Monday, May 7, 2012

Den of Thieves

Film: Trouble in Paradise
Format: DVD from NetFlix on various players

Once upon a time, there were old films made before the Hays Code. In these films, the bad guys could win and crime could pay. It wasn’t until after the code that we got such genres as film noir, where crime was a major part of the plot and didn’t pay no matter how much we liked the crooks in the film. Trouble in Paradise was made before the Hays Code happened, and it’s a film that couldn’t have been made the same way while the Code was in effect.

In this film, we meet up with Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall), an accomplished and dedicated thief. He is posing as a baron and romancing a woman whom he is hoping to rob. The woman, Lily (Miriam Hopkins) turns out to also be a crook. We have something like a meet cute after they’ve already met when it turns out that he has robbed the room of Francois Filiba (Edward Everett Horton). She, of course, has robbed him. But he’s stolen her brooch. But she’s stolen his watch. And he’s stolen her garter. And love blooms.

Some time later, Gaston manages to swipe the purse of Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), a widow who owns and operates the most successful perfume company in France. He and Lily discover that the reward for the missing purse is far more than he could sell the purse for to a fence. And so he approaches Madame Colet and returns the purse for the reward. He also charms her into giving him a job as her personal secretary, which puts him in prime position to rob her blind.

The problem is that, like Filiba and a man known only as The Major (Charles Ruggles), Monescu has fallen for her hard. He’s torn between the thief he knows and loves and the widow who is far more charming than he would have expected. And, since he’s already ripped off one of her suitors, there’s the constant threat that he’ll be found out before he can get away, if he even wants to get away.

The love triangle here is an interesting one, but one that crops up every now and then. The idea that the thief falls for the victim is sort of a fun idea, and one that in this case is very fresh for when the film was made. And it is a real love triangle—there’s a great deal of sex going on in this film. When Lily and Gaston go through their little “look what I took from you” moment early in the film, it’s palpably sexual and culminates with Lily virtually attacking Gaston, leaving us to essentially imagine her dragging him off to bed (rather than the other way around). It is this rather overt sexuality that has, more than likely, kept this film off the radar of all but the most dedicated fan of the classics.

Trouble in Paradise is in many ways the start of the screwball comedy, but this is not a screwball in any way, shape, or form. Lubitsch was an extremely sophisticated director in what he could do and what he wanted to get from his films. There’s no slapstick here, and there shouldn’t be, because it would probably spoil the entire effect. Instead, we are graced with a level of elegance that isn’t seen that often in early film.

This is quite a find for a number of reasons. In the first place—and don’t sell this short—this is a true romantic comedy, and in many ways the first in the talkie era. Second, the sexuality is quite surprising for a film of this era. We tend to think that films from the 1930s are staid, na├»ve, and almost Puritanical. Not so. This film is downright racy in its own way. Third, it’s damn well acted all the way around. Miriam Hopkins is tremendous in her role, and Herbert Marshall is as suave as any actor I’ve ever seen. As usual, the great Edward Everett Horton is tremendous in a supporting role, and is a huge benefit to the final film.

Films like Trouble in Paradise are the reason I started watching all of these films. I’d have never picked this in 100 years of choosing films on my own, opting more than likely to watch something for the fifth or sixth time. And doing that, I’d have missed a real gem both in terms of its history and in terms of just how entertaining this film really is. If you don’t mind a film from the dawn of talkies, you’ll find a lot here to not just like, but really fall in love with.

Why to watch Trouble in Paradise: It was made before that nasty Hays Code.
Why not to watch: More rich people problems.

15 comments:

  1. One of the early gems of Lubitsch,I suggest you watch it with Designing for Living as double feature.One thing really stood out for me is how daring the director is indicating all those sexual things,that's really astounding for a film that early.

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    1. It's also very European. One thing that America still deals with to a great degree is a large amount of Puritanism.

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  2. Please keep Miriam Hopkins to yourself. Kay Francis is far superior to her in every way--I wish Gaston had picked her character over Hopkins'. Lubitsch is the epitome of what a sophisticated comedy director should be.

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  3. She's far too passive for me, too emotionally mushy. Miriam Hopkins may be excitable and mercenary, but at least she has passion.

    But yes, I agree on Lubitsch. The man oozed style, and it's evident in this film.

