Monday, July 6, 2009

The Great Movies: "Trouble in Paradise"

Trouble in Paradise
Ernst Lubitsch, 1932.

Trouble in Paradise was made in 1932, and it’s striking how many of the conventions of a modern movie are already in place by that time. 1932 was only five years after the first talkie, only six and four years respectively after relatively ancient-seeming films like The General and The Passion of Joan of Arc, but from the background music to the suave, camera-savvy sophistication of the acting to the easy integration of visual gags into a dialog driven comedy of manners, it is not terribly unlike movies that would be made twenty-five years later. Indeed, it has the same basic arc as any romantic comedy today. It’s interesting to remember that although the late 20s and early 30s were a period of economic catastrophe (something that characters in Trouble in Paradise make frequent reference to) they were also a time of dizzying social and technological change. Going to the movies in those days must have been an amazing experience, as the very form literally developed before your eyes.

A nice thing about films of this era is that the Puritanical backlash against sexuality that would inhibit later decades hadn’t really set in yet. Trouble in Paradise isn’t by any means graphic, of course, but like most comedies it is all about who is sleeping with whom. It’s nice to see this theme addressed the way most grown-ups address such stuff in real life, not crassly but not especially prudishly either.

Trouble is set in European high society, and there is an elegant ennui to the characters that would be immediately insufferable if not for strong, intelligent direction and spot-on comic acting. There is a lightness of touch here, with the characters portrayed as smart, confident people who seem to understand that they are acting out a comedy. Since most of us are also acting out a comedy, on our good days, it all works pretty well.

Plot: A con man gets hired by an heiress as her personal secretary. His scam may or may not run into trouble, though, when he discovers that he is genuinely fond of her – a discovery that is not welcomed by his girlfriend accomplice. Who will end up with whom’s heart? And what of the 100,000 francs? Unlike with most movies with this kind of plot, you really aren’t sure until it’s all over.

Visuals: Trouble in Paradise is a basically verbal comedy. The camerawork is competent and functional, but is not the main point of the picture.

Dialog: Very clever, with lots of good comic gags and good use of dialog to develop strong characters. There’s a long and slightly embarrassing bit of Italian-baiting early on, but once you get past that the humor is pretty sophisticated and, more importantly, funny.

Prognosis: I hope I look as good as Trouble in Paradise when ~I’m~ 77 years old. Obviously, if you don’t care for old movies in general, this one will give you a struggle. Otherwise, it’s very likeable comedy for grownups.

Cripes, I shoulda been doing this all along:

Roger Ebert's Trouble in Paradise review.

Trouble in Paradise at IMDB.

michael5000's The Great Movies index.

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