Monday, January 1, 2007

Movie recommendation: Trouble in Paradise

My wife Elaine and I just discovered a wonderful film, Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932). Now I understand what the phrase "the Lubitsch touch" means: Trouble in Paradise is one of the wittiest, most artful movies I've seen. I'll share ninety-two-seconds' worth of dialogue.

[We are in Venice. A garbageman on a gondola has just picked up the trash. A baron (played by Herbert Marshall) stands on a hotel balcony, smoking and looking out on the water. The Baron is waiting for his new lady friend, a countess (played by Miriam Hopkins). A waiter (played by George Humbert) brings the Baron a menu.]

Waiter: Yes, Baron. What shall we start with, Baron?

Baron: Hmm? Oh, yes. That's not so easy. Beginnings are always difficult.

Waiter: Yes, Baron.

Baron: If Casanova suddenly turned out to be Romeo, having supper with Juliet, who might become Cleopatra, how would you start?

Waiter: I would start with cocktails.

Baron: Mm hmm. Very good. Excellent.

[The Baron sees his lady arriving in a gondola.]

Baron: It must be the most marvelous supper. We may not eat it, but it must be marvelous.

Waiter: Yes, Baron.

Baron: And waiter?

Waiter: Yes, Baron?

Baron: You see that moon?

Waiter: Yes, Baron.

Baron: I want to see that moon in the champagne.

Waiter: Yes, Baron. [He writes on a pad.] "Moon . . . in . . . champagne."

Baron: I want to see, um --

Waiter: Yes, Baron. [The waiter writes some more on the pad.]

Baron: And as for you, waiter.

Waiter: Yes, Baron?

Baron: I don't want to see you at all.

Waiter: No, Baron.

[The waiter picks up a leaf from the balcony ledge and offers it to the Baron.]

Waiter: Oh, I beg your pardon.

Baron: Hmm? Thank you.
Just some of the elements that make this brief scene especially brilliant: the surreal tedium, which anticipates Dragnet ("And waiter?" "Yes, Baron?" "You see that moon?" "Yes, Baron."), the waiter's dutiful note-taking, the vaguely suggestive "I want to see, um" (the movie predates the strictures of the Production Code, as other scenes make clear), the final "No, Baron," and the bit with the leaf (which took me three viewings to figure out). As we soon find out, the Baron is no baron. And the Countess is no countess. I'll leave the rest of the story for you, reader, to discover.

Trouble in Paradise is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection. The disc contains, among other extras, an introduction in which Peter Bogdanovich talks about the film. I'll give him the last word:
You think to yourself, "This was made in 1932 for general audiences." What happened? When was America that sophisticated? When was the world that sophisticated, and how could we have gone so far in the other direction?

comments: 3

Lee said...

I'll admit I'm stumped by the leaf. How is the Baron dressed (or undressed)?

Michael Leddy said...

Lee, I can't answer your question without giving away something of the movie. So I'll issue a spoiler alert: read no further if you'd like the movie to be a surprise.


As the movie opens, we see, through a window, a man lying on a floor. Then there's a very darkly-lit scene shot from within this room. It took me three viewings to figure out what's going on: a man is leaving the room by a window and shimmying down a tree. That man, it turns out, is the Baron, and the leaf is a remnant of his escape.

The opening of this film is just amazing: scene after scene goes by before anything begins to make sense. And then the pieces fit together beautifully.

Lee said...

I'll have to watch this one the next time I'm in Berlin. Since my daughter is studying at the Film Polytech, she has access to a fantastic library.