New Year Hangover with The Thin Man

Pre-Code Lubitsch

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“Darling, remember, you are Gaston Monescu. You are a crook. I want you as a crook. I love you as a crook. I worship you as a crook. Steal, swindle, rob. Oh, but don’t become one of those useless, good-for-nothing gigolos.”

What a stunningly erotic line; pleading for not only devotion, but also larceny, both monetary and sexual. And what a perfectly Lubitschian line, layered with meaning, hunger, sincere feeling, ironic humor, and even sadness. “Don’t leave me, but do steal, swindle, rob. And on top of that, stroke, seduce, and ravish me,” robber Lily (Miriam Hopkins) seems to be saying to her live-in lover, gentleman thief Gaston (Herbert Marshall), in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 masterpiece Trouble In Paradise.

Most, possibly all, of the multiple themes of Lily’s romantic entreaty could apply to Lubitsch’s comedies made between 1929 and 1934, most co-scripted by Samson Raphaelson. (Though not his one drama of the period, 1932’s Broken Lullaby.) These movies offer not just a twist, but a twist atop a twist, and a joke atop the joke: the “superjoke,” as Billy Wilder called it. Those themes repeat: the lively, often-painful love triangle, the sexual and romantic jealousy, the thrill of sex, and in this case, the carnal kicks co-mingling with the art of stealing, an act more erotic than gold-digging. (Gold-fleecing is much more penetrating.) And then—important during one of the worst economic times in America’s history—there’s Lily and Gaston’s hard, artful work, something to respect, to take pride in.

Stealing is magical in Trouble In Paradise. Sleight of hand is more titillating than Don Juanery. (Don’t hook, darling: crook.) Prostitution is too easy, too boring—about as boring as marriage could possibly be in this world. Here’s the power and thrill of pre-Code Hollywood, propelled into elegant, inventive, intelligent orbit within the luminous world of Ernst Lubitsch.

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The Motion Picture Production Code was adopted under Will H. Hays in 1930, but not fully enforced until Joseph Breen got his mitts all over it. (“Pre-Breen” is a more appropriate term than “pre-Code,” Thomas Doherty writes in Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, And Insurrection In American Cinema 1930-1934.) Pictures were submitted for review, Trouble In Paradise among them. Lubitsch was told to remove some of the more “scandalous” lines, including “Oh, to hell with it!” But countless movies flaunted the “Don’ts” and "Be-carefuls” the Code warned filmmakers about. Just a handful of the transgressions indulged in films ranging from scrappy Warner Bros. gangster pictures to glossy MGM melodramas: criminals getting away with it, sex before marriage, adultery, drug addiction, drunkenness, mockery of matrimony, and suggestion of nudity. (Check how many times Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell dress and undress in William Wellman’s Night Nurse.)

6a00d83451cb7469e2019b0041b4cd970b-400wiFrom 1929’s innovatively crafted talking musical The Love Parade (Lubitsch’s first sound picture) up to 1934’s Code-rupturing threesome in Design For Living, Lubitsch worked strictly at sophisticated Paramount. (Also released in 1934, The Merry Widow was an MGM picture.) There, he became one of the studio’s top directors, a name audiences remembered just as they would Frank Capra’s—rare for a director at the time. For a brief spell, he was even Paramount’s Head Of Production, which, according to Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman, was possibly related to the director’s quiet turmoil once Breen took over, and Lubitsch needed to “get out of the line of censorship fire and take some time to figure out what to do.” After all, Lubitsch's comedies were about sex, love, joy, and the messy human complications that come from voluptuous adventure. Breen and the Catholic Legion Of Decency held such ardors suspect, a wicked playground for lotharios and trollops.

For Lubitsch, a romantic triangle or adultery wasn’t just the side story, it was often the central plot, making his pre-Breen pictures as gracefully scintillating as William Wellman’s Other Men’s Women or Dorothy Arzner’s Merrily We Go To Hell. According to the Code (as quoted from Olga J. Martin’s Hollywood Movie Commandments, quoted in Doherty’s Pre-Code Hollywood), a love triangle needed “careful handling,” especially if “marriage, the sanctity of the home, and sex morality are not to be imperiled.” Furthermore, adultery was a forbidden subject and “never a fit subject for a comedy.” Lubitsch disagreed: He found it a comedic, musical, elegant, fantastical, oh so real-life.

1932’s One Hour With You concerns both triangles and adultery, and has its own sticky history between George Cukor and Ernst Lubitsch. Originally assigned to direct One Hour With You, Cukor was doing such a frustrating job that the exacting Lubitsch took over the production, according to Eyman: “For the next six weeks, Cukor sat quietly on the set, drawing his salary, confining most of his conversation to expressions of approval after each Lubitsch-directed scene.” The result was a direction credit for Lubitsch, a lawsuit from Cukor, and a compromise with the added credit, “Assisted by George Cukor.” As Eyman wrote, “Lubitsch pictures could not be mass-produced.”

