Review: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

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Ernst Lubitsch made a name for himself and his “touch” in silents as well as leaving an indelible mark on the 1940s with the likes of Shop Around The Corner (1940), To Be or Not to Be (1942), Heaven Can Wait (1943), and Cluny Brown (1946). But for me, no film better personifies his wit and sensibilities than Trouble in Paradise. It proves to be the most impeccable distillation of his directorial style.

The script is courtesy of Samson Raphaelson who would become a longtime collaborator with the director on future projects. Aided by uncredited edits by Lubitsch, the story is imbued with class in the guise of light comedy.

There’s a certain cadence to the cutting and the music. A constant winking that seems to be going on. And it’s simultaneously the height of refined elegance while being undercut with constant nudges and proddings of comic verve. What is noticeable is the economical sophistication of the filmmaking and a seasoned eye for how to tell a story by the best means possible. It’s not always what you would expect.

Consider the film in its early moments as a case and point. It could have started so many ways and yet Lubitsch chose something different. A trash heap, a shadowy fugitive, then a man knocked out on his floor and an almost incomprehensibly daring shot that moves us to another building entirely where we meet our protagonist. It’s all so very enigmatic and almost wordless aside from the bellowing of the gondolier. The man on the balcony rightfully asserts to the waiter attentively standing in the wings, “Beginnings are never easy.” So right he is.

Nevertheless, the film continues to put on a lovely charade concealing its finest secret until the perfect instant to milk the quarries of its humorous intentions for all they are worth. We are introduced to a tryst featuring two great romantics caught up in the rapturous trills of amour.

They sit down to a divine dinner that plays as an intimate tete-a-tete. But soon the curtain drops and they don’t skip a beat as she ousts him as the famed burglar Gaston Monescu and he comes back perfectly charming to accuse her of being a pickpocket herself. She tickled him when she nicked his spoils but her embrace was so sweet. He couldn’t help being touched.

In even these early interludes it becomes obvious that the talent couldn’t be better with Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins falling into their roles seamlessly with a certain amount of relish. Playing a romantic pair of thieves is a fine proposition after all. The world is their oyster and they’re in love. What could be better?

Meanwhile, Edward Edward Horton has an exchange with the police that I can’t but help compare with I Love Lucy’s famous language transfer. So much is lost amid the words and Horton always was an oblivious sort, God bless him.

However, the character who will prove to be the third in our triangle of cultured passion is Colet (Kay Francis) a glamorous heiress in control of a cosmetic empire. Francis embodies the ravishing role flawlessly even despite her well-documented speech impediment. It’s nearly imperceptible if you’re not looking for it.

Far from detracting from her performance it simply increases our sympathy for her. She may be rich — even out of touch with the world at large — but she’s hardly arrogant. She’s easily taken in and a bit cavalier with her money while two men are vying for her affection.

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Edward Everett Horton and Charles Ruggles are both exemplary. I realized perhaps it was something moving deep within me telling me those voices were meant to go together. How right I was. Years later Rocky & Bullwinkle serials would have been a great deal less without them. Just as they make this picture that much better. Horton’s pitch-perfect quizzical look (tonsils, positively tonsils) is wonderfully matched by Ruggles own befuddled mannerisms. Still, I digress.

Of course, we see it already. It is Colet’s vast array of jewels that are of particular interest to a third man: Gaston. Except he’s a clever fellow. Instead of just stealing them at the theater he snatches them so he can give them back to her and in turn gain her confidence with his delicate preening of her ego and artful debonair flattery. He’s skilled and she’s a fairly easy mark.

Soon, he’s hired on as her secretary and it has little to do with his current resume, based on probably one of the films most remembered exchanges that pretty much sums up the tone:

“Madame Colet, 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.”

“What would you do if you were my secretary?”

“The same thing.”

“You’re hired.”

His wife AKA his Secretary is getting antsy and a little jealous providing one of the film’s other perfectly inflected quips (If you’re a gentleman, I’ll kill you!). Still, her hubby reassures her all of Colet’s sex appeal is in her safe, 1,000s of francs worth of it. But he’s not as impervious as he would like to believe.

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Lubitsch has the finesse to film an entire extended sequence of only a clock with the dialogue playing over it. The romantic interplay is understood without visual cues. We nod in acknowledgment. They’re also almost more romantic when they don’t kiss than when they do, floating inches from each other’s faces, eyes closed in a reverie.  Gliding on air. We begin to suspect whether this is still a put on or if it is, in fact, becoming real. Gaston is good but his wife is getting anxious and she has every right to be.

