Saturday 29 December 2012

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Madame bliver forelsket
After a swath of social critique films with a slant on the heavy side I finish this Christmas special with a film much more suited for a New Year celebration. Away with all the concerns of the world, let us delve for a time in the world of the rich and careless, where you can get away with the most outrageous scams and laugh all the way to the bank.

“Trouble in Paradise” has to be one of the most charming films on the list. It is so difficult not to love it. I found myself chuckling all the way through it. Not slapping-my-knee-laughing, but a quiet chuckle and a big smile. It is that kind of movie.

It is a scam/heist story and so fall into a category that has been explored to death over the years. Usually their quality has been the complexity (Oceans Eleven), the action (The Italian Job), the comedy (The Pink Panther) or the insanity (A Fish Called Wanda). In the case of “Trouble in Paradise” the quality is Charm (capital C!). I just do not recall a more charming set of characters than what we get here.

Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) and Lily (Miriam Hopkins) are high society crooks who use their very well developed charm to insinuate themselves into the confidence of the rich and the über-rich and get away with a lot of money. Usually. The opening of the film is the story of how they met in Venice, pretending to be a baron and a countess and intending to rob each other. They succeed outrageously, revealing each other as crooks to their mutual pleasure. They draw out items they have plundered from each other and climax gloriously when he take out her garter. You just have to wonder how that happened, wink wink.  

In Venice we are also introduced to one half of the comedic sidekick, Francois Filiba (Edward Everett Horton). He and the Major (Charles Ruggles) are excellent all the way through. In Venice he has been robbed of 20.000 franc by Monescu, pretending to be a doctor examining his tonsils. We get a glorious scene where he is trying to explain the incident to the local Italian police. Every (short) explanation he gives becomes loud, elaborate and very heated in translation and the agitated discussions result in simple, short questions. This is of course a comedic jab at the Italians, but I can testify that it is exactly how it is working in Italy. Everything takes twice as long and requires at least 10 decibels extra to explain in Italian.

But I am digressing. The core story is about Monescu and Lily trying to rob the rich (and stunningly beautiful) widow Madame Colet (Kay Francis), owner of Colet and Company (perfumes), for a fortune. Using his extraordinary charm Monescu very quickly becomes Madame’s secretary and confidant with a love affair brewing on the horizon. Meanwhile Monescu and Lily, passing as Monescu’s (or La Valle as he calls himself) secretary, are arranging for 850.000 francs to be placed in her mansion, ready for the taking.

While Madame Colet is totally taken by Monescu there are a number of people who are less impressed. The aforementioned Francois Filiba and the Major are both courting Madame and fighting a hilarious battle to get her attention while discrediting each other. Both are way below her (and Monescu’s) standard which they eventually realize at which point they become allies against this greater threat. Filiba is almost remembering where he has seen Monescu before and his attempts at recollection are a highlight in itself. He will show up, stand there with a puzzled expression and then withdraw with an even more puzzled expression. And you know that the moment he remembers the scam will come crashing down around Monescu’s and Lily’s ears.

Also the chairman of the board of directors Monsieur Adolphe Giron is unhappy about the new secretary. For years he has been getting away with embezzling millions, but a crook recognizes another crook and Monescu catches him with the fingers in the cake box just as Giron uncovers Monescu’s real identity.

But the greatest threat to the scam is Monescu himself. Or rather Madame Colet, because the charm is mutual and they fall in love in each other to the chagrin of everybody else including his partner Lily. So besides being a scam story it also becomes a saucy love triangle drama.

I will not reveal here how it all works out, but the keyword is charm. Full throttle, overdrive charm.

A winning feature of this picture is that I love all the characters. Lily is so sassy, Colet is stunning, absolutely stunning and Filiba and the Major are priceless. My only problem is Herbert Marshall himself. He is so over the top sleek and suave that he gets sticky. With his sleek hair and immaculate suites and a demeanor of the most exquisite connoisseur I would run away screaming. Of course it was a different age and I am not a woman, but really? Isn’t he just a bit too much? He is totally charming however and he does win me over as well so I root for him, but he does make Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond look like an uncultured hobo.

If you are planning a romantic New year’s eve in the company of two you should NOT watch a movie. If you did however, you could do worse than picking “Trouble in Paradise”.


  1. I agree with most everything you wrote here. I saw this film a few weeks ago and it is one of my favorite movies I've seen this month. It wouldn't be long before the Production Code would make it impossible to make films like this again for decades.

    1. No, with all the thinly veiled sexual references this would raise the red flag big time once the Hays Code got in place.

  2. I completely agree with you; the movie is so much fun. It's COMPLETELY fantasy, but that's the fun. And I'm very much in agreement regarding rooting for everybody. There are no losers in this film.

    Ps - I like your little comment at te end about spending NewYears with your partner. It made me laugh. As did the James Bond comparison to Herbert

    1. Well, I can tell you that my wife, son and I are spending our new years eve very very far from any tv set. No films for us.
      It is really a film where you sit back with a big smile on your face. I love it.

  3. We disagree about Marshall's Monescu and Hopkins' Lily. I much prefer his charm to her irritating mannerisms. It bothers me to no end that Kay Francis got the short end of the stick.

    1. Yes, Kay Francis deserved better, yet I cannot really feel bad about this movie. It is a gem.
      I was not really bothered by Hopkins, she had a tall task playing up against Marshall and I think she did quite allright. I wished however that Marshall would tone it down a bit, but that is probably a product of the time.