Trouble in Paradise (1932, Ernst Lubitsch)

Trouble in Paradise features some great filmmaking. Here, Lubitsch runs wild with the passage of time–there’s a great sequence with various clocks marking the minutes, but there’s a lot of carefully orchestrated fades as well. The film opens with an excellent mixed shot–again, careful fading–moving from one side of a hotel to another. It goes from actors to a model to actors. It’s exquisite.

I almost forgot Lubitsch’s transition between the first and second acts–he goes to a radio advertisement (seeing the announcer deliver it into the microphone), then does an actual advertisement for the product, then transition to the makers of the product–all before revealing if it has any bearing on the story. It’s a gleeful move. These techniques make it almost impossible to recognize Trouble in Paradise‘s origin as a play.

Being Lubitsch, his direction of his actors is, no shock, perfect. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Herbert Marshall give a better performance. He and Miriam Hopkins have a half dozen fantastic scenes together. They even make the final scene work, even though it really shouldn’t. But the film has three leads–Kay Francis is the third–and Hopkins gets the boot for much of the second act. It’s impossible to forget her, but the film practically begs for the viewer to do it. Trouble in Paradise‘s trouble is its genre–it’s an infidelity comedy. Unlike the more sophisticated members of this genre, Trouble leaves Hopkins in something of a lurch. Worse, it never corrects its perspective. Hopkins is always the primary female protagonist, which makes Marshall into a heel. Even worse, it never gives much room for Francis to make an honest impression. She goes from being the mark to being the other woman with a nicely edited sequence involving the butler never being able to figure out if she’s in her room or in Marshall’s.

The film’s third act is something of a narrative disaster. The film’s been building to it all through the second act, but since the script doesn’t love triangle… it seems possible it will be avoided. There are countless opportunities for it to go the other way (I’m not really sure where it would go, but it’d have been somewhere creative, I’m sure) and as they all fall away, it gets kind of tedious. The film doesn’t turn out the way I expected, but only because the third act’s constant oscillation confused the hell out of me.

In the end, Trouble in Paradise is almost a better viewing experience than a finished product. It’s fantastic throughout, only to fail to deliver in the last quarter. It’s got the great Marshall and Hopkins performances. Francis is quite good, even if her character is poorly written. Charles Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton–and Robert Greig as the butler–are excellent in supporting roles. The script’s approach to Horton in the late second act, however, serves as ominous foreshadowing of the problems to follow. C. Aubrey Smith has a smaller role and is solid, but much like Francis, there isn’t a character.

I was thinking my high expectations for the film might have lead to undue harshness, but then I realized the film raised those expectations… I don’t even think I properly conveyed my disappointment.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch; screenplay by Samson Raphaelson, based on an adaption by Grover Jones of a play by Aladar Laszlo; director of photography, Victor Milner; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Miriam Hopkins (Lily), Kay Francis (Mariette Colet), Herbert Marshall (Gaston Monescu), Charles Ruggles (The Major), Edward Everett Horton (François Filiba), C. Aubrey Smith (Adolph J. Giron) and Robert Greig (Jacques the Butler).


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