The family bookkeeper (C. Aubrey Smith) is skeptical of his qualifications and his identity. But the kicker is that Gaston is finally remembered by Monsieur Filiba and only time will tell when his cover is blown.

It’s time to get out of there and yet something keeps him back. He feels compelled to fess up to Colet and yet there’s no calling of the authorities or any of that. She’s far too wealthy to care. It’s what could have been that she will miss and he knows it too. In the end, he still goes out the door and she lets him. No consequences. No real drama.

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There’s no need because that’s not what the film hinges on. It’s the love story and not just the love but how it plays out in this theater of refinement which Lubitsch has incubated to perfection. Undubitably there is trouble in paradise, even wistfulness sometimes, but that doesn’t mean things cannot be resolved.

Husband and wife go out much as they came in — not able to keep their hands off each other — or out of each other’s pockets. Try and put a name to it if you must. It’s the “grift of love.” How sweet it is.

4.5/5 Stars

It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)

220px-happened5avenueThe fact that Miracle on 34th Street and this film came out the same year seems to suggest that there was something special in the air of New York City that year. It was a magical place, specifically during the Christmas season with Santa Claus going on trial and winning, while tramps helped reform millionaires. Admittedly, It Happened on Fifth Avenue is one of those films that could easily come under fire for its implausible plot, its unabashed sentiment, and any number of other things.

But if you have any amount of Christmas cheer at all, it’s overwhelmingly difficult not to enjoy this cheering story for what it offers up in the areas of heartwarming comedy and holiday spirit. There’s even a bit of misty-eyed sentimentality that’s sure to weaken the callous heart that’s ready to be melted.

And the story finds its roots in some very real issues. One is the housing crisis following the end of World War II with GIs flooding back into the country with families to raise and no jobs and no homes to be had. The situation further aggravated by the wage gap. The rich just seem to get richer, buying up all the land and resources in town,  namely the notorious John O’Connor — the second richest man in the world by latest figures shouted by passing tour guides on sightseeing buses. Ironically, in such an environment the panhandling community is especially strong and foremost among their ranks is sophisticated tramp Aloyisius McKeever (Victor Moore).

He migrates as the crow flies to Winter palaces and Summer getaways belonging to those in the affluent sectors of society. He has set up a bit of a revolving timeshare but you could say it only goes one way. None of his benefactors seem to know they are being so charitable and Mr. MeKeever does his best not to draw attention to himself. Letting himself in through fence boards, sneaking down through manhole covers, and setting up an elaborate trigger system to turn off all lights at the moments notice. In this way, he manages to live a rather comfortable life undetected in the boarded up estate of the aforementioned magnate John O’Connor.

Although he’s a rather peculiar character, a conniver and a bit of an opportunist, it should not go unsaid that he does have a conscience — a moral code if you will — that makes him increasingly compelling. Aside from his quirky ways, Aloysius McKeever is quite generous even if it involves someone else’s capital. Soon his great home that he is “borrowing” is filled with a few GIs and families including the drifting Jim Bullock (Don DeFore) who was thrown out of his apartment after Mr. O’Connor bought the land. Now with a place to gather himself, Jim has the seed of an idea — retrofitting old army barracks into track housing for returning GIs. The only problem is they need real estate, real estate being snapped up by the one in the same John O’Connor. You’ve probably gotten tired of hearing his name by now.

All of this would be unrelated if it weren’t for a girl who ran away from finishing school, Trudy O’Connor (Gail Storm). Her last name says it all already, and when she flees to seek asylum at her father’s  winter estate, she’s surprised to find it occupied. It makes for a funny scenario but rapidly she settles into the community and simultaneously falls in love with Jim.

At this juncture, Trudy asks her father for perhaps the biggest favor of her life — that he would play it her way — masquerading as another vagrant so that he can meet her love and not sway him to marry Trudy with the imminent promise of great wealth. And that’s the next enjoyment of the film, watching stuffy old Mr. O’Connor forced to be a guest in his own home, bossed around by Aloysius. But he’s not the only one out of sorts, Trudy’s mother (Ann Harding) also comes to live with them as a cook and this creates yet another complicating layer of wistful romance.

In the process, everyone learns something. There is a newfound appreciation for people and life. What it means to make an honest day’s wages. What it means to live for more than money. What it means to truly love someone so much that you don’t want to live a day without them. Even what it means to live in a caring community that looks to bless each other and share resources in such a way that no one is in need. I would even wager a bet that this is less socialism and more of what the early Christians talked about in Acts.

