Paramount Comedy and “Trouble in Paradise”
This post is part of the “Paramount Centennial Blogathon”, hosted by Angela at The Hollywood Revue from September 27-28.
One of the trademarks of the studio system was how every studio not only had their own look, as well as their own stars and directors, but also had a distinct style insofar as the types of movies they were known for. All of the studios produced genre pictures on some level – musicals, crime films (from gangster films to cop films), westerns, and so on – but beyond that, every studio had a type of film they preferred or became known for. Warner Brothers, for example, was known for its muckraking dramas, its adventure films, its gangster films, and then its prestige films. Universal started out as a horror studio, and then moved into thrillers in the 40’s and soap operas in the 50’s. MGM was the “studio under the stars”, with prestige projects, “women’s” films, and musicals. And Paramount was know for the stylized Josef Von Sternberg/Marlene Dietrich films and then the spectacle films made by Cecil B. DeMille, but also for it’s comedy films.
Paramount wasn’t the only studio known for comedy – Columbia, for example, put out a number of well-known screwball comedies (as well as the Three Stooges), MGM had the Thin Man series of comic/mystery movies, as well as some screwball comedies as well, and Warner Brothers had comic elements in many of its films (particularly gangster films, and particularly the ones starring James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson), as well as in its animated Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies shorts (Paramount’s animated studio consisted mostly of Popeye shorts). But Paramount had arguably the widest variety of comedy at its studio. The early 30’s featured the anarchic comedy films of the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, as well as the innuendo-laden comedies of Mae West (not that West was the only practioner of this; the Marx Brothers’ films had their own innuendo). As the decade wore on, the Marx Brothers and Fields left, and while West stayed on until a brief hiatus starting in 1937, her films had to battle an increasingly stringent Production Code and looked it. Meanwhile, other performers took up the slack; George Burns and Gracie Allen, and Jack Benny, may not have been as big on film as they would become on TV later, but they all made successful comedy films at the studio. Finally, the biggest comedy star of the studio, arguably, was Bob Hope, both in the films he made as the leading man, and in the Road to… movies he did with Bing Crosby. It’s no accident when Paramount did their all-star revue types of films (The Big Broadcast films and the Paramount on Parade films), they were dominated by comedy.
You could argue, of course, many of those comedians actually did their best work at other studios; I would agree in Fields’ case (The Bank Dick for Universal), West’s (My Little Chickadee, also with Fields, for Universal), Burns and Allen (A Damsel in Distress, with Fred Astaire, for RKO) and Benny (To Be or Not to Be, for United Artists), but not with the Marx Brothers (as good as A Night at the Opera, for MGM, is, I still prefer their Paramount films). And you could also say that about the more traditional comedic actors like Carole Lombard, whose best films were made at other studios (Twentieth Century for Columbia, My Man Godfrey for Universal, Nothing Sacred for Selznick International, and, of course, To Be or Not to Be). Finally, things at Paramount were always a little chaotic on a management and money level during the classic studio era, so with rare exceptions (Duck Soup was directed, of course, by Leo McCarey, whom I’ll get to in a minute), these comedians and comic actors didn’t work with top-flight directors. But that actually proved to be a blessing in disguise; performers like Fields and the Marx Brothers were given free rein to indulge their more anarchic tendencies, and the results made for great comedy.
