When I signed up to take part in the Miriam Hopkins blogathon I wanted to pick a film that I had never seen before. Luckily, I had just picked up a copy of the Criterion Edition of Ernst Lubitsch’s TROUBLE IN PARADISE. I actually watched this film twice this week, once to get an idea for my blog post and again to show it to my husband because it is just so good! This is a precode romantic comedy, starring Herbert Marshall, Kay Francis, and of course Miriam Hopkins. It also has a great supporting cast of various character actors including, Charles Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton.
In the city of Venice a man has been robbed. Francois Fileba (Edward Everett Horton) has had his wallet lightened of 20,000 francs by a very charming doctor who asked to inspect his tonsils. Meanwhile, in another room the Baron awaits his countess. When she arrives, the countess is worried about the scandal that might break out should the marquis tell the marquis that she was there. Luckily for all of Venice’s royalty, the Baron and the Countess are liars. They are in fact, both thieves named Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) and Lily (Miriam Hopkins). Once they each discover the other’s true identity they also realize that while their royals ties were fake, their love for each other is real. They fall into each other’s arms and put the DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door.
Almost one year later Gaston and Lily are still in Paris and still in love. Speaking of love, Madame Colet (Kay Francis) has a problem. She has two men in love with her, but she doesn’t care for them at all. Day after day she is pursued by the Major (Charles Ruggles) and Monsieur Fileba, much to her annoyance. The two men hate each other and bicker all the time. In fact, they are bickering the night that Madam Colet goes to the opera with her new handbag. The handbag is covered in diamonds and cost 125,000 francs, so naturally it attracts the attention of Gaston. During the course of the opera, Gaston manages to steal the bag and escape into the night. The next day Lily finds a notice about the missing handbag and the 20,000 franc reward. As the reward is more than what they would get selling the bag, Gaston goes to Madam Colet’s home to return the stolen property. He presents himself as a “nouveau poor” named Gaston LuValle and sets about charming Madam Colet. She is quite taken with this gentleman and as she has no head for business herself, decides to take him on as her secretary. Once Gaston realizes that Madam Colet has 100,000 francs in her personal safe he sets about planning to embezzle as much money as possible.
Now positioned as personal secretary to Madam Colet, Gaston begins to influence every aspect of her life. From lipstick color, to no potatoes for breakfast, to exercise routines, he controls it all. He also has an effect on her finances and increases her insurance against burglary to 850,000 francs, just in case. Meanwhile, Lily has taken a job as Gaston’s secretary with the name of Votier. One day, while typing a letter to the bank requesting that 850,000 francs be delivered to the house at the end of the month, Lily is summoned to speak to Madam Colet. Sitting beside Madam Colet’s bed, and sitting on her hands, Lily eyes the box of jewelry and listens as Madam Colet expresses her desire for Gaston to work less. She asks Lily to help with the work load in order to free up Gaston’s time, but she makes sure that Lily will still be leaving promptly at 5PM everyday. And just to make sure she increases Lily’s salary by fifty francs. Back in her room Lily is furious and when Gaston asks what Madam Colet wanted, she replies “You!”
Lily warns Gaston that she loves him as a crook, that he can do anything, rob, cheat, swindle, but whatever he does don’t “become one of those good for nothing gigolos!”. So warned, Gaston allows Madam Colet to invite him out to dinner and dancing. She begins to fall in love with him, and it appears he begins to develop feelings as well. Over the next few weeks, Madam Colet introduces him to her social set which includes Francois Fileba. While Fileba attempts to remember where he met Gaston before, Gaston runs upstairs to warn Lily. The two decide that they must flee Paris that night and make plans to meet at midnight after Lily has cleaned their apartment and Gaston has dealt with Madam Colet. Lily hurries off and Gaston is confronted by Fileba who asks if he has ever been to Venice, Gaston denies it and counters by asking if Fileba has ever been to Constantinople. Confused, Fileba is distracted by Gaston’s charm and tales of harems and leaves mollified.
