TROUBLE IN PARADISE (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932).
A fortunate director can point to one picture in which all the elements
came together to create something close to perfection. This was Lubtisch's
favorite among his own films, and posterity has been almost unanimous
in proclaiming it his best.
Gaston and Lily (Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins) are lovers in
Paris. They are also high class jewel thieves. To pull off the biggest
heist of their careers, they insinuate themselves into the confidence
of the wealthy Madame Colet (Kay Francis). Unfortunately, Gaston finds
himself falling for the charming widow.
The dialogue (by Laszlo Aladar, who also wrote Top Hat), is
polished and witty - employing all the virtues of drawing room comedy,
while at the same time poking fun at the pretensions of that genre.
Lubitsch's camera placement and timing couldn't be better. With its
brightly lit, purposely artificial set design, marvelous costumes, and
creamy visual texture, the film represents the height of early Paramount
style. It is also devoid of moralistic twaddle - the main characters
are thieves with no apologies, and the movie makes it clear that their
rich victims are just thieves of another order. Trouble in Paradise
has an air of freedom from hypocrisy, and that makes it escapism in
the best sense, a joyous relief from ponderousness. It was made, of
course, just prior to the imposition of the Production Code, which put
a damper on creativity in American film.
That Madame Colet has taken her secretary (Marshall) as a lover, or
that in fact people do go to bed with one another without being married
(as silly as it seems to say this nowadays), is as clear as can be without
ever being stated explicitly. And then we have dialogue such as the
following between Hopkins and Marshall: "This woman has more than jewelry.
Did you ever take a good look at her...." "Certainly." "They're all
right, aren't they?" "Beautiful. What of it? As far as I'm concerned,
her whole sex appeal is in that safe." "Oh, Gaston. Let's open it right
now. Let's get away from here." "No, sweetheart. There's more sex appeal
coming on the first of the month - 850 thousand francs." And so forth.
They also have a routine (imitated many times since in lesser films)
where they pick each other's pockets while being romantic - at one point
Gaston says, "You don't mind if I keep your garter?" which he produces
from his pocket, giving it a little kiss.
Herbert Marshall, whom I usually find unbearably wooden, is perfect
here as an urbane rascal. The underappreciated Kay Francis has marvelous
energy and wit - her scenes with Marshall are delicious. If I had to
make one complaint (I know, it is heresy to make any), it would be that
Miriam Hopkins overdoes things somewhat in her part. She seems a bit
too coarse, I think, but this is a mere quibble. With good supporting
work from Edward Everett Horton and Charles Ruggles, Trouble in Paradise
is a paragon of light entertainment, one of the best examples of what
the studio system in Hollywood, with the right mix of talent, could
SKYSCRAPER SOULS (Edgar Selwyn, 1932).
Metro had some pre-Code sparkle in their early 30s productions as
well. This little-known bauble features Warren William as a businessman
who will do whatever it takes to retain control over a Manhattan skyscraper,
even if that means undercutting his partners with a crooked stock market
scheme. He is also a charming lecher - conveniently separated from his
wife (Hedda Hopper), having an affair with his assistant (Verree Teasdale),
and making designs on a young secretary (Maureen O'Sullivan). The complicated
plot also involves a woman of loose reputation (the wonderful Anita
Page), her soft-hearted admirer (Jean Hersholt), and a host of other
The dialogue is snappy, sometimes veering into corny. Norman Foster,
as O'Sullivan's love interest, is among the least appealing male leads
in film history. (It's the kind of relationship where they talk about
getting married after dating each other once - actually a pretty common
convention in movies.) Virtue carries the day, naturally, but it's remarkable
how adult realities such as greedy duplicity and extramarital affairs
are taken for granted as part of the dramatic landscape. William hams
it up a bit, but he's compelling more often than not, and the same could
be said for the picture. Medium in quality, but - surprisingly, since
I had never even heard of it - not bad at all.
SHERMAN'S MARCH (Ross McElwee, 1986).
The odd conception behind this odd film is that McElwee, setting out
to make a documentary about the famous march of Sherman's troops through
the South at the end of the Civil War, decides instead to film a personal
account of the various women - some of old acquaintance, some of new
- whom he encounters along the way.
McElwee, you see, has just broken up with his girlfriend. The women
in the successive sections of the film are each considered as potential
partners. There is of course something comic about this search for love,
interspersed with occasional musings about nuclear weapons, along with
some actual insights into General Sherman and his march. But it's a
comedy of gentle observation rather than irony or sarcasm, and that's
what makes it a different experience than your run-of-the-mill nonfiction
The director is never less than generous towards the women he profiles.
Even when they're clearly wrong for him - as in the case of one who
takes him to a secret hiding place in the mountains to meet her friends
who are apocalyptic survivalists, or the one who turns out to be a Mormon
searching for a mate who is a man of God - he never mocks them or puts
them down. All these women are strong and powerful in their own ways.
