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TROUBLE IN PARADISE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis, Herbert Marshall, Charlie Ruggles, Edward Everett Horton, C. Aubrey Smith
Director:  Ernst Lubitsch
Audio:  Dolby Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  82 Minutes
Release Date:  January 7, 2003

“I came here to rob you.  But unfortunately, I fell in love with you.”

Film ****

Ernst Lubitsch was once as renowned a name in Hollywood as any of the famed directors you can think of today.  Some great artists remain immortal; some fall through the cracks of memory through no fault of his own.  Though his name isn’t spoken as much today as the likes of Capra, Ford, Wilder and others, most modern cinema students agree:  Lubitsch was the man who brought Hollywood out of the era of Griffith and into the modern age.

So much of what we have today in movies wouldn’t have been possible without the influence of Lubitsch, who, among others, brought America her first movie musicals, and some say, her first romantic comedies.  It’s been said that Trouble in Paradise laid the groundwork for every such movie that ever followed, but none have ever been made quite as good.  I’m inclined to agree.

This is an effervescent romp of crime, romance and satire, all told with the sense of sophistication that would forever be referred to as “the Lubitsch touch”.  It’s simple story of love among thieves was ahead of its time…and a good thing, too, as the production code in years ahead would have never allowed such wonderful people to do such terrible things and get away with them.

In a memorable opening shot, we are introduced to the beautiful city of Venice in a rather unconventional way, focusing on a garbage toting gondola.  As the camera zips along through some tight and clever cuts, we see the aftermath of a crime that will later come to light.

It was committed by Gaston Monescu (Marshall), an expert thief, imposter and con man with a charm ladies can’t seem to resist.  He is about to meet his match in Lily (Hopkins), equally adept in the ways of crime.  Their first date centers around a hilarious scene where they take turns returning items each has lifted off the other (“You don’t mind if I keep the garter, do you?”).  Naturally, they fall in love.

When a handbag swipe brings Gaston face to face with perfume heiress Mariette Colet (Francis), the couple seems to have hit upon a grand scheme.  Gaston becomes her personal secretary while plotting a daring robbery of her household safe that he is manipulatively padding!

The problem?  Gaston and Mariette seem to be falling in love, much to the dismay of Lily.  Unlike most romantic comedies, it’s hard to know which lady to root for…the sweet but shallow Mariette, who is also being wooed by two rather inept suitors in Filiba (Horton) and The Major (Ruggles), or Lily, who seems a perfect match to Gaston right down to choice of profession!

The outcome is not so important…getting there is all the fun, and Lubitsch brings it all together with a terrific cast, a wonderful screenplay, and impeccable camerawork and editing.  One of my favorite sequences has a romantic evening happening entirely OFF camera…we only hear it while watching a clock mark the passage of time in a few clever dissolves.  Touches like that make the movie priceless.

Trouble in Paradise is movie going delight from the title screen to the end…pure screwball sophistication that still seems as fresh today as it ever did.  The Lubitsch touch may be hard to put into words, but easy to understand if you just watch one of his remarkable pictures.

Video **

The film looks pretty good for being 70 years old, but it requires that qualification.  Aging can only be offset so much, and here, we have images that range from slight to mid-level softness, good clean whites but occasionally murky blacks, and a few instances of noticeable print wear and scarring.  All of these are within the realm of understanding for such an old picture, but nevertheless keep it from earning higher than average marks.

Audio **

The mono soundtrack from the early days of sound is presentable, but noticeably aged as well.  Though the dialogue is clear and easily understood from start to finish, there is a bit of background hiss that can’t be avoided (remember, these early talkies had their sound recorded on phonograph records).  I didn’t notice any popping, crackling or other distractions, though, so consider this serviceable track about as good as can be expected.

Features ***1/2

Criterion has amassed a good package of extras to go with this title, starting with a studious and informative commentary track by Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman.  He offers plenty of facts and insights, while pulling back at key moments to let you enjoy the dialogue on screen…an enjoyable effort.  There is also a 10 minute introduction to the picture by Peter Bogdanovich (an excellent listen), plus tributes to Lubitsch penned by the likes of Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, Cameron Crowe, Roger Ebert, Leonard Maltin and others (some of the screens even show the papers in the author’s own handwriting!).

Rounding out are two special offerings:  a delightful German silent from 1917 directed by Lubitsch called The Merry Jail (in extremely good condition for its age, and stylistically indicative of what was to come in his Hollywood career) which clocks in at about 47 minutes, and a 1940 Screen Guild Theatre radio program featuring Lubitsch along with Claudette Colbert, Basil Rathbone and Jack Benny.  Terrific features for fans of the classics!

Summary:

Ernst Lubitsch was a remarkable cinematic artist, and this movie and DVD presentation will serve to remind modern audiences of that fact.  Criterion not only presents Trouble in Paradise on disc for collectors to enjoy, but manages to preserve and showcase the legacy of Lubitsch with its enjoyable extras.  Recommended for anyone who loves movies.