' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Trouble In Paradise (1932)

Friday, November 07, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Trouble In Paradise (1932)

One of moviegoing's most ancient chestnuts stipulates that's cinema provides an escape from reality. If you're a film critic, of if you fancy yourself one, you know this bromide well because occasionally upon leveling criticism at a film (hence the term "film critic") you will be dressed down with some variation of the phrase "Why so serious? Movies are just an escape from reality, man." Of course, it's never so simple. "Avatar" has earned more at the box office than any movie in history and while it was an escape from reality in so much as you sat down with goofy oversized glasses to watch something about a made-up planet, it brought everything back down to reality with a fairly overt pro-environmental message. Escapism is always muted by realism, you just choose whether or not you want to ignore the reality drumming on the roof.


The Lubitsch Touch, referring to the metaphorical silver screen touch of German-American director Ernst Lubitsch, is, like MacGuffin, one of the most enduring axioms in the cinematic lexicon. It is also, I think, what people are really talking about when they dredge up that hoary debate about escape vs. reality at the cinematheque. It is defined by William Paul as "the conjunction of lightness and seriousness, of gaiety and gravity". Outside the multiplex is an endless deluge of gravity and seriousness whoosing out of life's downspout. Inside the multiplex is a gaiety and lightness meant to provide tonic toward what we feel the other 22 hours of the day. And "Trouble in Paradise", first and foremost, has more tonic than nasty gin.

The film opens with a Venice garbage collector picking up a heap of trash and tossing it aboard his gondola cum garbage truck. Even the city of canals needs its trash emptied, I suppose. This is the lingering effects of the outside world. But even as the sequence unfolds, Lubitsch is already counteracting it by having the garbage collector operatically sing, per Tim Dirks, "O sole milo", a song that finds hope and a means to celebrate with every morning sun.

It couldn't have been easy to celebrate with every morning sun in 1932, the film's release. "In times like these..." is a phrase that crops up a couple times in "Trouble In Paradise." "In times like these," the board of directors advises widowed Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), heir of Colet & Cie, Paris, Parfumeries, "cut salaries." The "times" to which they refer, of course, is The Great Depression. Yet, the effects of The Depression are only referenced, and barely, they are never felt. One scene of genuine comic horror finds Madame Colet buying a MORE expensive item after initially turning down a less expensive one because of "these times".

The framework of "Trouble In Paradise" is fairly routine, a drawing room comedy centered around a love triangle. But the drawing room comedies typically focus on well-mannered characters of polite society and two of the characters in "Trouble In Paradise" are not what they appear. Or more accurately, they are not what they claim to be. Gaston (Herebert Marshall) and his dearest Lily (Miriam Hopkins) are jewel thieves, united not only by love itself but a love of high-scale larceny. The plot turns on their attempt to grift widowed Madame Colet, with Gaston posing as her secretary - a nifty reversal of the sexes - as a means to maneuver a significant sum of cash to a specific case which he and his partner in crime and amour can lift. But is Lily still his partner in love?

That question drives the film. He seems to develop affection for Madame Colet, so much that Lily understandably becomes jealous and threatens to go off-script, and as we, the audience, have, in all likelihood, seen upwards of ten zillion love-triangle based rom coms, we assume that he's developing affection for Madame Colet even as we remain suspicious that it's all part of the ruse. Marshall, however, walks the highwire so adroitly that it is impossible to tell whether or not he is faking. And because we can't tell if he's faking, we find ourselves being pulled in by this potentially unfounded romance, not unlike Madame Colet.

Spoiler Alert: he's faking. Well, not really. Well, he is. And he isn't. Yes, he decides he loves Lily, but there is most assuredly a part of himself that is sad to say goodbye to Madame Colet. And even as Madame Colet is sad to say goodbye to Gaston, she seems aware that their wondrous romantic reverie could not last. "But it could have been glorious," she sighs. "Lovely," he agrees. "Divine," she adds. Indeed. But it isn't (though it is). Just like life, I suppose, which is why, I suppose, we go to the film de cinema, where it's always glorious and always lovely and always divine.

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