During the period when F. Scott Fitzgerald was working in Hollywood, he was visited once by a fledgling writer who begged Fitzgerald to teach him the ropes of writing a good script. The young man’s first lesson was to compose a scene which involves only three characters; three different coloured pens were assigned to write the lines, with each colour representing one of the three characters. Enraged by the impression that Fitzgerald was mocking his inexperience, the young writer asserted aloud his qualification for the job and asked for a more constructive assignment. Fitzgerald’s response was one of even greater rage: the young writer was summarily dismissed on the ground of his irreverence for, what Fitzgerald considered, the rudiments of screenwriting.
The virtue of Fitzgerald’s little exercise finds its most manifest justification in Ernst Lubitsch’s films, which regularly explore, often in a tone of frivolity or thinly-disguised sarcasm, the conflicts and the absurd dynamic of the ménage à trois. With their emphasis on the consonance that springs from the perpetual dissonance within the triangle – a contrapuntal device that is commonly found in the 19th century “comedy of errors,” wherein the intricate web of relationships between the characters is always underpinned by an intangible, almost inborn, equilibrium – those films are the equivalent of a Monet’s painting: an exuberant feast of colours which aims to give the impression of joy and elegance. The colours are the characters and their utterances; to fuse them together yields the challenge of creating order out of a group of warring elements – hence the objective of Fitzgerald’s exercise: that a good play should be a piece of uncluttered artwork as it is a euphonious symphony.
Lubitsch’s films prior the enforcement of MPPD (Motion Picture Production Code) make freer use of comedy’s malleability to indulge in, often fleetingly and still under the guise of respectability, some ribald humour. After all, comedy, according to Henri Bergson, denotes a particular situation where an individual is startled out of his usual flexible movement. In a broader sense, comedy operates invariably outside the norm, and is indeed licensed to violate the moral code. Morality in Lubitsch’s early features is a concern that is shorn of even its residual value: Maurice Chevalier, started with The Love Parade (1929), Lubitsch’s first sound musical, routinely portrayed the role of an amorous rake whose pursuit of happiness and good fortune are rarely encumbered by his amoral exploits.
Trouble in Paradise (1932), by many accounts Lubitsch’s best, almost flawless film, gives the flouting of morality an implausibly elegant touch. Gaston and Lily are a thieving pair who set their target on a widowed duchess. Trouble soon invades their paradisiac relationship when Gaston inconveniently falls in love with the duchess. Posing as a suave baron, Gaston, played by Herbert Marshall, speaks mellifluously and with a taste for delicate wit; he is generally grave in manner and graceful in deportation. This façade of a stolid bourgeois gent accords a new meaning to elegance: that the attribute is sometimes a facile means for deception and is therefore possessed of a false value.
It is not typical for Lubitsch to be passing any personal comments or judgements of his subject. His comedies are so suffused with a heady joyousness that any possibly more serious, sobering overtones become automatically an incidental source of comedy. The motif of a “closed door” is the director’s cheeky response to the society’s squeamishness for frank sexual matters. In Trouble in Paradise the “closed door” moments are deliberately made plain: when Gaston and Lily first meet and fall for one another, they retreat to the hotel room for their night, and next a hand is seen hanging a privacy sign on the doorknob; and during the courtship between Gaston and duchess, those two are often caught (by the stupefied butler) emerging together from one room, and entering and closing the door into another.
That comedy without its hidden complexity cannot generate an infinite source of genuine laughter is the unavowed creed which Lubitsch consistently follows. Arguably the hallmark of the director’s career, Trouble in Paradise is a jewel whose innocence and purity grow with age, and emit an especially dazzling incandescent when we view it today, in a time when laughter is becoming a piece of sweet music so rarely heard.