Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall from Trouble in Paradise

It’s been said that Miriam Hopkins was an actress who often tried to upstage her fellow actors. She supposedly had a tendency to overact, and the purpose was to outshine everyone else. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that story, but if that was the goal in Trouble in Paradise, then consider it a success. The only thing I wanted more of after watching it was Miriam Hopkins.

In the film, she plays the role of Lily, a svelte thief masquerading in Venice as a Countess. The target of her next score being a certain Baron Lavalle who – unbeknownst to her – is also a fellow crook named Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall), and she is his next score. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, they expose their true identities to each other over dinner. As if a potent aphrodisiac, the revelation makes them fall lustily for one another. They team-up and then swing from Venice to Paris where a third party enters the story in the form of Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis). Initially eyed by the thieving couple only for her bejeweled purse, an amusing turn of events eventually puts Gaston in Colet‘s household as her secretary with Lily as his assistant. From here, it doesn’t take very long before Madame Colet is captivated by Gaston and shows jealousy towards Lily.

The dialogue is witty, clever and snappy, and the plot is evidently something that will be borrowed from by romcoms and con films for many decades. But what characterizes Trouble in Paradise the most is that it’s a film filled with silky sophistication. From the romantic setting to the high society crowd that Colet surrounds herself with, everything in the film floats with softness and grace. Marshall’s performance in particular is the epitome of the cool and composed smooth-talking gentleman, while Francis sashays elegantly across the screen with every move of her body. Even the camera follows in theme as it glides from side to side and up and down as Lubitsch himself chooses to move the frame and transition with fade ins and outs instead of employing quick cuts.

As beautiful and light the film is to behold though, everything seems like it’s a little bit insincere. There’s a hint of something hidden beyond face value. There is playful innuendo, but no action. There is disappointment, but no anger. There is worry, but no distress. It’s a film about people being fooled and robbed, but all the emotions seem stifled, which makes the film occasionally uninteresting. It keeps on gathering momentum, but never really takes off.

The exception to this of course, is Lily. In a picture where everything is made out to look sleek and where characters maintain the utmost poise, Miriam Hopkins gives a performance that doesn’t care if things have to be loud and dirty. Hers is a role that wears her heart on her sleeve and that is what makes Hopkins shine. That is why people want to see more of her. When she is happy, she is ecstatic. When she is mad, she is livid. In a picture full of tempered emotions, she is the one that gives the film life, fun, passion and spirit.

Rating: B (good)