SPOTLIGHT: Hot Pre-Code Hopkins (III)

HAPPY 300 POSTS!

Primetime Emmy Awards - Historic Archive

Today’s entry marks our 300th blogpost and the end of our 60th consecutive week of original posts. I would like to thank all of my readers — those both loyal and casual — for their support and their interest in this site. I love being able to share my joys with all of you, and it is a source of great pride that we’ve come this far. Please continue to enjoy the past 300 entries, and stick around for the next 300. There’s much more to come!

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Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming… Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the naughty Miriam Hopkins (1902-1972). We’ll be covering some of her most delightfully Pre-Code films (all released by Paramount) over these next five weeks, and you don’t want to miss a single one! So far we’ve covered The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) and Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1932). Today…

 

Trouble In Paradise (1932)

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A love triangle ignites trouble between two jewel theives and their intended victim. Starring Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis, Herbert Marshall, Charlie Ruggles, Edward Everett Horton, and C. Aubrey Smith. Based on the play by Aladar Laszlo. Adapted by Grover Jones. Screenplay by Samson Raphaelson. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

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This brilliant light comedy by master director Ernst Lubitsch is probably one of my favorite Pre-Code films of all time. Starring Herbert Marshall as a jewel thief caught between his partner in crime, our irascible spotlighted star, Miriam Hopkins, and the rich dame they’re conning, played by the always composed Kay Francis, Trouble In Paradise is a paradigm of sophisticated entertainment as produced by Pre-Code Hollywood. With a smart script, truthful performances, and a charmingly flippant gloss (that famous “Lubitsch touch”), we have all the trimmings for a veritable classic.

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The official TCM synopsis is too long to share, so I will briefly encapsulate the plot. Marshall and Hopkins, two thieves, meet at a Venetian hotel and immediately fall in love. About a year later, the two have formed a partnership and concoct a scheme to bilk Francis, the wealthy widow and owner of one of Paris’s finest perfumeries. Marshall poses as a bum and becomes Francis’ secretary (with Hopkins as his own demure assistant), eventually winning over her heart, to the chagrin of socially climbing suitors, Ruggles and Horton, the latter of whom was the target of the pickpocketing duo’s Venetian escapades. Smith, the company’s chairman of the board, warns Francis that Marshall is a scam, but she won’t hear of it. Fearful that their cover may be blown, Marshall and Hopkins make plans to cut town, but Marshall realizes that Smith is also pilfering funds from the company, and ends up making love to Francis. Hopkins realizes what has happened and loots Francis’ safe without Marshall. He comes clean to Francis, and Hopkins gives Francis permission to have Marshall (in exchange for the money in the safe.) But Marshall and Francis decide that they would be better off apart, and he goes off with Hopkins — and the pearl necklace that Francis has gifted him.

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Though this film cannot fully be considered a screwball comedy, there are definitely elements in place: mistaken identities, crooks on the run, slamming doors, etc. But everything, and this is part of Lubitsch’s style, is handled so smartly. There are some big laughs, but they never come at the expense of character — these people are mature adults who behave rationally, speak logically, and sometimes do larger-than-life things. Furthermore, they’re all sexual beings, and it’s this air of sexuality that runs underneath the entire narrative and infuses the picture with a sense of urgency, sophistication, and Pre-Code fun. (The tension is not as overt as it is in The Smiling Lieutenant, which we covered two weeks ago, but it’s much more developed — with a sensual subtlety lacking in the aforementioned film.)

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While so much of this is Lubitsch’s own playful manipulation of the visuals and the ways in which the script seeks to illustrate the dichotomy (and sometimes lack of dichotomy) between the upper and lower classes, I attribute much of the film’s brilliant tone to the wisely cast ensemble, who not only individually turn in great performances, but also uniformly instill the sometimes heightened premise with a polished fluidity. They make everything so believable. Particularly Kay Francis, an underrated ’30s actress (we covered one of her little known comedies, 1935’s The Goose And The Gander, back here in January) who seems to exude a naturalness that’s a bit hard to describe; she’s simultaneously hot and cold: accessible and inaccessible, but always someone whose presence makes the screen infinitely more interesting. She undoubtedly steals the show here with her multi-layered performance. (And with a cast of absolutely astounding character actors — namely Ruggles, Horton, and Smith — that’s no easy feat!)

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But Herbert Marshall, another underrated performer who never re-captured the popularity he once enjoyed during his lifetime, really carries the brunt of the story, as he’s the mastermind who finds himself caught between both worlds — the one with whom he shares so much (Hopkins) and the one who offers him something completely different (Francis). It’s a testament to, not just the scripting, but Marshall’s performance, that the ending is not something easily predictable. For a while there, it looks like Marshall may very well team up with Francis against Hopkins, who is deliciously snotty. And it must be said, Hopkins gives a great performance in an unlikable role — but an entertainingly unlikable one. It must also be said that she brings the picture a good deal of its humor, and offers a nice contrast to the elegant and naturally sophisticated Francis; Hopkins’ sophistication is all shtick — and riotously so. Interestingly, though Hopkins is top-billed, her two other stars get more to do. Yet she is probably most integral to the success of the film — without a performer of her caliber in this role, the story wouldn’t be nearly as amusing and a lot less suspenseful. (Let’s face it, Hopkins is hot. I mean, who would you choose between the two starlets?)

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Simply, this is a classic Lubitsch film — his best Pre-Coder and one of my favorite pictures of all time. The script crackles, the performances ring with sincerity and humor, and the narrative is both cinematic and engaging throughout. Highly recommended to everybody everywhere.

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Come back next Friday for another Pre-Code Hopkins film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment! 

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6 thoughts on “SPOTLIGHT: Hot Pre-Code Hopkins (III)

  1. Congrats on another impressive milestone Jackson. I’m so glad you’re covering Miriam Hopkins; she’s one of my faves. I just saw this film for the first time a couple of weeks ago and it is just as fresh and funny today. It’s cheeky, even in tiny moments such as the neon sign of the figures simulating sex. Miriam Hopkins did get most of the laugh out loud lines, but I agree that Francis stole the show. I liked how the women got to have a lot of fun and agency in this film, something you don’t see much in Hays Code movies. Thanks for another great review.

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