If you want to steal from wealthy people, you have to get close to wealthy people. And what’s the best way to get close to wealthy people? Pretend to be a fellow wealthy person! That’s just what Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) does when he goes to Venice. While pretending to be a Baron, he steals from plenty of prominent guests, including a countess named Lily (Miriam Hopkins). Only Lily isn’t really a countess, she’s also a thief so she recognizes what Gaston is really there for. He had her pegged, too, after she swiped his wallet. The two of them are so impressed with each other’s thieving skills that they fall madly in love with each other on the spot.
Lily and Gaston are quite the crooks and they steal their way across Europe. While in Paris, they steal a diamond-studded handbag belonging to Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), the owner of a very famous perfume company. But when Mariette puts out an ad offering a 20,000 Franc reward for the bag’s return, they realize they’d make more by turning it in than by selling it and Gaston goes to turn it in. But when Gaston gets there and realizes that Mariette is awfully careless with her money, he convinces her to hire him as her secretary, planning to embezzle money from her company. The plan works and Lily even gets hired on as Gaston’s assistant. The only thing that doesn’t go according to plan is that Gaston and Mariette fall in love with each other.
Eventually, Mariette starts bringing Gaston along with her to social gatherings, but some of Mariette’s wealthy friends recognize Gaston. Plus people in the company are starting to suspect that Gaston has been stealing money for them. Even though her friends warn her about him, Mariette doesn’t want to give up on Gaston. Meanwhile, Gaston and Lily are planning to skip town, but Gaston is torn between staying with Mariette or leaving with Lily. The last thing they had planned to steal was 100,000 Francs from her safe, but before they leave, Gaston decides to come clean to Mariette about who he is and what he was really there to do. Lily interrupts his confession to announce that she is the one who has stolen the 100,000 Francs and that Mariette is welcome to have Gaston for that price and leaves Gaston to decide who he wants to be with.
I positively adore Trouble in Paradise. It’s sharp, witty, got plenty of lavish sets, and a top-notch cast. There’s no going wrong with Miriam Hopkins in an Ernst Lubitsch comedy, but when you add in Kay Francis and Herbert Marshall, plus Charlie Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton in some supporting roles, you’ve got cinematic gold. I just love everything about it. Trouble in Paradise is total pre-code and pure Ernst Lubitsch.
Helen Faraday (Marlene Dietrich) is a former showgirl married to chemist Ned (Herbert Marshall) and mother to Johnny (Dickie Moore). She gave up her stage career to become a wife and mother, but when Ned gets Radium poisoning and needs to go to Germany for treatment, Helen goes back to performing to get the money. After her first performance, she meets the young and wealthy Nick Townsend (Cary Grant). He’s quite smitten with her and she uses him to get all the money she needs to pay for her husband’s treatment. While Ned is in Germany, Helen carries on her affair with Nick. The two of them have a swell time living in luxury, but since Helen wasn’t living in her apartment during this time, she misses a telegram from Ned saying he’d be returning two weeks earlier than expected. Of course, Ned is absolutely livid and Helen takes Johnny and leaves before Ned can take Johnny from her. Ned reports them as missing and the two of them travel from town to town, Helen taking any job she can get. Sometimes she can get a job in a nightclub, sometimes she works on a farm, but eventually, she has to turn to prostitution.
When the law finally catches up with her, she hands Johnny over to Ned. Without Johnny around, Helen hits rock bottom and is stuck living in a flophouse. But eventually, she manages to pull herself up and go over to Paris. Under the name Helen Jones, she becomes a nightclub sensation and even runs into Nick again. They become engaged, but Nick realizes the only thing that truly makes Helen happy is Johnny. Nick arranges for Helen to see Johnny one more time. But when Ned sees Helen with Johnny again, it makes him question whether or not he wants her to stay.
Blonde Venus is one of my favorite Marlene Dietrich movies, I rank it right up there with The Blue Angel and Witness for the Prosecution. The story might not be perfect, but I like it anyway. For example, I don’t really understand why she carries on an affair with Nick. Does she not want to be alone? Does she want the lifestyle he can offer? I’m not really sure. This is one of her famous collaborations with director Josef von Sternberg, but I think this one is rather different from his other collaborations with her. Usually, von Sternberg bent over backwards to make Dietrich’s character into the most outrageously glamorous person you’ll ever see. Think of the lavish costumes and sets of The Scarlett Empress and Shanghai Lily’s extravagant wardrobe in Shanghai Express. But here, we don’t see that quite as much. Oh sure, Helen has some glamorous stage costumes and some scenes where she wears some nice things Nick has clearly paid for. But we also see her giving Johnny a bath and wearing tattered dresses, things Shanghai Lily wouldn’t be caught dead wearing.
I’m quite fond of Dietrich’s performance here because even though we get to see the glamorous side of Dietrich that we know quite well, but I also liked getting to see Dietrich the mother. Dickie Moore was just adorable and I really enjoyed his scenes with Marlene. Blonde Venus came very early in Cary Grant’s career, and even though there are hints at just how suave and charming he could be, he hadn’t quite found his niche yet. And it didn’t help that, according to Cary, von Sternberg didn’t really direct him all that much. I would have really liked to see Cary and Marlene do another movie together after Cary had become a more developed actor. There was definitely some chemistry there, I think they could have done something great.
