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Moral Ambiguity 

Trouble in Paradise, one of Ernst Lubitsch's most critically praised films, for years has been held up for its witty, cynical amorality. Maybe so. The film's three central characters, who take turns being protagonists and antagonists, each apply their own shade of moral ambiguity before going out for a night on the Art Deco town that was 1932 Paris. Herbert Marshall's Gaston is a con artist, as is his partner in love and crime, Miriam Hopkins' Lily. And one could argue there isn't much to love about a flirty heiress dancing prospective suitors like a yo-yo.

But is Trouble in Paradise necessarily amoral? I wonder. Maybe it's not enough, in revisiting this classic romantic comedy from the man who practically invented the genre on last year's Criterion Collection DVD release, to suggest that there is honor among thieves. That is, after all, how the film ends. But there is also love, Lubitsch suggests, along with the Depression-era notion that money can't buy happiness (though it sure can provide a really good view of it).

Trouble in Paradise kicks off the biweekly Classic Film Series, a bagful of oldies but goodies courtesy Mardi Gras historian and film buff Henri Schindler, this Friday at NOMA's Stern Auditorium. The series takes an immediate hiatus to clear the way for Jazz Fest, then resumes May 13 with Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth (1937), followed by Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game (1939), Max Ophuls' Lola Montes (1955) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Veronika Voss (1982).

Lubitsch was finding his stride in Hollywood when he made Trouble; he'd already scored Academy Awards for 1928's The Patriot and 1929's The Love Parade, his first talkie. The former actor was erasing some of the xenophobia of having come over from Germany at the encouragement of Mary Pickford, and had finally found a home at Paramount.

The Depression was in full swing and the Hayes Production Code was impending, and Lubitsch seemed to take advantage of both with Trouble, commenting not only on wealth but sexuality in a way that would have been almost unheard of a year or two later. For the "paradise" in Paradise is love, and the "trouble" is money, and we all know what humans are capable of for love or money (or both). Lubitsch sure did.

He creates a sophisticated, erudite world for this threesome: Marshall's eloquent Gaston (he practically sings his lines) is a world-class thief who dupes the richest out of their riches. Hopkins' Lily is a pickpocket who, like most women, has to work a little harder for her money. And then there's Francis' Madame Colet, who seems hell-bent on frittering away her late husband's money. She's restless and bored, a perfect mark for Gaston and Lily. The problem is, the suave Gaston is also an easy mark for the surprisingly sexy Colet, and after a time Lily starts to wonder who's zooming whom. By the end of the film, you're not quite sure who to cheer for; everyone's just as deserving of punishment as they are sympathy.

Lubitsch once said, "Nobody should try to play comedy unless they have a circus going on inside," and each of his characters here certainly feels a bit on the carnivalesque side. Marshall, with his dulled, world-weary eyes, masks an inner fire, a passion for the things that please him. It's a passion that could be his undoing, and we're never sure until the very end which route he'll take. And Hopkins -- considered one of the great comic actresses of her day -- is the essence of screwball. There's a scene in particular in which Marshall and Hopkins are ripping through their dialogue, plotting the final scene of the scam when Gaston suggests something that has to do with Germany. A wild-eyed Lily whips around and juts into a stiff, Teutonic stance and barks a "Jawohl!" that comes out of left field.

Bathed in shimmering black-and-white, the Art Deco scenery of Trouble in Paradise is almost as sexy as the dialogue. Lubitsch would later tease the Code, but here, he is completely free to do things like have Madame Colet lying on an exercise mat, her legs pulled all the way back over her and touching the ground as she taunts a suitor, "Is this what you mean, Lavelle?"

Much has been said about "the Lubitsch" touch, and much of that has been about how few people have been able to properly define the term -- so I won't waste time trying here. But there is an undeniably of Lubitsch's ability to contrast his wit and sophistication against a nuttiness that seems bent on deconstruction the former two notions. He seems at play with both himself and the viewer. But as A.O. Scott of The New York Times so deftly put it in his essay to advance last summer's Lubitsch retrospective at the Film Forum, "His vaunted style is indeed a way of seeing the world, and his acute observations of human behavior add up to something like a theory of human nature."

Maybe, even, morality.

click to enlarge Ernst Lubitsch's classic 1932 romantic comedy, Trouble in Paradise, kicks off the Classic Film Series on Friday at NOMA.
  • Ernst Lubitsch's classic 1932 romantic comedy, Trouble in Paradise, kicks off the Classic Film Series on Friday at NOMA.
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