There is no Hollywood movie more insouciantly amoral than Ernst Lubitsch's 1932 Trouble in Paradise, screening at LACMA on July 9 to open the four-week series “Laughter in Paradise: The American Comedies of Ernst Lubitsch.” Originally released in the depths of the Great Depression, Lubitsch's urbane comedy concerns a swank pair of thieves, played by Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins, who not only live together in sin but — after successfully fleecing Kay Francis' rich and equally charming widow — taxi off into the sunset utterly unrepentant.
The movie's white-on-white deco sets were once the essence of modernity — and so was its worldly attitude. Obviously, Trouble in Paradise could not have been produced after the 1934 Production Code arrived to regulate the fantasy lives of American moviegoers. Hedonism was never more nonchalant. Trouble in Paradise has none of the single-entendre tawdriness or salacious Puritanism that gives pre-Code Hollywood its carnival flavor. Style is substance in Lubitsch's instantly recognized masterpiece: “As close to perfection as anything I have ever seen in the movies,” the young Dwight Macdonald wrote in a little literary magazine. Indeed, style is morality.
Trouble in Paradise, adroitly adapted by Samson Raphaelson from a Hungarian play inspired by a turn-of-the-century jewel thief, is graced with a shimmering cast, impeccably streamlined in evening clothes and impossibly clinging gowns. Hopkins' self-amused coquettishness embodies the film's sense of mischief even as the superbly slouching Francis provides a sheen of lazy sensuality. Francis has the bewitching bedroom eyes, but the sly, effervescent Hopkins is the scene-stealer; she must literally sit on her hands at one point to keep from swiping Francis' jewelry. (“I wouldn't fall for another man if he was the biggest crook on Earth,” Hopkins fumes upon realizing that Marshall is about to betray her.)
At the apex of the triangle, the stiff yet soigné Marshall, often positioned in the frame to show off his profile (or conceal his prosthetic leg), leans forward to inhale his irresistible co-stars, both of whom are experts at swooning on divans. Romance in this movie, which opens with a gondolier lip-synching Caruso on a Venetian garbage scow and has comic secondarios Edward Everett Horton and Charles Ruggles sniffing around Francis in doglike devotion, seems markedly olfactory. Francis is the widow of a French perfume magnate while, to judge from its shine, Marshall's pomade was made for aroma-rama. The sets might have been dusted with talcum powder or confectionary sugar; and then, of course, there's the intoxicating smell of money.
This comedy of jewel thieves is itself the prize sparkler of Lubitsch's enterprising career — a ransom that he never quite redeemed. Trouble in Paradise synthesizes the feel of Lubitsch's glittering silents with the sassy repartee of his talkies; the frivolity of the Roaring '20s is toughened by a sense of Depression-era class consciousness. Soak the rich! Exceedingly fluid for its day, Trouble in Paradise was the director's first nonmusical talking picture; cut to sprightly incidental music and paced by playful spoken rhythms, it dances to its own tune. (Later movies would be heavier, even as they sought to amuse.) Never equaled, Trouble in Paradise twinkles like the polestar in the sky above the comedies of Billy Wilder, George Cukor and (less brightly) Otto Preminger; it anticipates the banter of Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest. The ultimate nightmare would be a Vegas-set remake with Hugh Grant, Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow, written and directed by Nora Ephron.
Trouble in Paradise acknowledges itself as a comic mechanism with the repeated use of clocks to structure its precision-tooled gags. Everything is artifice. The gem-encrusted purse that Marshall pilfers from Francis and then returns for the reward — becoming her private secretary as a result — is only one of several free-floating sexual symbols. Some, like Francis' bed, are not even symbols. Like many of Lubitsch's films, Trouble in Paradise riffs on role-playing and mistaken identity. A passion for theater is at the heart of his cinema, and the bed, always empty, is presented as a potential stage throughout. Indeed, as blithe as it is, Trouble in Paradise is something of an impossible love story — and not just because of the characters' triumphant self-absorption.
The Venetian prologue, wherein Marshall and Hopkins steal each other's hearts, among other items, is a superb mutual seduction. But it is Francis and Marshall's never-consummated affair that occasions the movie's most haunting montage: As dreamy Francis murmurs that she and Marshall will have “weeks,” “months,” “years” together, Lubitsch frames them in a series of distinct shots — side by side, then reflected in Francis' boudoir mirror, and finally as shadows on her satin sheets. It's a master's touch indeed that renders their desire both ephemeral and eternal.
The phrase “genius of the system,” coined by Thomas Schatz to characterize the golden age of the Hollywood studios, might equally be applied to Lubitsch, whose career as a popular artist affords a parallel history of commercial movies from World War I through World War II.
Born in Berlin, the stagestruck son of a tailor not long removed from some Eastern European shtetl, Lubitsch studied with Max Reinhardt and broke into movies at 21 in the persona of a comic Jewish go-getter. One-reel Lubitsch vehicles like Meyer on the Alps and Shoe Salon Pinkus were extraordinarily popular with German audiences; switching to directing during World War I, Lubitsch formed an alliance with the tempestuous Pola Negri, who became, in his movies, Germany's greatest female star.
Lubitsch specialized in satiric social comedies and lavish historical romances. Well before he turned 30, he was Germany's most celebrated director. At once sophisticated and vulgar in his taste for orientalism and theatrical bric-a-brac, Lubitsch was a cannier, less pretentious and more cosmopolitan entertainer than his peers Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau — closer in his showbiz sensibility to the Hollywood moguls. (“Bourgeois, Jewish, nouveau riche to the tip of his fat cigar,” in Raymond Durgnat's phrase.) In 1922, America's aging sweetheart Mary Pickford hired Lubitsch to direct her next picture. The first of the European émigrés to establish himself in the American movie colony, he adapted brilliantly: “I prefer Paris, Paramount, to Paris, France.”
In America, Lubitsch invented his trademark “touch,” while creating several successful cycles. The five “continental” comedies he made for Warner Bros. between 1924 and 1926 inspired widespread imitation while putting the hitherto minor studio on the map. (Lubitsch briefly served as Warner's head of production, acquiring the rights to The Jazz Singer before leaving.) Working for Paramount in the early sound era, Lubitsch produced another influential cycle of racy operettas, mainly starring Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier (see The Smiling Lieutenant, screening on July 16, and One Hour With You and The Merry Widow, on July 23). Paramount's production head in the late '30s, Lubitsch remains best known for his late series of plot-driven comedies: Ninotchka, co-written by his disciple Wilder (July 10); The Shop Around the Corner (July 17); and To Be or Not to Be (July 24). Set in Europe and released during World War II, all three have proved resilient enough to be remade and recycled to the present day.
Lubitsch's early career, however, remains insufficiently known. In addition to his German satires, his Warner Bros. silents are a unique synthesis of Euro-couth and American slapstick. The hilarious 1926 silent So This Is Paris (July 30) could lay claim to being Hollywood's quintessential Roaring '20s comedy — a good-natured send-up of sheikhs, jazz babies and would-be wife swappers, replete with binge drinking, outrageous Freudian symbolism and a writhing kaleidoscope that must be the ultimate Charleston scene. Because it's a Lubitsch film, it's all about fantasy, pretense and misplaced identity. An American wife dons a masquerade mask to retrieve her husband from some drunken bacchanal. When she maneuvers him to the couch and removes her mask, he's nonplussed: “What do you mean by coming in at this hour?”
LAUGHTER IN PARADISE: THE AMERICAN COMEDIES OF ERNST LUBITSCH | LACMA | Weekends, July 9-31 | lacma.org