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The Criterion Collection presents
Gaston: Madame Colet, if I were your father, which fortunately I am not, and you made any attempt to handle your own business affairs, I would give you a good spanking. In a business way, of course.
DVD ReviewErnst Lubitsch was one of the most influential filmmakers of Hollywood's Golden Age, yet 75 years after he came to America from his native Germany to make a film with Mary Pickford, he has been all but forgotten by the mainstream public and many popular film critics, even as his contemporaries—directors like Frank Capra and Billy Wilder—are revered as legends. I took three film history classes in college and not a one mentioned Lubitsch or screened one of his films. This is a man who never won as Oscar®, but was described by no less than Jean Renoir as the inventor of modern Hollywood.
Trouble in Paradise is a timeless example of the "Lubitsch touch" (the term was coined by the press to describe the undeniable, indescribable spark of a Lubitsch picture), an endlessly enjoyable crime caper with classic romantic comedy trappings. The story is a twisty, lightweight yarn about professional thieves that predicted the popular screwball comedy formula of the latter 1930s. It's true love at first sight when perky, blonde pickpocket Lily (Miriam Hopkins) meets suave master thief Gaston (Herbert Marshall) in Venice. Each is trying to pull a job on the other (both are in disguise as wealthy aristocrats), and when they discover their common occupations, they fall instantly into each other's arms (and, we can assume, into bed, if Lubitsch's sly use of fadeouts is any indication).
Soon enough, Lily and Gaston are a couple, working and living together. But times, they is tough, and things are bad for everyone during the depression, even criminals. Well, everyone except Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), the wealthy, widowed owner of a perfume company, who is more concerned about beauty than money, so much so that she shuns a plain handbag that costs 5000 francs as too expensive, but in an instant snatches up a gorgeous diamond encrusted purse for 125,000. Gaston steals it, only to return it when she offers a reward.
Gaston charms Mariette, convincing her that he is a "nouveau poor" business man on the rocks after the market crash. He talks business fairly well, and manages to trick her into hiring him as her secretary. He plans to rearrange her finances so that he can steal 850,000 from her (ever the gentlemen, though, he makes sure to increase her theft insurance first). The plan goes awry when Mariette begins to fall for him, attracting the ire of Lily (posing as Gaston's secretary). Meanwhile, Gaston is attracting the suspicious attention of Mariette's jealous suitors Filiba (Edward Everett Horton) and the Major (Charles Ruggles), and with good reason—Filiba was the man Gaston robbed on the night he and Lily met.
Critic and Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman calls Trouble in Paradise the first of the truly great Hollywood romantic comedies, and one of the most influential pictures of the era. It's easy to see why. The classic love triangle story, spiced up with a sly, European sexuality, would form the mold for countless screwball comedies in the 1930s and '40s. Lubitsch, who co-wrote with Samson Raphaelson (based on the stage play by Aladar Laszlo), handles the rather airy and inconsequential plot with just the right amount of playfulness. Suggestion is preferred over overt sexuality, and Lubitsch loves to substitute visuals gags and metaphors for dirty jokes. The dialogue sparkles, and though it doesn't crackle as it might in one of the great screwball comedies (say, His Girl Friday), characters still get to drop bon mots like "marriage is a mistake two people make together."
Lubitsch's fluid direction and gliding camera lends the picture a palpable energy. Lead Herbert Marshall had a prosthetic leg, having lost the real one in the war, and the director uses his limp to his advantage, choosing simply to use quick cuts rather than to have Marshall slow down the comedic pace shuffling woodenly across the screen. From the famous establishing shot that reveals Venice via a "garbage gondola" to a madcap, farcical finale, Lubitsch is in top form.
Part of the Lubitsch touch comes from the way he handles his actors. Roger Ebert commented that actors, even minor names like Kay Frances and Miriam Hopkins, would shine in a Lubitsch film in ways they never would otherwise. Hopkins, who received top billing, despite her diminished role, is wonderfully broad as the brash Lily (who isn't as good an actress as she is a pickpocket). Marshall and Frances are a winning pair; he in particular has suave sophistication down pat.
