After a little bit of reading, watching and listening, it seems that perhaps Ernst Lubitsch is a director that I should have tackled far earlier in this column.
Lubitsch was a German-American director, actor, screenwriter and producer responsible for some of the most highly regarded romantic comedies of all time, and was one of the most respected and influential directors of his time. Billy Wilder is said to have had a sign that read: “How would Lubitsch do it?”
How he did it was with what’s become known as the “Lubitsch Touch,” a certain sense of style and finesse with his films that was distinctly his own. Just what that touch is, well that’s what I hope to discover over the course of this series. Although, after watching “Trouble in Paradise,” Lubitsch’s first major American film in 1932 (he had worked extensively in silent films and musicals for almost 20 years), I’m starting to get an idea of what that means.
“Trouble in Paradise” is considered by some to be a sort of proto-screwball comedy, without which we wouldn’t have the likes of “Bringing Up Baby,” “Ball of Fire” or perhaps even “It Happened One Night.” It centers on gentleman thief Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) and wily pickpocket Lily (Miriam Hopkins) who immediately fall in love after both pretending to be of nobility and stealing things off each other.
That frisky first encounter sets the tone for the whole film, endearing us to these rambunctious but affectionate criminals who then set their sights on Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), heir to a perfume company’s fortune. However, the longer Gaston works as Mariette’s secretary, the closer they get. The closer they get, the more he falls in love with her.
Shaky as that love triangle might be, “Trouble in Paradise” remains one of the most light romantic comedies I’ve seen, perhaps ever. It’s a fun little romp that ends on a sweet note, but Lubitsch never plays things so that it feels false or saccharine. There’s a sharpness to his dialogue that feels unique. As a product of its time, there’s not really anything else like it in terms of precedent. It’s obvious the mark that it left, as countless romantic comedies have featured a “meet cute,” but few of them feel so full of heart and life as the interaction between Gaston and Lily.
So perhaps that’s the “Lubitsch Touch,” the ability to take something that silly and light and imbue it with a genuine, honest heart and do so with style to spare. No one’s going to mistake this as a piece of modern filmmaking, but it’s one that manages to still feel fresh despite having had its beats and flavor copied countless times over, the sign of a true classic.
If nothing else, it’s a fantastic introduction to Lubitsch and has me eager to see what else the man has in store.
Next week, I’ll take a look at Lubitsch’s “Ninotchka,” followed by “The Shop Around the Corner,” “To Be Or Not To Be” and “Heaven Can Wait.”
Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in “Catching Up On…” an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.