turn of phrase, Lubitsch himself declared that not only did he prefer Paramount’s Paris to France’s, but that it was in fact more Parisian. Despite, or perhaps because of, his hustling real-life personality, a quintessential product of boomtown Berlin, Lubitsch the artist gravitated toward the mythic presences of the continent’s older, more storied capitals: the melancholic elegance of Budapest, the biting Viennese irony, Paris’s self-assured modernity.
But Lubitsch’s world is defined by time as much as place. Anachronistically straddling the 19th and 20th centuries, his characters embody unfashionable virtues of discretion and tact but are modern enough to approach the greater share of dogma and convention with bemused skepticism. As such, Lubitsch’s world is largely ahistorical, although the exceptional cases, most notably To Be or Not to Be, contain some of his most fascinating work. In general, though, Lubitsch’s films are in gentle rebellion against time—their values are more attractive being somewhat out of step with the present, maintained only through the severe efforts—all the more demanding for requiring the appearance of effortlessness—of the heroes and the filmmaker. It’s an uphill battle, all the more glorious in that it can be sustained but never truly won. As Melvyn Douglas tells Greta Garbo in Ninotchka, “Ah, but you must admit that this doomed old civilization sparkles.”
Trouble in Paradise was Lubitsch’s first non-musical talkie, after he helped to create the American movie musical with his legendary cycle for Paramount. Along with Design for Living, it was sandwiched between the two best films he made in the genre: the vaudevillian pro-adultery chamber piece One Hour with You and the intoxicatingly lush, operatic The Merry Widow (made on loan at MGM), and combines the sexual frankness of the former with the decadent melodicism of the latter. Sound, staging, camera movement, and editing combine to give each gesture a dancelike expressivity.
The film’s climax, particularly, showcases the delicate balance between its mellifluous verve and a certain elusive melancholy. Following Gaston’s embrace with Madame Colet, we follow him over the course of one night as he frantically tries to do right by both women, while possibly stealing from one and hopefully avoiding jail. This last piece is both decisive and troublesome, as he has been found out by Colet’s corporate lieutenant, dignified embezzler Adolph Giron (C. Aubrey Smith), as well as by her dueling suitors (Edward Everett Horton and Charlie Ruggles, whose reading of the line, “You know I’m not the marrying type. I like to take my fun, and leave it,” is alone worth the proverbial price of admission). I’ve long been smitten with this sequence, possibly Lubitsch’s greatest juggling act, in which the director uses every technique at his disposal in an unfailingly fluid relay of revelations, reversals, and counter-reversals, an expertly composed allegro at the end of his most musically buoyant film. Yet alongside its formal and tonal balancing act exist potent moral and emotional ambiguities. Gaston’s romantic inclinations remain masked, and both women appear equally vulnerable, worthy, and flawed. Then there is the matter of our thieving hero––not only why we might support such a conventionally disreputable figure, but how to make our way through a moral universe in which he is fully ennobled.
After Mme. Colet leaves, Monescu is forced to scramble between his various obligations. Lubitsch punctuates his desperate movement by subtly compressing time and space. The first order of business is our hero’s confrontation with the embezzling Giron, who appears downstairs while our Gaston reflects in Colet’s bedroom. Rather than cut between the various moments, Lubitsch shoots the Gaston from outside the house, through windows, moving the camera first horizontally, to show the butler delivering him the news, then, startlingly, vertically downward, revealing his antagonist, stern, darkly cloaked, with ramrod posture. The director makes use of Colet’s Bauhaus-meets-art deco residence, designed by Hans Dreier, to amplify movement and rhythm. Later, once Gaston sends off the unpleasant fellow, calling him by his first name, “Adolph,” he runs up the house’s sweeping spiral staircase, accompanied by a rising musical cue. The door then rings, and after a harried sigh he descends the gorgeous staircase again, with the music doing likewise, to find Giron at the door once more. “Don’t you dare to call me Adolph!” the man yells, before the door is slammed in his face. What might have been a throwaway joke in someone else’s film is brought to life by Lubitsch’s flowing kineticism. Such crisp, rapid movements recur throughout the sequence, adding points of inflection and building a sustained comic rhythm.
