Happy New Year! Here's a doozy of a Christmas present to start 2013 off on the right foot, a superlative pre-Code Paramount comedy from Ernst Lubitsch, the tale of gentleman thief Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) and pickpocket Lily (Miriam Hopkins) who join forces to defraud Parisian perfume heiress Madame Colet (Kay Francis) of her fortune, only for Gaston to fall in love with their prey after taking a job as her personal secretary. In a piece loosely adapted from Hungarian Aladár László's little-remembered 1931 play The Honest Finder, the leads are all charming in their very different ways, with Marshall unrelentingly formal as the professional fraud (his character inspired by the memoirs of real-life confidence trickster Georges Manolescu). The famously difficult Hopkins, a Southern Belle turned Broadway starlet, is especially lively as a woman openly aroused by larceny, spitting out her lines with relish ("This is all that's real: money, cash!"). There's also a trio of very fine supporting performances to cherish, with the ever-reliable Charlie Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton priceless as feuding rival suitors after Madame Colet's scented hand and Robert Grieg betraying a wealth of experience as a huffing butler.
Jean Renoir, no less, told Peter Bogdanovich that Lubitsch "invented modern Hollywood" when he arrived from Germany in 1922, dragging the medium out of the D.W. Griffith-dictated grammar of the silent era and helping give voice to the talkies. "He brought European sophistication, candour in sexuality and an oblique style that made audiences complicit with the characters and situations", Bogdanovich adds, defining what became known as the "Lubitsch Touch". Trouble In Paradise, co-written by playwright Samson Raphaelson, author of The Jazz Singer (1924) and Lubitsch's regular collaborator, is a supremely elegant, cosmopolitan affair whose smart quips, wry playing and art deco sets look forward to everything from Fred and Ginger to Duck Soup (1933). Its aristocratic trappings recall the films of Max Ophüls while it has even been proposed as the first screwball comedy, predating Frank Capra's It Happened One Night by two years. While it would be a mistake to embark on Trouble In Paradise expecting the sort of zany farce typified by Bringing Up Baby (1938) or the exhausting, tongue-twisting dialogue of His Girl Friday (1940), the template is certainly there. However, it's also a subtle little gem in its own right that undoubtedly rewards repeated viewings. From its opening in the darkened canals of Venice to the barracking of Madame Colet for her decadence by a hairy Communist to the twin shadows of lovers kissing cast on a duvet, Trouble In Paradise is a jewellery box overrunning with fine things.