That night, while Lily packs, Gaston hears a knock on his door and finds Madam Colet outside. She looks lovely, dressed to attend a dinner party that night, and proceeds to flirt with Gaston which he does not resist. The two kiss and soon close the door to the office, leaving the car to wait outside. Some time later, Madam Colet prepares to leave for her engagement while Gaston asks her not to go. She smiles, saying she wants to make it tough for him, but promises to return at 11PM for a rendezvous. Lily is anxiously awaiting Gaston’s call to come to the station to meet him but is shocked when he calls instead to tell her that they must postpone their departure until the next day. Smelling a rat, and suspecting a secret love affair, Lily heads off to Madam Colet’s residence. Meanwhile, Madam Colet has just been informed that Fileba has remembered where he met Gaston before and who her charming secretary really is.
TROUBLE IN PARADISE is my definition of a perfect movie. The writing is sublime, funny and intelligent as only an Ernst Lubitsch film can be. Written by Samson Raphaelson and directed by Ernst Lubitsch this film is what every romantic comedy today should strive to be. People often speak about “The Lubitsch Touch”, the ability of these movies to show the viewer just enough to get the point across and then trust the audience to figure the rest out. In other words, Lubitsch treats the audience like adults which is something that is becoming rarer and rarer these days.
Herbert Marshall is fabulous and I would be quite content if he would come and read me the phone book all day. His character of Gaston is sublimely charming and suave, and you truly get the sense of how much he loves Lily as well as being tempted by the lovely Madam Colet. Speaking of Madam Colet, Kay Francis lives up to her name as the “best dressed woman in Hollywood”. She looks stunning and plays the role of the rich widow with grace and elegance, as well as childlike innocence and womanly desire. I have not had the privilege of seeing many of her other films but I will make a point to now. But let us now get to the main attraction of this film, and indeed this blog post, and talk about the fabulous Miriam Hopkins.
This was Miriam Hopkins’ second film with Ernst Lubitsch, the first being THE SMILING LIEUTENANT, but this would be her breakout role. And no wonder! Her portrayal of Lily is a supreme example of wit, charm, and intelligence. From what I have read, in real life Miriam Hopkins was extremely well read, intelligent, and charming so I like to think that the character of Lily is close to her true personality, minus the burglary. Lily is totally in love with Gaston, but she doesn’t allow that to make her into a side kick or second banana. Instead she acts like, and expects to be treated like, his equal just as clever, slick, and charming as he is. This scene in which they discover their true identities is great, not only for the brilliant acting and writing but because it clearly demonstrates who each of the characters are. Lily is amused by Gaston’s antics but is just as tricky as he is, and when it comes to her garter she is surprised but amused as well which I think speaks to her maturity and security in herself as a woman. (Note that the sound doesn’t come in until about fourteen seconds in)
Lily is a woman in every sense of the word. She is clever, self-possessed, and knows what she wants. I also loved how Miriam Hopkins shows Lily’s jealousy in a very mature way. Lily is quite obviously jealous of the attention that Madam Colet shows Gaston but she doesn’t let it out in the typical Hollywood way. There are no elaborate schemes, no bouts of crying and stomping feet, no passive aggressive comments. Instead, Lily is very upfront with Gaston telling him that she knows what he is and she loves him as that but if he goes after Madam Colet she will wring his neck and she isn’t wiling to stick around with someone who doesn’t love her. She knows what is what, she knows that Madam Colet wants Gaston and she probably even knows that Gaston is attracted to Madam Colet. She also knows that she is a thief and that Gaston is a thief, and she makes no apologies for that. This is what is so different about the character of Lily as compared to the romantic comedies today, and even some of the past. Lily is written as a woman, a grown up, and Miriam Hopkins portrays her as such.
Miriam Hopkins is an actress that I am growing in appreciation for after first seeing her in DESIGN FOR LIVING and THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE. She is an actress that I always enjoy watching because she has such a wonderful onscreen presence. She always brings a quality to her roles that makes it seem as if you could meet these characters in the real world, and that you would like to. She is what I would call a charming actress, in that she brings a quality to her roles that makes them irresistable and unforgettable. Her smile seems to tell of several stories she could tell, not all of them suitable for mixed company. She has a sparkle in her eye and she brings that to her acting. I truly enjoyed this masterful film and the actress who inspired this blogathon!