Plus, if you wanted director-driven comedies, Paramount did have a few in that era who were considered genuine auteurs. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, McCarey directed Duck Soup, which most Marx Brothers fans consider their best film, and he also directed movies for Fields (Six of a Kind), West (Belle of the Nineties) and Harold Lloyd (The Milky Way). Arguably his best comedy for the studio, though, was Ruggles of Red Gap, with Charles Laughton in the title role. McCarey left the studio in 1937 to make one of his best comedies, The Awful Truth, before he went serious with movies like Love Affair (and its more famous remake An Affair to Remember) and Going My Way. Not long after McCarey left, Preston Sturges, who had been writing for the studio since the mid-to-late 30’s, became the first writer who moved up to directing his own scripts. And in a five-year period, from 1940 to 1944, Sturges produced some of the best comedies (and movies in general) ever made, such as The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and Hail the Conquering Hero. However, by the end of his remarkable run, Sturges had been quarreling with the Paramount brass, and left in 1944. By then, Billy Wilder, who had also started out as a screenwriter, had started directing movies for the studio as well, and while some of his best movies for Paramount weren’t comedies – I’m thinking of Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17 – they all had comic elements to them (even The Lost Weekend). And he did direct two classic comedies for the studio, though they were as different as night (Ace in the Hole) and day (Sabrina). Of course, his best comedies (Some Like it Hot, The Apartment) came after Wilder left Paramount, but his years at the studio were still productive.
Still, arguably the greatest comedy director to call Paramount home was Ernst Lubitsch. While he didn’t start out in comedy as a director (he did as an actor) – in Germany, he made epic films similar to those of D.W. Griffith – when he came to Hollywood in 1922, he became enchanted with silent comedies and proceeded to make them. And when the sound era kicked in, he moved to making musical comedies, though not in the sense the Busby Berkeley or Astaire/Rogers movies were. These were comic operettas, starring Jeannette MacDonald, who became Hollywood’s most famous opera singer of the 30’s and early 40’s thanks to her hugely popular movies with Nelson Eddy. But while those movies (made at MGM) were often florid and sentimental, the movies she made with Lubitsch at Paramount loosened her up a bit, starting with The Love Parade (1929) and ending with One Hour with You (1932).
By this time, however, musicals, specifically the type Lubitsch was making, were in decline (until 42nd Street revived them the following year), and Lubitsch changed gears. First, he made the sophisticated comedies Trouble in Paradise (1932) – which I’ll be writing more about below – and Design for Living (1933). Then, after a brief sojourn at MGM (where he made one last comic operetta, The Merry Widow, in 1934), he came back to Paramount, this time as production chief, being the first director to do so (Chaplin is a different story, as United Artists was a studio he formed, not moved up in the ranks at). After a couple years of that, he went back to directing, making Angel (1937) and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), the first of two films Wilder did with him. After that, like much of Paramount’s talent in the 30’s, he left the studio, making many of his best known and most loved films, such as Ninotchka (1939), The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and To Be or Not to Be (1942) (controversial at the time, but widely considered one of his best today), before eventually succumbing to a heart attack in 1947. This sad state of affairs was summed up in the possibly apocryphal but famous exchange between Wilder (who idolized Lubitsch) and his friend and colleague William Wyler; after Lubitsch’s funeral, Wilder bemoaned, “No more Lubitsch”, to which Wyler replied, “Worse – no more Lubitsch pictures”.
In his book Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, James Harvey wrote, “…probably no one, not even Chaplin, did so much as Ernst Lubitsch did to shape the spirit and style, even the substance, of Hollywood comedy.” This was mostly due to what became known as the Lubitsch “touch” – that winning combination of sophistication, romance, intelligence – as Wilder would always put it, Lubitsch never added two and two for the audience; he merely said, “Here is two and two”, and let them figure it out – bawdiness, and above all, humor, that made his movies graceful and funny. And no movie epitomized the Lubitsch “touch” better, in my opinion, than Trouble in Paradise. It was one of his biggest hits, and it won praise both at the time (Dwight MacDonald, who could be quite snobbish towards Hollywood movies (to put it mildly), wrote for Symposium that the film was “as close to perfection as anything I have ever seen in the movies”) and later (Pauline Kael, in her 5001 Nights at the Movies collection, wrote “in its light-as-a-feather way, it’s perfection”). Lubitsch himself, in an interview before his death, said of the film, “As for pure style, I think I have done nothing better or as good”. Yet it also represented somewhat of a change for him, and not just because it wasn’t a musical. His previous comic operettas had all been set among the rich or royalty, but this was about those who lusted after that wealth, and what they do to get it.