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  4. Steve, I also wouldn't have seen this but watched it while going through Roger Ebert's Great Movies book a little while back. I was glad that I did, as Trouble in Paradise is a lot of fun. Even knowing that it came before the Hays Code, it's still a bit surprising to see the subject matter on screen for a '30s film. Also, Hopkins is definitely superior to Francis, at least in this film.

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    1. We should start a Miriam Hopkins revival fan club.

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    2. She's really good in Virginia City, which is about 2/3 a great movie. Humphrey Bogart as a suave Mexican bandit is a plus!

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    3. I've been wanting to see this for a while. It's one of only four movies on the List from 1935 or earlier that I haven't seen. And it's on TCM in a few days! Hooray!

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    4. I'm not sure I buy him as a Mexican bandit any more than I bought it from Brando, honestly.

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    5. Oh, you don't buy it. Its just very entertaining. You can tell he knew he was in over his head, but he gets a lot of points for effort.

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    6. Fair enough. I may try to catch it if it shows up somewhere, but I probabaly won't go out of my way for it.

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    7. I think my favorite weird Bogart performance is The Return of Dr. X. I think he's great in it! Studio correspondence shows that he was not at all comfortable with the role and he protested being forced to do it because it wasn't his sort of role. But the result is pretty awesome! A very different take on an egotistical mad scientist as he's all sweaty and nervous and you get the idea that he knows there is no way he can really justify what he's doing, even to himself, but he's driven by his obsessive devotion to scientific advancement and also because his own life depends on it. It's must-see for Bogart fans who are also fans of mad-doctor horror films.

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  5. As much as I love Miriam Hopkins, I just absolutely adore Kay Francis. I haven't seen her in that many movies though. I checked her filmography a while back and discovered she was in the Marx Brothers film Animal Crackers, which I've seen about a million times over the decades. I think I know which character she was, but between Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, Margaret Dumont and Lillian Roth, Kay Francis never really stood out in that film, I guess. (I really want to see Animal Crackers again. I haven't seen it since I got my big screen crush on Kay Francis last year.)

    I love Kay in King of the Underworld! It's really silly, wonderfully silly, and it's where I discovered Kay Francis. Humphrey Bogart steals the show as a gangster who is obsessed with Napoleon. But you gotta love Kay Francis! She charges into this really silly movie and treats her part like it's Lady Macbeth or Blanche DuBois. The result will make you roll your eyes a lot, but it's irresistible.

    I just finished Trouble in Paradise, and I loved it! It was great to see Kay Francis as the star in a really good movie like this! I'm guessing this is one of the movies that made her famous?

    Miriam Hopkins is great too! I certainly understand the love for her. Herbert Marshall has grown on me over the years just because he's in so many movies from the early 1930s. But to be honest, I don't quite accept him as the handsome, charming, suave rogue he plays in so many movies of the time. (There's a couple of movies he made with Norma Shearer where I was hoping she would see through his b.s. and just shoot him.) Which is not to say he's not a very good actor. He's wonderful in quite a few movies he made when they started casting him in roles closer to his age. He's pretty awesome in Angel Face, for example. And The Little Foxes.

    And the supporting cast was great across the board! C. Aubrey Smith, Charles Ruggles and especially Edward Everett Horton were amazing. (And it just hit me how weird it is that they all ended up in cartoons in the 1960s. Smith must have inspired Commander McBragg, Ruggles was the voice of Aesop and Horton narrated Fractured Fairy Tales.)

    And Robert Grieg as Francois, the butler, was great too. He's also the butler in Animal Crackers. (I think his name is Hives.) I think maybe I'll remember the actor's name from now on.

    And also, Leonid Kinskey (of Casablanca) was pretty amusing in his cameo as the shouty Communist.

    Great movie from Lubitsch. I should have seen this years ago!

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    1. It's one that I look forward to seeing again. There's a lot here worth seeing, and Lubitsch's work is always worthy of a rewatch.

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    2. I made a mistake. Kay Francis is in The Cocoanuts, not Animal Crackers. It's been quite a while since I saw The Cocoanuts. It's so weird! I used to have it on VHS and I watched it quite a few times in the 1990s. You gotta love Monkey Doodle Doo!

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