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Despite the picture’s difficult production, it’s a fascinating, joyfully randy work about, yes, cheating. Colette (Jeanette MacDonald) is married to impish Andre (Maurice Chevalier), who can’t help but succumb to her horndog best friend Mitzi (Genevieve Tobin). He even sings his dilemma directly to the audience, praising his wife’s virtues while gleefully returning to the potential mistress with, “Ohhhh! That Mitzi!” When the deed is done, Andre again breaks the fourth wall and asks, in song, “What Would You Do?” inquiring of men—and, since this is Lubitsch, women, who aren’t exempt from the equation—how they would handle such a pickle: “Do you think you could resist her? Do you think you would have kissed her? Would you treat her like your sister? Come on, be honest, mister!”

Never mind that that the song explains and excuses his indiscretion; it’s so damn charming that viewers feel mischievously complicit with Andre. (I wonder how many couples gave each other the side-eye during his ode to adultery, or even a jab in the ribs.) Chevalier’s considerable Gallic delights help him get away with such things, but even us non-Chevaliers, we’re all human, we all transgress. Be honest. Grow up. Get over it.

And yet Lubitsch isn’t merely flip here; he understands the pain Andre and his Mitzi have caused the distraught Colette. Even Colette’s lovesick revenge kiss with poor Charles Ruggles (which becomes another amusing Lubitsch twist on deception) is tinged with sadness. She can’t even cheat properly! And Ruggles, well, he doesn’t have a chance next to that dashing so-and-so Chevalier. Pain presents itself in all Lubitsch’s comedies, with some characters standing on the precipice of tragedy.

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In 1931’s The Smiling Lieutenant, Chevalier’s Niki is forced to marry a besotted princess (Miriam Hopkins) after she mistakenly accepts his smile and wink, when in fact, he’s directing the amour to his girlfriend, beer-drinking band leader Franzi (Claudette Colbert). Stuck in an unhappy marriage with the ridiculously prim, innocent Princess Anna, Niki refuses to sleep with her, leaving her to play a sad game of checkers on the marriage bed with her blowhard father, King Adolf (a wonderful George Barbier), which is simultaneously hilarious and poignant. (The father-daughter relationship becomes increasingly touching as the movie progresses.) Franzi has tearfully left Niki with a garter to remember her by, but she later becomes his mistress, trysting with her lover while his wife putters around the palace, unfulfilled and heartbroken. This is a comedy musical?

Lubitsch goes even further. Once Anna discovers the affair, she summons Franzi to the palace. (In a kinky touch, Niki has been using the police to arrest Franzi and deliver her to their rendezvous spots.) The confrontation is surprising—both women flop on the bed to blubber their eyes out. Franzi realizes Anna is no enemy and takes pity on the square, surprisingly sweet princess, teaching her how to play a jazzy piano, wear silky négligées (to the tune of “Jazz Up Your Lingerie”), and let down her prissy, pinned-back hair. The mistress instructs the wife how to properly make love to the man the mistress loves. Well, they both love him, but someone has to get their man. The princess reigns (although she’s much less self-sufficient than Jeanette MacDonald’s Queen Louise in The Love Parade, or Countess Helene Mara in Monte Carlo), and Lubitsch allows sacrificial Franzi a mournful exit with the self-defeated, undeserved line, “Girls who start with breakfast don’t usually stay for supper.”

Perhaps this is a flawed, too-easy resolution to the aching triangle, but it’s also an ironic twist. It’s the aforementioned “superjoke.” With The Smiling Lieutenant, Wilder perceived the superjoke as “the wrong girl gets the man.” Some joke. And yet it works, leaving viewers with the shot of Colbert dejectedly waving from behind her back so Niki and Anna can dig into their final scenes of jazzed- and juiced-up foreplay, and finally, a whole lot of sex. Poor Franzi. It was fun while it lasted.

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In Trouble In Paradise, the short but memorable affair is not only fun—if that is the right word for a thing so elegant—it could have been marvelous, Gaston says. “Divine,” agrees Mme. Colet. But what can transform such smooth, dreamy sophistication into something clumpy and common? The cops. And so Mme. Colet, knowing Gaston intended to rob her but has fallen in love with her, watches him flee into the night with his other lover. She’s understanding enough to allow him to nab her pearls as a parting gift for Lily, and like Franzi in The Smiling Lieutenant, she’s left alone. Such is life. Gaston and Lily ride away in a cab, culminating their sex-as-stealing one-upsmanship, with Gaston grabbing Mme. Colet’s stealthily snatched wad and stuffing it into Lily’s purse. That purse sits on her lap, or, if one wants to be Freudian about it, between her legs.

And so the crooks get away with it. Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte and James Cagney’s Tom Powers would have been impressed, had they lived. Even they have to pay for their crimes in pre-Code films—but what spectacular endings those two were granted. Gaston and Lily aren’t gangsters or killers; they’re aristocrats incognito (the reverse of Jack Buchanan’s sweet incognito hairdresser in Lubitsch’s Monte Carlo, also released in 1931.) But they do indeed break that bendable code by making lawlessness so sumptuously attractive that pickpocketing is not only exceptionally suave, but synonymous with sex.

