Lubitsch began this film unconventionally, and the opening became legendary. The job of an opener is to tell us where the action will take place, here, Venice. Following standard operating procedure, most directors would give us a long shot of gondolas and canals (probably from stock footage, as Lubitsch did in some later films), then a medium shot of the particular location, then close-ups of the actors. Here, Lubitsch starts with a shot of a dog sniffing a garbage can—it could be anywhere. A workman picks up the can and carries it to—a gondola! Surprise! Venice! Then he poles off, gloriously singing “O Sole Mio” (with the voice of Caruso).
Conventionally I’d read that as “appearance and reality.” The appearance, the surface, is Venice and the glorious aria; the reality is the garbage. The appearance serves as an unreal facade covering over grubby reality. But Lubitsch is subtler than that. Here his point is that reality is both, both the garbage and the aria. Hence we go from the establishing shots to a shadowy figure escaping down a tree—we see an interior and a man who has been robbed, a man who had been expecting a pair of hookers. Then we pan past many windows to settle on “the Baron,” the impossibly suave Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall in his first talking role).
”The Baron” is joined by “the Countess” (Miriam Hopkins) for their romantic (=sexual) tryst, and they soon discover they are both thieves. (This is the central “both” of the picture: theft of money plus theft of the heart—or head. Indeed, Gaston says just that—twice.) The two thieves engage in a pickpocketing contest and fall in love—and sex. For Lubitsch love and sex are one, in contrast to the Code, coming in a year, in which they are opposed. Meanwhile the robbery is discovered. We have playful scenes of Italian courtesy and excitability, the hotel manager who speaks English and the police who don’t (another “both”). And we come back to the garbage-laden gondola with aria, the original “both” that brackets this prologue.
The heroes of Lubitsch’s film are Gaston Monescu and Lily Vautier, alias “the Countess,” superthieves with a preternatural ability to sniff out things stealable or already stolen. Masters of disguise and pretense, they move on to Paris. There a radio announcer proclaims the motto of Colet & Cie., perfumers: “Remember, it doesn’t matter what you say, it doesn’t matter how you look, it’s how you smell.” I take it, Lubitsch is suggesting that even Venetian garbage could be perfumed over. The ad praises partial knowledge, smell, the opposite of Gaston’s and Lily’s super-sight and -hearing.
In Paris, these two create various boths, multifaceted situations that the other characters need to perceive and cope with—and don’t. The obvious butts are the stolid, stodgy Major (Charlie Ruggles) and fussy François Filiba (Edward Everett Horton). Filiba is the robbery victim, tricked into showing his tonsils, but unable to describe what else happened. The Major writes crude love letters and bungles his try at a handbag to replace the diamond-studded one Gaston has stolen. Both butts fail in their efforts to marry the more savvy character, Mariette Colet (Kay Francis). Heiress to the Colet perfume business, she is so rich as to equal royalty, and we first see her as she sagely casts aside both Filiba’s proposal and the Major’s. She, it turns out, has been embezzled from by the pompous M. Giron (C. Aubrey Smith), president of her board of directors. She sees more than Filiba or the Major, but hardly as much as Gaston or Lily.
He returns the bejeweled handbag he has stolen from Mme. Colet (how did he steal it?), then smoothly gets himself hired as her secretary (“M. Lavalle”) with Lily as his assistant. Soon he has spied into every aspect of Mme. Colet’s life and her business. He sees everything: the contents of her purse and her safe; the date of her eighteenth-century bed, her social engagements and friends; and the books of the Colet perfume business. Again and again Lubitsch emphasizes Gaston’s powers of sight like his use of binoculars at the silly opera to steal Mariette’s expensive handbag, his poking through the contents of her handbag, or ridiculing an ungrammatical love letter from the Major. He can even speak Russian to rout the Bolshevik (Leonid Kinskey) berating Mariette for her extravagance during a depression. Then he and Lily are smart enough to see the newspaper ad promising a reward in the paper and to calculate that the reward is worth more to them than the stolen handbag.
The denouement comes when one of the partial-knowledge people, Filiba, puts sight, his visual memory of the man who robbed him in Venice, together with sound, the word “doctor” (Gaston’s disguise at the time). With his lucky both-and knowledge, he denounces M. LaValle/Gaston Monescu.
In short, I think Lubitsch’s underlying idea has to do with perception: those whose perceptions are at best partial, the victims, contrasted to those whose perceptions are complete, the crooks. Complicating this simple contrast is the love interest that develops between Gaston and Mariette and which Lily sets out to break up. This is where our perceptions come in as Lubitsch uses his camera skills. He develops this new romance indirectly, by a series of clocks, but above all by doors. It is hard to imagine how Lubitsch could have put more doors in this picture than he has. Doors create a situation where we need to be as knowing as the crooks if we are to “see” what is going on behind the doors.
None of this, of course, could happen a couple of years after Lubitsch filmed Trouble in Paradise when the Production Code had clamped down and the Hays office had become national censor. Then no crooks could go unpunished, there could be no sex between unmarrieds like Lily and Gaston, and there could be no merriment at wrongdoing, only labored condemnation. Certainly the censors would never have allowed Lily and Gaston to refer to their thievery as a “business,” with a swipe at American capitalism.
Even pre-Code, the European setting and languages allowed Lubitsch a sexual and moral laxity that would have troubled U.S. audiences if set in America. Within that European setting, Lubitsch worked telling details. The shift from the baroque interior of the hotel in Venice into the slick Art Deco style of Mariette’s house matches the contrast between European traditions and quasi-American capitalism represented by Colet & Cie, between the kind of hereditary riches supposed in “Baron” and “Countess” and the rich-equals-royalty world of Mariette Colet. Lubitsch could comment on the excesses of American “business” without seeming to.
In the same way, Lubitsch constantly uses sexual symbolism à la Freud, notably the bejeweled handbag, symbol for what some American congressmen call “the lady parts.” Check out the last scene in which Gaston stuffs money into a handbag, open in Lily’s lap.
A favorite word for “the Lubitsch touch” is “indirection.” Like a magician, Lubitsch focuses us on one thing, but, if we are as knowing as his heroes are, we should be perceiving something else. Gerald Mast puts it this way: “Lubitsch’s art is one of omission. It is an art of ‘not’—what is not shown, what is not heard, what is not said. It invests most of its screen time in objects . . . wallets . . . handbags . . . and so on. Yet the interest in things is never for the thing itself, but the thing’s relationship to the human being who owns it, uses it, wants it, or wants to get rid of it. The physical object is the concrete expression of human feelings and desires.” Mast goes on: “Lubitsch’s ‘not’ technique also reveals itself in his composition and camera placement; he consistently shows less than he might, implies more than he shows.” As here, in the very dark opening scenes. “When Lubitsch added sound, he also compounded the methods of ‘not’—we listen to a scene we cannot see, or see a scene we cannot hear” (207). Or, here, infer through a language we don’t understand. He challenges us to see through his omissions and indirections. Just as he prizes intelligence in his heroes and heroines, so he prizes intelligence in us.
In his post-Code pictures, Lubitsch was adept at using these techniques to outwit the censors. “You know what he’s saying but you just can’t prove that he’s saying it! ” one complained. In this pre-Code film, he didn’t have to conceal his amorality—but he did anyway. That is his art, and we get “the Lubitsch touch” in its purest, unadulterated (no pun intended!) form. Utterly charming it is—and challenging.