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ERNST LUBITSCH’S TROUBLE IN PARADISE

September 28, 2010  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise

Trouble in Paradise. 1932. USA. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch

Trouble in Paradise. 1932. USA. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch

These notes accompany screenings of Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, September 29, 30, and October 1 in Theater 3.

Ernst Lubitsch (1892–1947) somehow remained true to his own idiosyncratic brand of filmmaking, even though he had what amounted to about a half-dozen separate (but overlapping) careers. Throughout his thirty-some years behind the camera, he developed an increasing sense of sophistication and an assurance that marked him as one of the great directors. He started off (1914–18) with a certain pioneer crudity, often appearing onscreen himself as a Jewish caricature, although later comedies like The Oyster Princess and Die Puppe (both 1919) were far more mature. His historical spectacles (1919–23) were heavily influenced by D. W. Griffith, but they were sufficiently good to merit an invitation from Mary Pickford to come to Hollywood. (Some of Lubitsch’s German work will be featured in the Museum’s Weimar Cinema exhibition in November.) In California, as the first of many major European directors who ventured to our shores, he introduced new levels of visual wit and ripeness (“the Lubitsch Touch”) in a series of romantic comedies (1924–26)—of which we showed The Marriage Circle in February. Of all the great silent comedy directors (Chaplin, Keaton, Sennett), only Lubitsch made an immediate and prosperous transition to sound. When the talkies arrived, Lubitsch’s musicals, such as the recently screened The Love Parade, helped compensate for the mostly dreadful films of the period. Finally, beginning with Trouble in Paradise (1932), he developed essentially his own genre, which lasted almost until his untimely death. These films, mostly set in Europe, were one of the most distinctive brands of the pre–World War II decade, eschewing spectacle for scintillation and Depression-era reality for exuberant performances and unlikely plots made credible by the photography of flesh on celluloid. (Lubitsch had a couple more brief incarnations, and we’ll get to those shortly.)

These masterpieces (with the exception of Greta Garbo’s tour-de-force Ninotchka) —Trouble in Paradise, Angel, and The Shop Around the Corner—were written by Samson Raphaelson, who had on his conscience the original play from which Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer had been adapted. Together, Lubitsch and Raphaelson fashioned a kind of “magic realism,” tinged with a subdued and poignant melancholy. Writing of Trouble in Paradise, the critic Dwight Macdonald said, “Within the admittedly drastic limitations of its genre, it comes as close to perfection as anything I have seen in the movies.” Possibly part of the truth about Lubitsch’s genius is that, by limiting himself to a canvas of a particular size and texture, he was so able to polish his work to a jewel-like quality and come so “close to perfection.”

I have included the opening sequence from the fiercely anti-war The Man I Killed/Broken Lullaby (1932), also written by Raphaelson, merely to illustrate that, when he chose to, Lubitsch could step outside of his self-imposed box. There is a marvelous anecdote in Scott Eyman’s brilliant new biography of Cecil B. DeMille, Empire of Dreams; for a brief period in the mid-1930s, Lubitsch took over as head of production at Paramount, the studio which DeMille had helped found a generation earlier. One day, while DeMille was shooting his medieval epic The Crusades, Lubitsch wandered over. Cecil told Ernst that Trouble in Paradise was “like a present from Cartier’s with the tissue paper just removed.” Then Cecil asked Ernst what he found so fascinating about the set for The Crusades. Ernst replied, “I’m hypnotized. There isn’t a cocktail shaker or tuxedo in sight.”

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