Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
Trouble in Paradise might be, in the words of film historian and podcaster Karina Longworth, the “pre-codiest of pre-code movies”. Before the Hays code came in to effect, filmmakers took full advantage of the lack of regulation surrounding topics of sex and morality in American movies. In the case of Trouble in Paradise, a film by the much beloved Ernst Lubitsch, it results in a surprisingly adult movie about, well, sex. But not in the way we, modern audiences, are used to. No soft-focus from-the-hips-up shots of people doing the actual deed. But the implications? They’re spicier than that.
Look at dialogue like:
Gaston: If I were your father, which fortunately I am not, and you made any attempt to handle your own business affairs, I would give you a good spanking – in a business way, of course.
Mariette: What would you do if you were my secretary?
Gaston: The same thing.
Mariette: You’re hired.
Or the below shot in which Mariette and Gaston kiss:
The plot revolves around two thieves: Gaston Monescu a.k.a. Le Baron, a.k.a M La Valle (Herbert Marshall) and Lily (Miriam Hopkins) who meet in a fabulous meet-cute sequence in Venice, and hook up. Years later, their fortunes have waned, and they happen upon an advert in the paper requesting information about a lost diamond-encrusted handbag. A handbag they have stolen. As the reward for returning it is significant: they decide to do so. The owner, gorgeous Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), and Gaston instantly fall in love, or something akin to it. To her, he means an affair to relieve her of her boredom; to him she might mean an impossibly large amount of money – in cash – he can steal. If he can get close to the beautiful heiress, that is.
Gaston seems so remote he is almost a fairy tale, which, of course, is precisely the effect he is after. Herbert Marshall lets the character glide through rooms and fly up stairs, a feat, since he lost one of his legs in WWI and used a prosthetic, to his considerable discomfort. Gaston leans towards Lily and Mariette as if he is magnetized and they are glittering metal statues. He is used to being in control, or at least being in-the-know, but when he takes up as Mariette’s – ahem – ‘secretary’ the situation soon becomes complicated. Lily, at first happy to be reeled into the exquisite household, soon smells a rat and becomes afraid for her relationship with Gaston. The supporting cast is equally wonderful. You may know Edward Everett Horton from his turn in films such as Astaire and Rogers’ Top Hat, or Arsenic and Old Lace, and he plays his typical version of comic relief here as suitor #1, M Filiba, with a kind of befuddled sharpness. Charlie Ruggles plays the second of Mariette’s suitors, The Major, as a man of few words (and apparently little brain).
Despite all this magnificent acting talent and star-power, the film belongs to Kay Francis. Though modern audiences, even movie-savvy ones, may not have heard of her, she was at that time a huge star. Perhaps more of a professional celebrity than an actress. Very tall and with a noticeable speech impediment, that writers typically wrote around. In one story about Kay, she spoke the line: “I have to have my room redecorated,” as “I have to have my womb wedecowated”. But no one wore clothes like she did. Costume and fashion designers could throw nothing at her which didn’t look glorious, and she was the queen of making an entrance. “Kay Francis,” writes film historian Jeanine Basinger, “was only fashion and glamour, a true star of the woman’s film. She forced a top-drawer career out of tears and tiaras, a clotheshorse who gave significance to the term.”
While 1932 was one of the worst box-office years for the industry at large, Kay had just signed a new contract with Warner Brothers for an incredible salary, which Paramount matched for the remainder of their contract. That year, she made One Way Passage opposite William Powell, her favourite film. By then, she could have simply retired a superstar. But Lubitsch asked for her, and she cut short her holiday and jumped at the chance.
In Trouble in Paradise, she is terrific. She embodies a type that is so much of its day, it exudes Flaming Youth’s I-don’t-give-a-shit glamour. She breathes sex appeal in a way that is both carefree and knowing. Her languor and cynicism, signify a ‘seize the day’ recklessness very much of its era. “Acting,” says Basinger, “is not what she is doing. Being there is what she is doing, and at that she is an Olympic champion. She is presence not talent”. It is Kay’s essence, then, that drives this love-triangle: her character Mariette knows what she wants, and thinks she knows how to get it. But ultimately she also knows that even the most fabulous affairs must end.
Lubitsch has left an incredible filmography. He has made silents with Pola Negri, musicals, and such talkies as Ninotchka starring Garbo. Trouble in Paradise may or may not be his best, there are so many great ones. But as a pre-code film, signifying a certain and specific era, it is definitely Kay Francis’ very best, as she intuited it would be.
This post owes a huge debt to: A Woman’s View by the inimitable Jeanine Basinger (the quotes above are from page 152 and 153), Kay Francis. A Passionate Life and Career by Lynn Kear and John Rossman, and of course, Karina Longworth and her podcast You Must Remember This. (The quote is from episode 10: Follies of 1938: Kay Francis)
The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seat-belts: it may just be a bumpy ride.