And yet within this dreamscape so graceful that it feels musical, with its fluid panning shots, meaningful use of clocks, knowing shadows on beds, superbly climbed staircases and perfectly timed edits, is a waft of Depression-era actuality. Gaston gently complains, “You have to be in the Social Register to keep out of jail. But when a man starts at the bottom and works his way up, a self-made crook, then you say, ‘Call the police! Put him behind bars! Lock him up!’” Reading that, not with Herbert Marshall’s exquisite cadence in mind, and instead with James Cagney’s rat-a-tat pugnacity—well, the two men could have shared a drink together. Marshall may have seen too sophisticated, too elitist for Cagney, but he wasn’t a snob. And between the two of them, they had the streets and boudoirs covered. And even better in Lubitsch-land, in which a bit part is often allowed a big moment, they could have invited the fellow who contributes to Trouble In Paradise’s famous opening shot, the garbage-man gondolier.

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The love triangle is nearly solved in Lubitsch’s most liberal and, to many, still-shocking pre-Code film: 1933’s extraordinary Design For Living, adapted from Noël Coward’s play and co-scripted by Ben Hecht. It features Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March, and Gary Cooper as three Americans living in Paris. Quickly, as people this attractive and likable so easily do, they fall for one another. All of them. Hopkins’ Gilda makes love to both George (Cooper) and Tom (March), but how can that continue? And what to do? Gilda the proto-feminist declares her conundrum: “A thing happened to me that usually happens to men. You see, a man can meet two, three, or even four women and fall in love with all of them, and then by a process of interesting elimination, he’s able to decide which one he prefers. But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork if she wants to be considered nice. Oh, it’s quite all right for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out.” Well, which hat will she choose? She makes it easier. “Both,” she answers.

The triangular remedy is that they’ll live together under one roof, in supposed platonic bliss. All three shake on it, with the provocative decree: “No sex. A gentleman’s agreement.” No sex? In Lubitsch? Well, that will make for some especially thick sexual tension, and an impossible utopia. When Tom leaves for London, lovelorn Gilda and George inch closer and closer with intensely palpable sexual yearning. Thankfully, Gilda tears right through it: “It’s true we had a gentleman’s agreement, but unfortunately, I am no gentleman.”

But she does have a heart, and eventually, she can’t contribute to the bust-up of these two best friends. Entering complacent safety by marrying dreary Mr. Sensible, Edward Everett Horton’s Max Plunkett, she abandons her bohemian life. In a move that would barely make it into a comedy today, Tom and George track down Gilda and rescue her from marital suffocation. And that’s it: She leaves her husband for not one, but for two men. She may as well have given what Charles Laughton delivers at the finale of “The Clerk” (1932), Lubitsch’s contribution to the omnibus film If I Had A Million– a raspberry.

And as in the end of Trouble In Paradise, they flee in a cab, only this triangle remains intact, and facing an uncertain, doubtlessly drama-filled future. How thrillingly radical, heartfelt, precarious, and sexy this all is. And the production code? You can practically hear it smashing like a mirror dropped on a marble floor.

No other Lubitsch pre-Code film could match the audacity of Design For Living, until recently considered flawed or even minor Lubitsch. A disappointment upon release, Design For Living was deemed a poor adaptation of Coward’s play, and Cooper (who is terrific) too rough and unrefined. Over time, though, the picture has collected fervent defenders and, in 2011, a lovingly issued Criterion edition (for which I wrote the essay).

Smooth Chevalier returned to Lubitsch with 1934’s The Merry Widow, the director’s most opulent, effervescent musical. It’s also darker and more reflective, with an intriguingly somber tone threaded through its merriment. Though the picture received mixed reviews, and wasn’t an enormous American hit (it did better in Europe), the New York Times effused, “It is a good show in the excellent Lubitsch manner, heady as the foam on champagne, fragile as mist and as delicately gay as a good-natured censor will permit.”

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Well, the censors didn’t permit about three minutes of it, with numerous cuts to deflect from the fact that Chevalier’s playpen was indeed a whorehouse. But viewers knew, and know, what it is, and they know what Chevalier’s Captain Danilo is doing there with his “Girls! Girls! Girls!” (This isn’t a triangle, but an orgy.) He does, however, fall for one girl—Jeanette MacDonald’s Madame Sonia—and goes so far as to romantically proclaim a promise of marriage at the end the picture. And it is romantic. Was Joseph Breen, now chief of the Production Code Administration, swayed by that French rouge? Was he wooed?

The Merry Widow marked the last Chevalier/MacDonald collaboration, and a new era for Lubitsch. Masterpieces were ahead (NinotchkaThe Shop Around The CornerTo Be Or Not To Be), all with that endlessly mentioned Lubitsch touch, but his pre-Code pictures are rebellious wonders. These movies weren’t getting away with murder, no, but their flesh-and-blood raciness, their erotic, elegant triangles were enough to make Breen clutch his killjoy pearls.  May we, courtesy of Gaston, offer Mme. Colet’s?

 

Originally published at The Dissolve

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