It’s hard not to get seduced into enjoying Trouble in Paradise. Ernst Lubitsch‘s 1932 pre-code delights on all levels. Leads Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis, and Herbert Marshall look their best while giving career high performances. The dialogue they speak with ease is witty, naughty, and quotable. They move about in gorgeous art deco sets. The celebrated Lubitsch Touch makes everything tastefully titillating as word, image, and actor chemistry combine in a tale of triangular romance that leaves no doubt about consummation between its male and female pairings. The question of which lady will win the man solely seems predetermined along class lines, but digging deeper it’s the characters’ attitudes toward work which will divide them.
When Miriam’s “Countess” meets with Marshall’s “Baron,” they’re both working, but they don’t realize that right away. The Baron’s invited the Countess to an assignation in his hotel room. We’ve been shown clues that the Baron is not what he seems. The film starts with a robbery, which we become sure that the Baron committed. There’s a tension in watching what may be a scene of romance or a seduction designed for further larceny. The Baron told his waiter he wanted a clandestine meal that would turn his Juliet into Cleopatra. He will soon learn how calculating the Countess really is! A phone call we’re privy to both ends of dispels her carefully crafted cover.
The Countess shows some signs of recognition first. “You know when I first saw you, I thought you were an American. Someone from another world. So entirely different. Oh. One gets so tired of one’s own class. Princes and counts and dukes and kings.” Her sharp eyes detected something about him from a distance that betrayed the role he was playing. He is from another world and another class. Her boredom of royalty and aristocracy sounds real. When she discovered he is like her, she was happy and “very proud.” What does she know? In which way are they alike? Her words sound equivocal.
Over dinner, she is the one to speak first. She admits visiting him for “a little adventure, but that “something’s changed” her, “and it isn’t the champagne.” What seems to be leading up to confession of love turns into an accusation! “Baron, you are a crook. You robbed the gentleman.” As she returns to eating her meal, he tells her he would have told her everything before she left his room. He, “with love” in his heart, says, “Countess, you are a thief.” He tells her she “tickled” him when lifting his wallet, but he did not mind since her embrace was “so sweet.” A game of one-upmanship becomes foreplay. Each shows what the other stole–his wallet, her pin, his watch, and her garter. The last item earns him gasps of respect and causes her to jump into his lap.
They introduce their real selves to each other. When she asks who he is, he starts by mentioning his most famous theft. He entered the The Bank of Constantinople, and he walked out with it. She’s delighted to learn he is The Gaston Monescu. While she, Lily, is not as well known as he, he gushes, “I loved you the moment I saw you. I’m mad about you.” His terms of endearment are all work-related. To him, she’s “my little shoplifter, my sweet little pickpocket, my darling.” He admires her and her craft. They are alike, and they are in love. A night together turns into almost a year of love and thievery.
Their mistake is stealing from a peace conference. He is caught and relieved of their loot by the police, but he escapes. That leaves them looking for more jobs, like stealing a jewel-encrusted purse from Kay Francis’s Madame Mariette Colet at the opera. She’s a young widow quite loose with her inherited money, and she paid 125,000 francs for a purse evaluated by Gaston to be worth only 40,000 francs. She’s innocent enough to believe it lost, so she advertises a reward of 20,000 francs for its safe return. Since the purse is worth less on the black market, Gaston and Lily decide to return the purse and use the money to celebrate their anniversary.
While returning the purse, Gaston sees the possibility of a longer con. Madame is bored “to distraction” by work and detail. She relies on others to maintain her interests and lives a care-free life in pursuit of pleasure and amusement. When she hints she’s uncomfortable bringing up the reward money, Gaston lets her know he’s not to proud to accept it being part of the “nouveau poor.” She’s attracted to him and intrigued by his flirting, so she offers this jobless man the position of personal secretary. Mariette had to let her last one go for having too much fun. He accepts, and over the months he manipulates the situation to be in control of her figure, assets, and household.
He even installs Lily as his assistant. She’s uncomfortable with the gig because “this woman has more than jewelry.” Gaston assure Lily that Mariette’s only “sex appeal” is her safe full of money and jewels. In order not be be seen as competition by Mariette, Lily reduces her own sex appeal by wearing glasses and zipping up her tops. She’s Miriam Hopkins, so she’s gorgeous. Mariette decides to increase Lily’s salary by 50 francs so she’ll work harder to make Gaston freer from work, but only if Lily is gone by 5 PM each day. Mariette wants Gaston to herself in the evenings.
There’s the whole question of what kind of man Gaston is becoming. Is he falling in love with Madame and becoming redeemed? Is she in love with him or making him her latest amusement? She’s had string of buffoonish suitors she’s let hang around her for laughs. Will the thief be ruined by the widow? Lily is afraid the answer is yes, that Gaston with all of his skills and intelligence will fall into the lowest category of conman and manhood. “Darling, remember you are Gaston Monescu. You are a crook. I want you as a crook. I love you as a crook. I worship you as a crook. Steal! Swindle! Rob! Oh, but don’t become one of those useless, good for nothing gigolos.”
Gaston realizes his identity will be discovered soon, and though he makes plans to flee with Lily, Mariette and Gaston get closer. He tries to be the gentleman that Lily feared he will become and make sure association with a secretary won’t ruin Mariette’s reputation, but she doesn’t care about ruining his reputation. She promises him a long time ahead of them–“weeks, months, years.” She doesn’t care about their class or position differences or gossip. Her suitors figure they’ve lost her to this boring, “dependable,” “insignificant” man, the type women marry. They’re confusing their types with his, and they’re soon shocked with the revelation of who Gaston is!
Mariette goes to Gaston when she hears who he is. She must discover the truth for herself. Unlike Lily, criminality holds no appeal to her. She would act if she discovered she was robbed. She’s becoming embittered because she thought he loved her, not her money. She doesn’t understand a man who started with nothing and worked his way up, even if he started off the wrong way at first. No matter their love and how “marvelous” life could have been together, there will always be the threat of the policeman at the door with a warrant. Gaston’s profession has precluded their chance at happiness, even if she forgives his deception. They understand each other and their situation at last.
Gaston returns to Lily with a present taken by him but knowingly given by Mariette, an apology of sorts by both. Gaston and Lily resume their foreplay of mutual thievery from each other’s person, and she knows he has returned to her fully. She embraces him in delight. The crooks get a happier ending than the traditional heroine! They’ll live, love, and work side-by-side. Perhaps their eventual offspring will enter the family business.
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