Lubitsch is equally adept at slowing the action down. Gaston’s confrontations with both Lily, who arrives to steal the money herself, and Mme. Colet, who returns knowing Monescu’s true identity, are carried out over a single take. Lubitsch limits both music and movement, keeping the focus firmly on Gaston and the women he’s hurt. As Gaston, Herbert Marshall excels in these moments. The Englishman lost his leg in the Great War and had to learn to mask his asymmetry through a lengthy rehabilitation. The resulting glide is uncannily suited to the belabored seamlessness of Lubitsch’s film. Marshall carries himself throughout the film with a subtle, somewhat deferential hunch, cutting his verbal acuity with the intimation of hangdog bashfulness. He evinces particular pathos during his long confession to Mme. Colet, who comes back at him with the sharply sorrowful line, “You wanted one hundred thousand francs, and I thought you wanted me.” Throughout their dialogue, Lubitsch moves the camera only for a slight track in and limits outside sound to a clock chiming eleven, numbering the evaporating hours.
The rhythm of these formal and narrative reversals gives the sequence its gravity-defying buoyancy. In short order, Monescu loses Lily for Mariette, is rejected by Mariette for stealing from her, regains Mariette’s love when Lily confesses to the theft, all before ending up back together with Lily. Within a single breathless monologue, Lily refuses both the money and the man, then reacquires both. Before the viewer can register or react to any of these developments, a new one seems to take its place, though the clarity of Lubitsch’s style is such that each individual movement is fully articulated, never lost in the rapid shuffle. Thus Lubitsch rhythmically expands and contracts time, playing it like an accordion, always with his ear to the grander melody. In this way, the film’s twenty-or-so minute climax and, in its way, the entire 82-minute runtime unfold as a single lilting gesture.
Throughout the profusion of action and drama, Lubitsch builds to a sense of loss, albeit one that eschews any sense of the tragic for his own wised-up comic sensibility. After Gaston and Lily abscond with the money, Mme. Colet has a mordant moment alone, but is relieved when her erstwhile secretary returns to perform a proper goodbye. If nothing else, she gets the consolation of knowing that her lover, while greedy and unfaithful, has not been thoughtless. She must understand that his position is too precarious for him to stick around, as she’s gracious enough to let him depart after one final kiss. For his part, he has the decency to show her the pearls that he’s decided to steal: “You’re gift to her.” By this point, Madame understands the game she’s been playing, and it’s her behavior in these moments that make her a truly Lubitschian figure. In comparison to her breathless fervor earlier in the night, she carries herself with a sardonic dignity; she maneuvers her sad eyes with irony, but they still betray a sharp appetite not yet extinguished. She replies, of course, with a knowing joke: “With the compliments of Colet and company.” And he escapes, taking the pearls and leaving her with the memory of what was and might have been.
Earlier, Lubitsch made Colet and Gaston’s kiss feel suspended in time, but even those moments that feel eternal must give way to others. Lubitsch’s world is an ephemeral one, and it proudly showcases its imminent obsolescence. Full of corrupt people and unhappy ones, his civilization contains all of the sins of our own, but is shot through with an unwavering grace. Accordingly, so long as bluster, egoism, and rage thunder on unabated in our world, the delicacy, self-effacement, and good humor of Lubitsch’s will continue to exert a profound gravitational pull. Lubitsch’s touch lies both in the construction of this world and the manner in which it must be spirited away. It resides in the easy elegance with which he dispatches all these marvelous moments, knocking them back like a smooth liquor, coupled with his attentiveness to the stakes of time’s passage, an unrelenting clarity that works in concert with his levity. The old doomed civilization sparkles with the luminosity of a dying star.