Monday, March 25, 2013

"Trouble in Paradise," or The Snatch Game

"Trouble in Paradise" bugs me, man.

Writing about it bugs me, that is. It's such a flipping perfect little movie that I can't make affectionate fun of it the way I do with awkward early talkies, or Joan Crawford's bug eyes, or Marie Dressler's mugging. It forces me to resort to phrases that aren't part of my vocabulary as a cynical middle-aged guy in the early 21st century but that nevertheless are accurate, like "beautifully constructed," "sublimely witty" or "delightfully acted." Or descriptors that you usually use when talking about desserts, like "exquisite" and "fluffy" and "delectable."

Worst of all, I lack even an iota, a scintilla, a microscopic speck of the skill of the people behind the movie, particularly director Ernst Lubitsch, from whom all blessings flow, so how can someone so humble report adequately on something so special? Who do I think I am, Self Styled Siren? It falls to me to try and write about a movie I love while knowing that my pitiful efforts at describing why it's so special will never, ever, ever do it justice.

Having now built your expectations to a fever pitch, let us hie to Venice, where a night of magical romance is just about to go through cupid's checkout counter (12 items or less). We are in a hotel where the Baron (Herbert Marshall), a smooth customer with half-lidded eyes and a perpetual half smile, is ordering dinner from a willing waiter:

Baron: It must be the most marvelous supper. We may not eat it, but it must be marvelous.

Waiter: Yes, Baron.

Baron: And waiter --

Waiter: Yes, Baron?

Baron: Do you see that moon?

Waiter: Yes, Baron.

Baron: I want to see that moon in the champagne.

Waiter: Yes, Baron. (writes) Moon ... in ... champagne.

Baron: And as for you --

Waiter: Yes, Baron?

Baron: I don't want to see you .. at all.

Waiter: No, Baron.

The dinner guest arrives. It is the Countess (Miriam Hopkins), looking beautiful and breathless because she just succeeded at barely avoiding someone she wanted to avoid. Someone with a title and an estate, no doubt, but uninteresting -- the kind of ne plus ultra people who attend so many of the ne plus ultra parties she is forced to attend, in case you were wondering.

The Countess and the Baron circle each other, taking turns with mutual compliments and pleased smiles. Then comes moon-infused champagne, and dinner, and some straight talk:

Countess: I have a confession to make to you: Baron, you are a crook. You robbed the gentleman in 253, 5, 7 and 9. May I have the salt?

Baron: Please!

Countess: Thank you.

Baron: The pepper, too?

Countess: Oh, no, thank you.

Baron: You're very welcome. Countess, believe me, before you left this room, I would have told you everything. And let me say this, with love in my heart: Countess, you are a thief. The wallet of the gentleman in 253, 5, 7 and 9 is in your possession. I knew it very well when you took it out of my pocket. In fact, you tickled me. But your embrace was so sweet.

The Baron is actually Master Thief Gaston Monescu, and the Countess is actually Lily the Very Good Pickpocket. They are con artists, and each thrilled to be in the company of a master, so they become a couple.

Fast forward to Paris, specifically Colet and Company, makers of cosmetics. This is the business owned by the third side of our triangle, Madame Colet (Kay Francis). Her husband started the business, but now he's dead, and Madame isn't that interested in it. Neither is she interested in her two persistent suitors, the Major (Charlie Ruggles) and Francois (Edward Everett Horton). She gets joy mainly by buying beautiful things, and when her very expensive evening bag goes missing at the opera, she offers a large reward. The rewardee is Gaston, but when he meets Madame he senses the potential for more than just a reward:


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.

Madame: What would you do if you were my secretary?

Gaston: The same thing.

Madame: You're hired.


Gaston becomes Madame's live-in financial secretary. And Lily is hired as a stenographer. But when Madame confides her feelings about Gaston to Lily, the Very Good Pickpocket starts getting a little antsy.

Meanwhile, there are signs the jig, she is up. You see, on the night Gaston and Lily first met, in Venice, Gaston had just come from robbing a silly rich man in the same hotel, and it was Francois -- the man in room 235, 7 and 9. And since Francois is always hanging around Madame Colet, he meets Gaston and starts putting two and two together, but not without great difficulty.

At any rate, Gaston and Lily sense that it's time to go. But to Gaston, known to his mistress as Monsieur Laval, Madame Colet has become more than just an attractive target, and he takes appropriate action:  

Gaston: Is this the Petite Flower Shop? I want you to take five dozen roses -- deep, red roses. And I want you to put them in a basket, and send this basket tomorrow morning to Madame Colet. And attach a card: "In memory of the late Monsieur Laval." Tomorrow morning. Ten o'clock. Yes. Huh? Oh -- charge it to Madame Colet.

Truth be told, Gaston does not leave Madame Colet that abruptly. He does it with the kind of wit and style that marks "Trouble in Paradise" beginning to end. I've tried to recount some of it, but compared to the finished film my efforts are like those of the first fellow we see in the movie, an opera-singing Venetian piloting a gondola overflowing with garbage through a moonlit canal.

Oh, and one more thing -- Kay Francis has the cutest little speech impediment. You really notice it toward the end of the movie, when she turns to Gaston and says:

"Why talk of wobbewy on a night like this?"

Why indeed.

Here are complete credits for "Trouble in Paradise."

5 comments:

  1. Your tribute souffle came out perfectly.

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  2. Lubitsch is always good. Still, you could have picked on Miriam Hopkins some. Love Kay Francis in this, but, oh, how I despise Hopkins' character.

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  3. Thanks, CW. I really do appreciate that.

    Kim, that's a very good point. She certainly is more overtly mercenary. Then again, Madame Colet is so wealthy that she can afford to be nonchalant about it.

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  4. Another outstanding post. I know how you feel about trying to capture this film in words (your Self-Styled Siren reference made me laugh out loud, but literally) -- I tried recently to talk about the scene where Gaston and Lily meet, and it was simply impossible to capture its sense of delectable delight.

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  5. I would like to see someone give a spanking in a good business way. (What a terrific line!)

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