There is an old-fashioned expression about “honor among thieves.” What does this mean exactly? Perhaps this group swears an oath that no one criminal will interfere in the nefarious actions of another? If the question leaves you flummoxed, be sure to see the 1932 film Trouble in Paradise for an enjoyable resolution. Based on the Hungarian play The Honest Finder, written by Lazlo Aladar and first performed in Budapest in 1931, Trouble in Paradise is a witty, sophisticated romantic comedy centering on the criminal exploits of Lily (Miriam Hopkins) and Gaston (Herbert Marshall).
In a grand suite in a Venetian hotel, Gaston, an urbane and very rich European baron, instructs his butler to bring champagne and caviar and then scram upon the arrival of the blue-blooded Lily. Dressed to the nines in tuxedo and gossamer gown, respectively, Gaston and Lily sip cold bubbly and exchange clever comments that are nothing more than thinly disguised sexual innuendo. So very drawn to each other, Lily and Gaston eventually drop the façade and reveal their true identities: Lily is a skilled pickpocket and Gaston is a successful con man. With that out of the way, they tuck into their dinner with a hearty appetite and later are seen lounging in pajamas and reading the morning papers. Venice no longer holds much opportunity for the pair, so they set out for Paris, where they become assistants to the elegant Madame Colet (Kay Francis), who runs a perfume empire. Lily and Gaston are aware of the fortune in francs Madame Colet has hidden in her safe, and it’s only a matter of time before they can get their hands on the loot. But as this is a romantic comedy, all sorts of obstacles get tossed in the thieves’ way, and Lily and Gaston must work relentlessly for their ill-gotten gains.
Madame Colet, herself a stylish grand dame, soon falls for Gaston’s impeccable countenance. Gaston feels the odd pangs of genuine affection for Madame Colet and is not so keen on fleecing her. Colet knows Gaston is no good for her, but he is so very much more alive than her two other suitors, the bumbling François Filiba (Edward Everett Horton) and the deadpan Major (Charlie Ruggles). Meanwhile a jealous Lily steals the money from the safe—but Colet hardly seems to mind since she and Gaston are soon to be lovers. After the inevitable series of miscommunications and lots of door slamming (with Colet’s butler perplexed by the overload of eccentric activity), Lily and Gaston reunite and slip off into the Parisian night.
Hollywood’s gold standard of directorial quality, Ernst Lubitsch is best known for films such as Trouble in Paradise, The Love Parade (1929), Ninotchka (1939), and That Lady in Ermine (1948). He worked with the most beautiful and talented actors in the studio system, including Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert, Greta Garbo, James Stewart, and Carole Lombard. A German émigré, Lubitsch became synonymous with films that were funny and romantic, featuring characters that were gracious, usually high-society (or at least pretending to be), and so very sexy. Trouble in Paradise was produced in 1932, in what is commonly called the “Pre-Code” era; the Production Code Administration (PCA) required all films released after July 1, 1934, to carry a PCA stamp of approval. The PCA frowned upon overt sexuality, depiction of law enforcement in a negative light, excessive drinking, revealing clothing, and generally scandalous behavior. And while it’s a lighthearted comedy, Trouble in Paradise definitely dips its toe into the dicey waters of what would have been excised by the PCA.