His attitude is one of wonder and fascination, and the humor is derived
from his own hapless ineffectuality as a potential lover, and the absurdity
of his stance as documentary observer.
It's a dry sort of humor indeed, and the film does go on rather too
long, I think. But there is an attention to the real nuances of character,
and the imponderables of life, that is seen very rarely in film. The
high point involves a pushy friend named Charlene who is trying to find
a wife for McElwee. You couldn't invent a character more hilarious than
her if you tried. McElwee himself is a strange bird, a humorist of disarming
sincerity. One's reaction to the picture may depend to a great degree
on how one takes his personality. I found him engaging and frustrating
by turns - just like some real people I know.
MAN RAY FILMS.
The American photographer Man Ray was one of a group of avant-garde
Paris filmmakers in the 20s that included Leger, Bunuel, Clair, Kirsanoff,
and Cocteau. His short films have finally been released on video, compiled
and restored by the Centre Georges Pompidou. The very brief LE RÉTOUR
À LA RAISON (1923) consists of moving geometric designs,
intercut with distorted night shots of a merry-go-round, then moving
three dimensional shapes, and closing with the play of bars of light
on a woman's nude torso. It was an experiment in abstract expressionism
that inspired other directors. EMAK BAKIA (1926) displays the
influence of both surrealism and dadaism. Once again Ray experiments
with the movement of shapes - many of the effects seem tired now after
decades of innovation in animated film, but they were fresh at the time.
He employs bizarre imagery as well - a man's eyes turning into the headlights
of a car, a flock of sheep, the legs of a dancing woman. Odd effects
are attained through camera movement - sideways, upside down, etc. -
or distortion of the image, as in a convex mirror. L'ÉTOILE
DE MER (1928) is more adventurous, but less engaging. There are
many shots of people walking in Paris - Ray blurs the image a lot, attempting
to explore a subconscious nether region - intercut with images of the
sea, and some remarkable ones of the underside of a starfish. One of
the titles says, "The sun, one foot in the stirrup, nestles a nightingale
in a veil of crepe." It is hard to know how seriously to take such surrealistic
The lengthiest and most famous of Man Ray's films is LES MYSTÈRES
DU CHÂTEAU DU DÉ (1929). The spacious chateau of the
title, along with a rundown castle nearby, is employed to explore various
spatial relationships and textures. Some of the best effects are achieved
with long shots through windows into landscapes, while the camera is
moving at the same time. Ray also does some very strange things involving
people wearing nylon stockings over their heads (giving them an identical
faceless look), throwing huge dice and practicing weird diving and swimming
formations in the chateau's indoor pool.
Overall, I don't find Man Ray's films as interesting or stimulating
as those of Clair or Bunuel from the same period. Their experiments
were informed by a resolutely personal vision. Ray seems more the purely
formal innovator. The cinema (and indeed all art forms) need eccentrics
like him who are willing to try different combinations of elements and
techniques so as to discover hidden potentials in the art. Ray's pictures
are fascinating viewing in this historical sense, but precisely because
of their character as innovation in the abstract, they have lost the
novelty and excitement they once held. Film method has long since incorporated
all these things, so that the works in themselves now seem "old hat."
Ray seems to have decided that he wasn't suited for motion pictures,
because he stopped making them after the 20s, returning to still photography
as his vehicle.
PASSENGER (Andrzej Munk, 1963).
A former guard (Aleksandra Slaska) in the women's section of Auschwitz
encounters a passenger on a cruise ship (Anna Ciepielewska) who was
one of her prisoners. This sets off a series of flashbacks concerning
those terrible days, and the struggle of wills that took place between
prisoner and guard.
Munk was one of the guiding lights of the postwar school of Polish
film that included Wajda and Kawalerowicz. He died in a car crash before
being able to finish this, his fourth feature. His assistant put what
footage there was together as a tribute to Munk. There was no attempt
to complete the film, and this was probably a wise decision, since no
one knew exactly where Munk planned to take the story.
What we have, then, are some extremely haunting sequences that take
place in the concentration camp. Passenger captures, arguably
better than any other film, a sense of horrifying blankness, a matter-of-fact
degradation, which conveys something of what the experience of Auschwitz
might have been like. The film is narrated by the former camp guard,
which allows Munk to raise questions of guilt and responsibility in
novel ways. The guard, Lisa, first tells her husband a sanitized version
of events which portray her as someone who was trapped by having to
obey orders, but did what she could to help the prisoner, Martha. She
then narrates events a second time to herself, and this time we witness
her desire for power over Martha, and for Martha to be grateful and
subservient to her - a desire which is continually frustrated.
Unfortunately we will never know what Munk intended to reveal about
the psychology of domination, or the relationship between oppressor
and victim. Perhaps Munk himself didn't know. The mood and images of
the Auschwitz scenes tend to overpower the framing device. As it is,
Passenger is just a fragment. A tantalizing fragment, maybe a
fragment of greatness, but a fragment all the same.
Chris Dashiell, 2001