The opening scene, set in Venice, sets the tone. We hear a tenor singing the old Italian standard “O Sole Mio”, only to realize the singer is in fact the garbageman. Then we see a dark hotel room (while two prostitutes knock on the door) where a man is unconscious and, as we will later find out, has been robbed. From there, we go to the balcony of another hotel room, and see Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall), who certainly maintains the air of someone who is rich or royalty (the waiter (George Humbert) even addresses Gaston as “Baron”). As Gaston looks out to the canal and sees the woman whom he’s waiting for ride up in a gondola, he and the waiter have the following conversation:
Waiter: what shall we start with, Baron?
Gaston: Hmm? Oh, yes. (he looks at a menu) That’s not so easy. Beginnings are always difficult.
Waiter: Yes, Baron.
Gaston: If Casanova suddenly turned out to be Romeo, having supper with Juliet, who might become…Cleopatra…how would you start?
Waiter: (thinks for a moment) I would start with cocktails.
This answer pleases Gaston, and he waves to the woman, the “Countess”, or, as we find out later, Lily (Miriam Hopkins), whom we can now see, and he reminds the waiter that even if they don’t eat any of the dinner, it must be marvelous.
Gaston: And, waiter?
Waiter: Yes, Baron?
Gaston: You see that moon?
Waiter: Yes, Baron.
Gaston: I want to see the moon in that champagne.
Waiter: Yes, Baron. (he writes it down and says it aloud as he writes)
Gaston: I want to see…(he looks momentarily at the canal again)…Umm.
Waiter: (understands immediately) Yes, Baron.
Gaston: And as for you, waiter…
Waiter: Yes, Baron?
Gaston: I don’t want to see you at all.
Waiter: (slightly hurt) No, Baron.
We then see the waiter, before he leaves, brush a leaf off of Gaston’s jacket, and without spelling anything out for us, Lubitsch and writer Samuel Raphaelson (adapting, with Grover Jones, a play called The Honest Finder by Aladar Laszlo) let us know Gaston, in fact, is the man who robbed the man in the hotel room. As the police question that man, Francois Filiba (Edward Everett Horton), about the robbery – Filiba doesn’t remember anything except the man claimed to be a doctor who wanted to examine his tonsils – Lily arrives. She claims she can’t stay long because of the “scandal” about being seen out in public, and being recognized by so many people. There’s some flirting between her and Gaston, and she gets a phone call which she claims is someone who saw her enter the building (actually, it’s her roommate telling her to sneak back into their place). Then they eat, at which point she “has a confession to make” – she knows he was the one who robbed Filiba (whom she refers to as “the gentleman in room 253, 5, 7 and 9”). Gaston admits he was ready to tell her, and he in turn, “with love in my heart”, knows she’s a thief, because she stole the wallet he stole from Filiba. Then we find out he stole the pin from her dress, she stole his watch, and he stole her garter. Naturally, at this point, it’s love.
Some time later, Gaston and Lily are still together, and still thieving, but while they’ve apparently pulled quite a few jobs (we see a radio announcer telling his audience Gaston robbed a Paris peace conference, and he “took practically everything except the peace”), they’ve fallen on somewhat hard times (though Gaston jokingly says, “Prosperity is just around the corner”). The possibility of that prosperity arrives in the form of Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), the head of a perfume company. It apparently used to be her husband’s, as she seems bored with the business, even saying as much when Adolph Giron (C. Aubrey Smith), the chairman of the board, tries to get her to cut salaries in the company. Mariette would much rather go shopping; she turns down a 3,000 franc purse because it’s too expensive, but then buys a 125,000 franc purse and considers it “just right”. She also is currently stringing along two suitors, Filiba and The Major (Charles Ruggles), both of whom she likes well enough, but neither of whom excite her (she tells Filiba, “Marriage is a beautiful mistake which two people make together. But with you, I think it would be a mistake”).
