Appreciating the conniving “Countess Lily” for the Miriam Hopkins Blogathon.
Trouble in Paradise is a pure delight and one of the most perfect comedies ever made. The heart of the story is a romance between two voracious and supremely talented crooks, Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall. They turn each other on with their skill and exploits, getting more attracted and amorous as they outdo and impress one another with sleight of hand and escalating deftness of pickpocketry. Pilfering, stealing and swindling equates to every act and aspect of romance for these soul mates, and they make the relationship naughty, flirty and rocky fun all the way.
The third point of the romantic triangle is the couple’s next target, Kay Francis, a rich widow and queen of Big Perfume, Colet & Company. She’s extravagant and flashy and has suitors falling all over themselves to impress her, including rivals Charlie Ruggles and recent Marshall con victim Edward Everett Horton. Francis uses them for company but has no romantic interest, which she tells them with the casual and classy kiss-off, “don’t worry, it’s not only you that I don’t love.”
One night at the theater, Marshall steals Francis’ diamond studded purse. She offers a reward far greater than what Marshall and Hopkins could ever sell it for, so he returns the bag, and after some smooth moves, secures Francis’ attraction to him. By planting insecurity in Francis’ head about the handling of her finances, by giving her makeup and love advice and also helping her swat away unwanted callers, Marshall hires himself as her personal assistant, trusted advisor and potential boyfriend. Hopkins soon joins the con as Francis’ typist, and the couple is confident about their plot to make off with Francis’ fortune. And jewels–Hopkins is insistent about not forgetting some jewels. It all starts to fall apart after Horton recognizes Marshall as the bogus tonsil expert who robbed him at the start of the movie. Now the couple has to make a speedy escape, possibly empty-handed, but Marshall seems to have fallen for Francis and leaves Hopkins waiting and wondering whether the tempting “sex appeal” is truly only in the money.
All three leads are so great in this, a joy to watch as they playfully, expertly interact and put adult spins on the layered dialogue and suggestive situations, and much can be said about them; since this is a Miriam Hopkins appreciation event I’ll put the spotlight on her. This movie was her second of three with director Ernst Lubitsch and it proved to audiences that the praise she earned in her previous films like The Smiling Lieutenant, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Dancers in the Dark were well deserved.
I’m a fan of Hopkins’ acting but I always find it hard to describe what exactly makes her so unique and an especially valuable jewel in a masterpiece like this. She has a vibrancy that she can use to be unruly, hyperactive and frenetic or that she reins in to seem tightly coiled and highly focused. She can play intelligent and uptight, but also has no trouble making herself look ridiculous, shallow and absurd. She gets great effect with a brief glance or slight motion, sometimes just a squint. She’s one of the most finely tuned instruments ever seen in Pre-Code and sophisticated comedy.
Here, with Lubitsch’s ideas and direction she sparkles. She said working with the director was a master class; so is her acting in this movie. She’s pure mischief and calculation and gives us something memorable in every scene. There’s that exchange at dinner with Marshall when she tells him what she knows about him directly and nonchalantly: “I have a confession to make to you: Baron, you are a crook. You robbed the gentleman in 253, 5, 7 and 9. May I have the salt?” It reveals that she considers herself his equal, at least in that moment; they have a way of constantly surprising and reassessing each other and then meeting again as equals on higher levels. During that dinner, they admit or discover that they’ve stolen items from each other, and in the garter portion of that exchange, she conveys so naturally and so easily, a series of emotions in a few seconds: shock, disbelief, wonder, admiration, love.
When she’s near Francis’ jewelry her eyes widen and ogle, she reacts physically and has to sit on her hands to control herself from snatching the jewels. You have to admire her pride and her crazy negotiation tactics when she confronts Francis for thinking she could “buy” Marshall for a mere 50 extra francs in wages. “You can have him for nothing!” she says, tossing the 100,000 (stolen) francs on Francis’ bed. To think, she adds a moment later, you’d throw away that many francs on a stupid purse, you can certainly pay 100,000 francs for HIM, she says, taking the money off Francis’ bed and storming off with it.
I love the bit where Hopkins dips her pastry in coffee but hides it behind a newspaper so Marshall doesn’t see, because he probably considers it uncouth and fattening. Later when Hopkins watches Francis do the exact same thing and asks her not to tell Marshall, Hopkins recognizes the action and the sentiment behind it and seethes with jealousy. And it’s not just regular jealousy. It’s the highest respect for Marshall’s criminal nature and talent; she considers her “sugar daddy” far above any form of affection he could ever get from an outsider who would think him an ordinary thief instead of a brilliant artist. Hopkins begs him not to become that most loathsome of creatures, the Gigolo, a fate she considers worse even than losing him! No, she loves, admires and worships him as a Grade A crook, and wants him to remain the best in his class. Hopkins helps make Trouble in Paradise one of the best in its class with her fine, vivacious performance, bringing to life a jealous, greedy con-woman who’s also a fellow genius’ one true soul mate.
This post is part of the Miriam Hopkins blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings and Font & Frock/A Small Press Life