Ernst Lubitsch and the Modern Romance

In honor of Valentine’s Day weekend, two offbeat romantic comedies are being shown as part of our “Hollywood Modern” film series at the AFI Silver.  Both films, Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Design for Living (1933) are classic Ernst Lubitsch fare–witty and sophisticated, but also quite unconventional .  Both films take place abroad, a trick that may have helped make their risqué storylines more palatable to American moviegoers. Both films also benefit from the design mastery of Hans Dreier, Supervising Art Director for Paramount from 1931 to 1950.

TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932, Paramount)

Trouble in Paradise concerns the love triangle that forms when two jewel thieves (Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins) target a free-spirited French perfumier (Kay Francis). Early scenes with Gaston (Marshall) and Lily (Hopkins) establish them as modern-day thieves within the dark and very old-world environment of Venice.

Dinner in Venice - stone, marble and patterned wallpaper, TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932, Paramount)

They soon arrive in Paris and we are introduced to the Colet Perfume Co. factory (represented by a great miniature model) and its owner, Mariette (Kay Francis).

Colet Perfum Co. Factory, TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932, Paramount)

Mariette on curved staircase with chrome railing, modernist chandelier and indoor planters, TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932, Paramount)

According to Kristina Wilson (Livable Modernism, p. 113-114), the modernist interiors of Mariette’s home “not only signified [her] nonconformist independence…but also literally aided and abetted [her] full self-actualization.” In Trouble in Paradise – as with Female, released the same year – the modernist interiors are a direct reflection on the personality of a strong-minded, unconventional businesswoman. The furnishings and accessories included are not just fashionable set dressings, but provide powerful, unspoken, cues to the audience about her character and the film’s narrative possibilities.

Gaston and Mariette with built-in furniture and plate glass windows, TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932, Paramount)

Home office with curved wall and Bakelite flooring, TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932, Paramount)

Mixing styles - Parisian painting, floating shelf and chrome/glass side table, TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932, Paramount)

Mariette's foyer, with fish-eye mirror and geometric inlaid flooring, TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932, Paramount)

The geometric floor treatment, and angular table seen in Mariette’s foyer remind me of the general proportion and decorative touches seen in the Florida Tropical House at A Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, with interiors by James S. Kuhne and Percival Goodman (see link above for detailed information about the home’s design and decoration) — seen here in fantastic color.

Florida Tropical Home, A Century of Progress Exposition, Chicago, 1933. Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

To my eye, the balcony in Trouble in Paradise also shares some slight similarities to the set created for the January 1933 stage production of Noel Coward’s Design for Livinga play that soon after become yet another Lubitsch screen gem.  More on that film to come…

Entryway balcony, TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932, Paramount)

Design for Living. Vandamn Studio. Billy Rose Theatre Collection, New York Public Library. Image id: ps_the_cd125_1906

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