“Beginnings are always difficult.”
Think of Venice as a modern Eden—except that Ernst Lubitsch sullies the image of gleaming canals at night by showing the collection of garbage by gondola. The garbage collector, a jolly sort, sings an aria—to distract himself from the stench.
In Trouble in Paradise, master thief Gaston Monesque falls for Lily Vautier on their dinner date in a posh hotel. “My little shoplifter, my sweet little pickpocket, my darling,” he coos. He is “The Baron”; she, “The Countess.” They were born with larceny in their hearts—this, their Original Sin. Their foreplay consists of little games of mutual pickpocketing; thus they show each other their mutual worthiness. Love doesn’t get more delightful than this.
But there’s “trouble in Paradise”: temptations galore; and Gaston’s pretense at affection for high-toned Mme Mariette Colet, because of the shifting masks of the world to which he belongs (a metaphor for our own fallen world), brings his heart into proximity to the real thing, if there is any difference. Reviewers are fond of reporting that Lily, who finds herself, like Gaston, in Mariette’s employ (also under a false identity), is jealous. Well, yes; but jealousy is another, self-protective mask; above all, Lily is anxious that nothing is certain in her and Gaston’s world, that at any moment she might lose the love of her life.
This comedy was Lubitsch’s favorite among his own films; the forty-year-old Berliner, transported to Hollywood, had pickpocketed fate that had ordained poverty for his Jewish existence. Fellow Jews Stroheim and Sternberg added “von” to their names as a kind of mask; Lubitsch’s mask was his Continental sophistication. The mask, poignantly, became his reality.
Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall, as Lily and Gaston, give the performances of their lives.