Trouble in Paradise was released in 1932, a year before the Hayes Production Code went into effect. Though it was a success, it was not re-released, as a picture about dashing criminals who get away scot-free amidst any number of suggestive sexual affairs would have been cut to shreds by the Hayes office. Perhaps that is why the film isn't considered a classic outside of critics' circles. Now is as good a time as any for it to be rediscovered by the general populace.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: This restored transfer looks quite good, considering the film is over 70 years old. The source materials show only minor damage, with a few scenes of speckling and minor dirt and debris throughout the print. There is quite a bit of visible grain, but not so much that it appears to be a flaw in the transfer (grain is simply a byproduct of film, and is more pronounced on many older releases). The image is stable, with no obvious shutter jumps and only a few instances of brightness fading up and down. I noticed no artifacting, edge enhancement, or compression problems.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: The original mono mix, restored from the original tracks, sounds wonderful. Background hiss and snaps and crackles have been more or less eliminated, leaving a clean, clear recording. As with many aged tracks, dialogue sounds a bit harsh at times, but it remains clear and most scenes sound quite smooth. The score (Trouble in Paradise was unusual for the era in that it includes almost wall to wall scoring) is nicely leveled in the mix and sounds reasonably well supported.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Layers Switch: 01h:09m:39s
Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman contributes a characteristically scholarly Criterion commentary, talking nearly non-stop throughout the film from obviously prepared notes. He achieves a nice balance, providing trivia and anecdotes about Lubitsch, his actors, and the filming of Trouble in Paradise, a summation of the Hollywood pre-Hayes era, and an analysis of the style and wit of the feature.
Another nice bonus is an early silent feature from the director, the 1917 German film Das fidele Gefängis (The Merry Jail), presented here for the first time on home video with a newly recorded piano score. The 49-minute comedy, an adaptation of Johann Strauss' operetta Die Fledermaus, tells the story of a neglected wife who disguises herself and follows her husband to a party, where she seduces him, prompting him to consider an affair with his own wife. Silent film legend Emil Jannings appears as the jailer (who is, quite surprisingly, obviously gay—he even kisses another man, something that would be expressly outlawed in Hollywood under the Production Code). A minor example of the Lubitsch touch, to be sure, but an interesting curiosity, the picture quality is quite good for such an old film.
Another welcome, if unusual, inclusion is an episode of the Screen Guild Theater radio program from 1940 featuring Lubitsch, Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert, and Basil Rathbone. Benny plays himself, desperately trying to win a part in Lubitsch's next drama, but he can't get anyone to commit (the studio head says he can do it if Lubitsch agrees, Lubitsch says he can do it if Colbert agrees, Colbert says he can do it if the studio agrees, etc.). A funny piece and a welcome bit of old time radio.
Director Peter Bogdanovich provides a 10-minute introduction and tribute to Lubitsch in which he discusses the mystery of the "Lubitsch touch." More tributes to the influential director abound in a series of text essays from critics like Roger Ebert and filmmakers like Cameron Crowe and Wes Anderson (who contributes a drawing of the "Lubitsch touch, with cigar"). Found here is the famous exchange between Billy Wilder and William Wyler from Lubitsch's funeral. Wilder sadly comments, "No more Lubitsch," to which Wyler replies, "Worse—no more Lubitsch films."
The insert includes pair of text essays. The first is a particularly heady sexual deconstruction of the film by critic Armond White; the second, a brief piece on Lubitsch's German films by Enno Patalus.
Extras Grade: A-
Final CommentsWidely regarded by critics as the best film on Ernst Lubitsch's impressive résumé and one of the finest comedies ever made, Trouble in Paradise is an essential entry in the Criterion Collection.
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