It’s while she’s at the opera with The Major that Gaston and Lily steal that 125,000 franc purse. They plan to fence it until Lily sees in the paper Mariette is offering 20,000 francs as a reward for the purse, so Gaston ends up going over to collect the reward instead. He interrupts a Communist (Leonid Kinskey) who is insulting Mariette for spending so much on a purse during hard times, and has him thrown out. Gaston immediately ingratiates himself with Mariette, even when he tells her she should keep more money in her safe (she has 100,000 francs in it) in case of an emergency. Instead of collecting the reward, he is hired as her secretary. From here, things become more complicated. Gaston begins to rule with an iron fist; he cuts salaries like Giron wants, but it’s the salaries of the board of directors, not the employees (when Giron protests, Gaston replies the board members can resign if they don’t like the salary cut; naturally, they reconsider). Meanwhile, Lily gets a job posing as Gaston’s secretary, and finds out Mariette has feelings for Gaston, which she doesn’t mind as long as they can get more money out of it and as long as Gaston doesn’t reciprocate those feelings; she tells Gaston, “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”. The problem is, Gaston does end up falling in love with Mariette. Also, he runs into Filiba at a party, and while Filiba is sure they *haven’t* met, there’s something about him he doesn’t like. Finally, just as Giron is discovering who Gaston really is, Gaston is finding out Giron has been a bigger crook than he has in his own way.
By all rights, this should seem as frantic as a Marx Brothers movie, especially since it only runs 82 minutes, yet Lubitsch keeps it elegant and light on its feet. Part of the credit, of course, must go to Raphaelson, Lubitsch’s most frequent screenwriting collaborator. They did eight films together – this being their fourth – but this was their finest collaboration (with The Shop Around the Corner running a close second). I’ve quoted some of the dialogue above (and Mariette gets to echo it when she tells Gaston, “I’ve got a confession to make to you; you like me. In fact, you’re crazy about me”), and what’s also important to note is how Raphaelson makes each character sound distinctive, and yet elegant, even when – especially when – they were delivering the entendres Lubitsch was fond of (as when we see the clock while Gaston gushes at how Mariette “dances”, and Mariette claims it’s how Gaston “leads”, to which he replies, “No, madam, it’s the way you follow”). And while Lubitsch doesn’t often get credit as a visual stylist, he and cinematographer Victor Milner (who shot several of Lubitsch’s early films, including The Love Parade, and also shot The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story for Sturges) gives this the right elegant look, as well as get around censor concerns that were around even before the Production Code became rigidly enforced in 1934. From that shot of the clock to Gaston and Mariette answering each other’s doors that shows them sleeping together without having to spell it out, Lubitsch and Milner (there’s no editor credited) are able to create a mood of sexiness without ever showing it. No wonder when Joseph Breen took on Lubitsch’s The Merry Widow two years later, he thought he had edited it according to Code standards, only to realize Lubitsch had outsmarted him by getting basically everything he wanted on screen.
In one of his books – I forget which, though it might have been American Cinema – Andrew Sarris wrote that Lubitsch’s comedies said as much, if not more, about the times people were living in (the Depression) than so-called “realistic” comedies (his term) like, say, It Happened One Night. As strident as Sarris was being about it, he does have a point, and not just because Gaston’s line about “prosperity is just around the corner” is lifted in the spirit, if not the letter, of President Herbert Hoover’s rhetoric about the Depression. Gaston and Lily are crooks, but they are crooks who have to adjust to the times; when Lily, who mostly wants to steal things she can wear, wants to take Mariette’s jewelry, Gaston overrules her, saying cash is the only way to go. And when Mariette confronts Gaston about what she’s learned about him, Gaston alludes to Giron’s treachery by complaining, “You have to be in the Social Register to keep out of jail.” Yet Lubitsch and Raphaelson never allow this to become heavy-handed, but keep this comic in tone.
