BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Jan 7th, 2003 •

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(Criterion) 1932
82 mins / B&W / 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Watching Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise is like traveling to an alternative universe, a parallel world where Hollywood made films dealing with adult sexuality in a manner that is straightforward and sophisticated but never crude. Lubitsch’s masterpiece was produced in 1932, shortly before the stiffening of the Hays censorship Code forced Hollywood to create a bizarre cinematic world where even a husband and wife couldn’t lie together in the same bed, and criminals never went unpunished. The seed that Lubitsch planted, a cinema of sexual sophistication and emotional realism, would never bear fruit. The films that emerged after the Hays Code was destroyed justly reveled in their expression of sexual explicitness, and produced many brilliant films, but it is hard to think of any that capture Lubitsch’s simple elegance. It’s certainly difficult to imagine Lubitsch’s style flourishing in today’s lowest-common-denominator Hollywood. It’s important to remember that many Pre-Code films were extremely crude (just check-out Clara Bow as a bullwhip wielding nymphomaniac in Call Her Savage), and later Hollywood filmmakers (including Lubitsch) used considerable ingenuity to get around the Code; nonetheless, it is hard not to feel that an amazing opportunity was lost. Fortunately, Trouble in Paradise is still here to delight 21st century audiences with its wit and magic.

When fellow jewel thieves Gaston (Herbert Marshall) and Lily (Miriam Hopkins) meet, it is love at first sight. They instantly know they are perfect for each other and immediately embark on a European spree of passion and theft. Their ambitions grow when the return of a purloined necklace allows Gaston into the good graces of wealthy perfume executive Madame Colet (Kay Francis). However, the plan gets twisted into knots when romantic feelings develop between Gaston and their beautiful intended victim.

Another element that would soon disappear from Hollywood films is Trouble in Paradise’s delightful frankness about one of the most taboo subjects in American society: class. For depression-era audiences, it was an enormous pleasure to watch Gaston and Lily, two characters with lower-class roots, who guiltlessly steal from the rich and give to themselves. Of course, audiences also got to vicariously enjoy the luxury of high society.

The re-emergence of Trouble in Paradise over 70 years after it was made is especially pleasurable because the film’s survival was far from a sure thing. The same censorship that transformed Hollywood sent Trouble in Paradise tumbling into cinematic limbo. Because the film violated so many rules of the Hays Code, it was never re-released to theaters and was banned from television syndication. The latter was extremely ironic considering that numerous movies with far greater violence and fetishistic sexuality were common on TV. As the film disappeared from view, its reputation began to fade. Luckily, some movie lovers with long memories kept Trouble in Paradise from following so many other lost films into the void.

Now, The Criterion Collection has brought Lubitsch’s gem into the digital era with a gorgeous new DVD that is packed with intelligent and very entertaining extra features. An excellent new transfer minimizes the speckles and soundtrack hiss that are unavoidable in a film of this age, while beautifully capturing the glowing black and white of classic Hollywood cinema. Although he occasionally falls prey to the airless quality that mars some scholarly audio commentaries, Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman (author of Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise) offers many perceptive insights, as when he points out how the necessity of shooting and editing around the limitation of Herbert Marshall’s wooden leg actually added to the film’s lighter-than-air quality. Other extras include a video introduction by director Peter Bogdanovich; written tributes to Lubitsch by numerous cinematic luminaries including Billy Wilder; and a hilarious 1940 Screen Guild Theater radio show featuring Lubitsch, Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert, and Basil Rathbone, all playing themselves.

However, the absolute gem of the extras is another whole feature film: Lubitsch’s 1917 silent comedy Das fidele Gefängnis (The Merry Jail). This delightful tale of sexual shenanigans amongst the German bourgeoisie is both highly entertaining, and a perfect illustration of the European sensibility that Lubitsch and his compatriots brought to Hollywood.

Special Features:
Restored image and sound.
Audio commentary by Scott Eyman (‘Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise’).
Video intro by Peter Bogdonovich.
Lubitsch’s 1917 feature THE MERRY JAIL, with Emil Jannings, featuring a new score recorded exclusively for this release.
1940 Screen Guild Theater radio program featuring Ernst Lubitsch, Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert, and Basil Rathbone. Tributes to Lubitsch written by Billy Wilder, Cameron Crowe, Roger Ebert, etc.

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Screenplaya by Samson Raphaelson. From the play by Aladar Laszlo. Music by W. Franke Harling. Photographed by Victor Milner.

Miriam Hopikins, Kay Francis, Herbert Marshall, Charlie Ruggles, Edward Everett Horton, C. Aubrey Smith.

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