The film is blessed by some lovable, wonderfully comic performances from a couple great Hollywood actors, most notably Victor Moore and Charles Ruggles who highlight the storyline’s oddities. Meanwhile, some of the younger stars have winning charm that would translate into several solid careers in the growing medium of television. For some ready made feel-good Christmas magic, look no further than 5th Avenue.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Bringing up Baby (1938)


bringingup2“Our relationship has been a series of misadventures from beginning to end, so if you don’t mind, I’ll see Mr. Peabody alone and unarmed.” –
David Huxley

Bringing up Baby is really and truly one of a kind, almost headache-inducing with its sure energy and dizzying with its scatterbrained tracks, but nonetheless it is a screwball masterpiece. From Hollywood master Howard Hawks comes arguably one of his greatest films, boasting the rat-ta-tat-tat of some killer dialogue, some fantastic comedic sequences, and a number of memorable performances.  Honestly, if I learned anything from this film, you can’t watch it just once, because you’re bound to get bowled over, and afterward you probably won’t realize half of what you saw. For instance, there’s so much talking you hardly realize that there’s not much of a score.

Young Katharine Hepburn is at her most radiant and almost smothering with her constant barrage of words. You either love her or hate her. There’s no way to ignore her performance here because it’s completely out there. It’s hard to believe she was a novice when she came into comedy. There’s no inhibition whatsoever. Not in the least.

Cary Grant is the bookish paleontologist who is content with constructing the skeleton of his prized Brontosaurus and then marrying his admiring, no-nonsense sweetheart Ms. Swallow. It sounds like a pleasant albeit mundane lot in life. In an effort to gather a $1 million in funding, he goes out to the golf course ready to do a little business on the side with Mr. Peabody. That’s when hell strikes in the form of one scatterbrained lady extraordinaire Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn). First, she swipes his golf ball (quite certain it is her’s), then she batters up his car (sure it is her’s again), and to top it all off she causes him to sit on his hat when they cross paths again at a club. Poor Dr. Huxley doesn’t know what’s hit him. He just wants to get away from her and all the fury that comes in her wake.

Good luck with that Cary, because she’s a force of nature! She misunderstands everything, and he gets endlessly caught in her web of miscommunication.  Susan initially roped him into coming along with her, thinking he was a zoologist who could help her take care of “Baby.” Of course, it turns out to be a tame leopard that they must get to her aunt’s home out in Connecticut (Only in a screwball comedy). By now he’s bothered. She’s falling in love.

So she does what any resourceful girl would. She keeps him occupied. First, she swipes his clothes. Then the dog George runs off with his prized possession, the intercostal clavicle. Initially, they want to get rid of the leopard. Then they want to keep it. Auntie comes home along with her gentleman friend Major Horace Applegate. A not so friendly leopard escapes from a carnival. The police get involved led by their bumbling leader Constable Slocum.

bringingup1It’s a doozy of a masquerade and most everything and everyone is utterly confused. It’s as if everything that enters the world of Susan Vance is further complicated. To her, it’s simply a day in the life and Huxley begins as an outsider, but despite all the madness, he becomes accustomed to it.  Running after the dog, getting soaking wet, tripping, falling, fending off a leopard, getting thrown into the clink. Dr. Huxley realizes that he’s never been happier and it ends pretty much as it began. Never a dull moment.

This has to be one of Hepburn’s greatest performances earlier in her career because she has everyone in a tizzy. Although he’s literally getting the run around from Hepburn, Grant is her perfect comedic foil. He dons the glasses at first and carries the sensibility that goes with them. However, he is equally equipped to go without them as a scatterbrained gentleman ready for all the pratfalls, quips, and escapades that ensue. And they are surrounded by a solid set of character actors including a drunken Barry Fitzgerald, the easily distracted Walter Catlett, the big game aficionado Charles Ruggles, and the peppy dog Asta (of Thin Man fame) among others.

Howard Hawks once said that “a good movie is three good scenes and no bad scenes.” In Bringing up Baby some of the memorable moments include the fateful meet cute at the golf course, the chuckle-worthy encounter at the club, and of course the sequence leading up to jail. But it’s also the little comedic moments wedged in between. Maybe Hepburn’s parked in front of a fire hydrant and trying to pull the wool over the policeman’s eyes. Or perhaps Grant dons the only piece of clothing, a frilly bathrobe, and is forced to answer the front door. It’s utterly absurd. It’s become classic and it shows the ability of Hawks behind the camera to make the action flow so organically.

It’s amazing that this film was a flop, Hepburn was labeled “Box Office Poison” by this point, and Cary Grant had yet to become an established star. Oh, how things changed. Because this film, in a sense, was the beginning of something truly wonderful. When two of the greatest stars aligned with one of the great directors.

5/5 Stars