Finally, there’s the romantic part of the film. The love triangle is a long familiar trope of romantic comedies (as well as, to be sure, dramas), but this isn’t one of those movies where one of the partners is obviously just an obstacle to the true love pairing, or is presented either so blandly or in such a buffoonish way you have to route for the other two. Mariette and Lily each have their charms and sex appeal, and each are equally appealing. Much of this, of course, is due to the acting. In recent years, there’s been a renewed interest in Francis, whom I confess I’ve never seen in anything outside of this movie and a forgettable early Humphrey Bogart film called King of the Underworld. Francis was one of the most popular stars of the early 30’s, and considered one of the most elegant, though she also had a notorious lisp (which comes through in a couple of scenes, usually involving “r” words). The elegance, of course, is on display here, but she also has both the grown-up sexuality and the little-girl delight to go with it, as when she sneaks a piece of potato for breakfast and asks Lily not to tell Gaston about it (he’s restricting her diet). Hopkins is someone I usually like only in her comedies; with occasional exceptions (like The Heiress), she tends to come off shrill in dramas (particularly in Barbary Coast and Old Acquaintance, though the latter probably had as much to do with the fact it co-starred Bette Davis, whom she detested in real life). But in comedies, she had a crack timing, and she shows it here, as well as her own version of sexiness. But it’s Marshall who takes full honors here; he often played sophisticated characters (and even used that for an effective, and rare, villain role in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent), but he was never as well used in that respect as he was here, and he has terrific chemistry with both of his co-stars. There’s also good work from Horton and Ruggles in roles they more or less played throughout their careers (Horton has arguably the funniest scene in the movie when he has an epiphany about Gaston).
When the studio system started to die down in the 1950’s and beyond, for reasons well documented, the studios for the most part became less identifiable by specific genres. Yet comedy still flourished at Paramount throughout the years. In the 50’s, Bob Hope was still a decent moneymaker for the studio (as was Popeye), and the team of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin also became a big hit with audiences, while there were the occasional director-driven comedies like William Wyler’s Roman Holiday, Michael Curtiz’s We’re no Angels, Alfred Hitchcock’s comic thriller To Catch a Thief, and Stanley Donen’s comedy/musical To Catch a Thief. In the 60’s, Jerry Lewis went solo to direct such popular comedies as The Bellboy and The Nutty Professor, and Neil Simon began his run at the studio with adaptations of his plays Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple. In the 70’s, Paramount became known as one of the leading lights of the second so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, thanks to films like the first two Godfather films and Chinatown, but they didn’t neglect comedy; Simon was still going strong (The Out-of-Towners), but there were also comedies ranging from extremely dark (Mike Nichols’ underrated version of Catch-22), offbeat (Elaine May’s comedies, A New Leaf and the original version of The Heartbreak Kid), kid-dominated (The Bad News Bears), low-budget (Citizen’s Band), stoner (Up in Smoke, the first Cheech & Chong movie), fantasy (Heaven Can Wait – not to be confused with Lubitsch’s film), and even epic (Nashville). Also, Burt Reynolds, in his quest to be more than just the action guy, used his comic persona for romantic comedies such as Starting Over.
The 80’s were dominated by the star Eddie Murphy (thanks to films like Beverly Hills Cop and its first sequel), the director team of Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker (with Airplane! and Top Secret together, while David Zucker started the Naked Gun franchise on his own in 1988), and writer John Hughes, with teen romantic comedy/dramas such as Pretty in Pink and straight-ahead comedies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (there were also offbeat movies like Terry Gilliam’s comic fantasy Time Bandits and Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, as well as more straightforward comedies like the underrated Let it Ride. The 90’s were dominated by Saturday Night Live spin-offs, which admittedly didn’t do much in terms of quality (only the two Wayne’s World movies remain funny today, IMHO), but there were quite a few of them, and they came into play just as Eddie Murphy’s film career started on its road down. And there were also comedies as varied as Soapdish, Clueless, In & Out and the South Park movie to take up the slack of quality. Finally, the last decade or so has seen a variety of comedies, from offbeat (Wonder Boys) to mainstream (Zoolander). So Paramount still remains, if not the standard-bearer for comedy, at least an open environment for it. And though not all comedies made at Paramount were the same style (or of the same quality, Trouble in Paradise, for me, is the standard by which all comedies, particularly romantic ones, should be judged. It really is close to perfect.