When Lord Philip Rexford (Herbert Marshall) and Mary (Norma Shearer), a party girl socialite, are invited to a costume party and are given a couple of ridiculous costumes to wear, it turns out to be a blessing in disguise. Before the party, the two of them meet and, upon seeing how goofy their costumes are, they decide to skip the party, ditch the costumes, and spend the evening together dressed as normal people. That night leads to a whirlwind romance and an impulsive marriage. Five years later, they are still happily married with a daughter and living in England and Mary’s wilder days seem safely behind her. But when Philip has to take a trip alone, Mary quickly becomes lonely and accepts his Aunt Hetty’s invitation to take a trip to Cannes. The two of them have a swell time, but things start to get out of hand when Mary finds out Tommie Trent (Robert Montgomery) is staying in the same hotel. Tommie has quite a reputation of his own and had a thing for Mary in the past. Unfortunately, Tommie’s hard-living lifestyle has caught up with him and left him nearly suicidal. But when Mary shows up at his hotel room, everything brightens up for him. She brings him down to the party, the two of them get drunk, and have a lot of fun together. But when Tommie gets carried away and kisses Mary, Mary goes back to her room instead of being unfaithful. Tommie tries to follow her back to her hotel room by climbing onto her balcony, but ends up taking a serious fall.
When Mary finds out what happened, she goes to see him in the hospital. But when she is photographed kissing him very innocently, her marriage is torn apart by scandal. Mary swears up and down that nothing happened, but given her past, he won’t believe her. When Tommie was well enough, she had him come and tell the whole story to Philip, but that only makes things worse. Eventually, Philip decides he wants a divorce and Mary begins a real relationship with Tommie. But then Philip does some investigating and finds out Mary was telling the truth the whole time and asks her to come see him. Still in love with him, she gladly goes, but Tommie decides to see Philip, too, to tell him how he feels about Mary.
Riptide was Norma Shearer’s final pre-code and compared to some of her other pre-codes, the story feels relatively tame. It’s not as obviously scandalous as The Divorcee and it’s not like her character is challenging conventional values such as marriage like in Strangers May Kiss. But it still definitely has its pre-code moments. It’s got a former wild party girl trying to put her past behind her, a married woman cavorting with a former lover, and when the divorce papers are drawn up, she even willingly gives up custody of her daughter. Norma’s performance here is one of my favorites out of all her pre-codes. When her character was supposed to be fun, boy was she bubbly, fun, and free. She was quite intoxicating to watch. I also like the fact that she closed the pre-code chapter of her career with her best co-star of that era, Robert Montgomery. I think it’s interesting that the pre-code era of Norma’s career really began and ended with movies both dealing with troubled marriages that also starred Robert Montgomery. Riptide makes for a nice bookend to that era of Norma’s career. And if for no other reason, it’s worth seeing just for Norma’s entrance dressed in her ridiculous insect costume. Best Norma Shearer entrance ever!
Leslie Crosbie (Jeanne Eagels) is married to Robert (Reginald Owen), a rubber plantation in Malaya. When Robert leaves for a night, Leslie sends a letter to her lover Geoffrey Hammond (Herbert Marshall), asking him to come see her. When he gets the letter, Geoffrey is with his new mistress Li-Ti (Lady Tsen Mei). At first they make fun of Leslie, but Geoffrey decides to go see her to break things off with her. But Leslie isn’t too happy about him ending things with her so she grabs a gun and shoots him repeatedly. She tells police that she killed him in self-defense and she sticks to that story until her lawyer finds out that Li-Ti has the letter she sent to Geoffrey the night he was killed. Leslie agrees that they should buy the letter from her and the court clears her of all charges. But then the lawyer goes to Robert to get reimbursed for buying the letter and Robert finds out the truth.
This version of The Letter is significantly different from the 1940 Bette Davis version. First of all, the Bette Davis version is more ambiguous. Her version opens with Leslie shooting Geoffrey, but we don’t actually see what happened before then. We don’t know for sure if Leslie is telling the truth or not until the movie gets going. But in the 1929 version, we actually get to see Leslie interact with Geoffrey and the events leading up to Geoffrey’s death. And when Leslie goes to pay Li-Ti for the letter, Li-Ti truly revels in making Leslie grovel first. Gale Sondergaard made Bette Davis work for that letter a little bit, but Li-Ti milked it for all she could. She loved showing some children how she can have a wealthy white woman on her knees before her. Perhaps the most pre-code element of this version is that Leslie really gets away with murder. When the production codes were enforced, the sinners always had to pay for what they did. In the Bette Davis version, she gets off in the eyes of the law, but in the end, Mrs. Hammond makes sure Leslie gets what’s coming to her. But in the pre-code version, Leslie is not only cleared in court, she absolutely refuses to be punished in any way by anybody else. Leslie and her husband had originally planned to leave the country as soon as the trial was over. But then her husband found out about the letter and instead of leaving, he decides to make her stay there as a punishment. That’s when she unrepentantly declares, “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!” He may be trying to punish her by making her stuck with him, but she punishes him right back because not only is he stuck with her, he’s stuck with someone who still loves another man. I also love how Herbert Marshall went from playing Geoffrey in the 1929 version to playing Robert in the 1940 version.
The 1929 version of The Letter desperately needs to be more available. I had to download it from a torrent because it’s not available on VHS or DVD and I don’t recall ever seeing it on TCM. The copy I watched was in rather poor quality, but I could clearly see that it’s a very good little movie. It packs a lot into an hour and Jeanne Eagels set a high standard for Bette Davis to live up to, especially in the final scene. A lot of the early talkies haven’t held up very well over time, but time has actually been rather kind to The Letter. The sound quality may be primitive, but the dialogue itself holds up better than a lot of other early talkies. I’d really love to see a good quality version of it someday. A real gem that deserves to be seen.