Stealing hearts: the ending of Trouble in Paradise

Ernst Lubitsch’s exemplary craft was rarely displayed with greater elegance than in the finale of this delightful comedy.

26 January 2023

By Adrian Martin

Trouble in Paradise (1932)
Sight and Sound

The final scene of Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932) runs for scarcely 45 seconds. It is a simple framing of two actors – Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall – sitting in an obviously artificial car prop, with a back-projected bit of filmed traffic. Only one shot, and only one excited word over the musical score, uttered by Hopkins just before the closing fade-out: “Gaston!” So simple – and yet many of the techniques that made Lubitsch such a masterful director of comedy coalesce in this exhilarating ending.

The action films of Fritz Lang or Samuel Fuller usually follow a rule of thumb for exposition: start right in the middle of something physical (an explosion or robbery) to hook the spectator, and save the explanations in dialogue for the following, more sedate scene. Lubitsch went one better in the genre of comedy by mirroring this trope for the ending: the penultimate scene may contain a lot of smart gab, but the finale should be, as completely as possible, wordless, expressing itself only in looks and gestures.

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

This is exactly how Trouble in Paradise is built. The scene before the ending has traced a complicated denouement, sorting out the awkward triangle formed by the thieving lovers, Lily (Hopkins) and Gaston Monescu (Marshall), and the society lady who has come between them, Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis). This scene is itself a small masterpiece of twists and surprises: Lily at first righteously refuses the generous donation of 100,000 francs that Mariette has offered (in a roundabout way) in order to “buy” Gaston from her, but Lily manages to retrieve it before making her grand exit out the door (Lubitsch loved doors). Elaborate offscreen action ensues: Mariette is sad as she hears Gaston’s footsteps die away, but perks up when she hears those same footsteps returning. But it turns out to be his last, florid goodbye to her (“It could have been marvellous… divine… wonderful”) – capped off by his frank admission that he has also surreptitiously stolen an expensive string of pearls (“Your gift to her”).

Now the film dissolves into its crowning 45 seconds. A tense stand-off between the pair: Lily angry, with her arms folded; Gaston watching her, helpless. Then he smiles, as if remembering he has the gift of pearls up his sleeve. But his gestures quickly become frantic, searching in one pocket after another: the necklace has gone! He freezes, and they look at each other; Lily then unfolds her arms and slowly produces the ‘gift’ she has already secretly stolen from him. As she places it in her purse, the music surges and quickens, and Gaston smiles in appreciation. Or is it another kind of smile? He modulates into a poker face as she, too, realises that something is missing from her purse. He produces the 100,000 francs from his pocket, and triumphantly jams them into her open purse. All tension relieved, they throw their arms around each and kiss. She cries, “Gaston!”

This is not the first time Lily has called Gaston’s name with such orgasmic joy. In fact, the ending is a compacted, pantomime-like repetition of a much longer scene early in the film, when these two characters meet for the first time over a quiet dinner. Both are pretending to be someone they are not – a baron and a countess. In the course of the scene, each exposes the other’s true identity. And then we are treated to a string of revelations concerning the small but decisive acts of theft they have already committed: he’s swiped her pin, she’s taken his watch… and he, in defiance of all screen realism, has pinched the garter she was wearing. It’s this last coup that prompts Lily to fly into his arms and hurl the inaugural “Gaston!”

The so-called Lubitsch touch is renowned, endlessly evoked by critics (from Herman Weinberg to Serge Daney) and filmmakers (from Billy Wilder to Wes Anderson) alike. In truth, this touch is not a single effect – if it were, his admirers might be able to emulate it better. It is, rather, an integration of structures and moves at every level of cinematic craft: the plotting in the script, the staging of action, and the direction of actors – as well as the careful editing patterns and placement of musical cues that Lubitsch oversaw down to the last detail.

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