Herbert Marshall

Pre-Code Essentials: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Trouble in Paradise


When pickpocket Lily (Miriam Hopkins) meets notorious thief Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall), it’s love at first heist. They meet in Venice, where they are each posing as nobility in order to rob rich people. After they take turns robbing each other blind, Lily and Gaston fall madly in love and become partners in crime. As they steal their way to Paris, they set their sights on robbing perfumer Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis). While at the opera one night, Gaston steals an extremely valuable purse Colet had been carrying and when she offers a reward for its return, Lily and Gaston decide they’d get more money by returning it.

As Gaston goes to return the purse and collect the reward, he pretends to be Gaston Lavalle and charms his way into becoming Colet’s personal secretary so he can have easy access to her money. Lily naturally becomes Gaston’s assistant and isn’t impressed when she realizes there’s a romantic spark between Gaston and Colet. Even though Colet doesn’t believe in marriage and has turned down many other suitors, she can’t resist Gaston. But it isn’t long before some of Colet’s colleagues begin to realize that here new secretary looks awfully familiar…

My Thoughts

Lubitsch. Hopkins. Francis. Can you ask for any better ingredients for a delightful pre-code comedy? Trouble in Paradise is the cinematic equivalent of drinking a glass of champagne. It’s sharp, witty, light, and oh so sophisticated. This is definitely one of the all-time great comedies; it’s always a pleasure to revisit this one.

1932 was truly the year for Kay Francis to make witty movies where her character falls in love with thieves. This was the same year she made Jewel Robbery with William Powell, where her character falls madly in love with the thief who comes to rob the jewelry store she’s shopping in.

The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

As Lily and Gaston have dinner together in Venice and essentially seduce each other by robbing each other, particularly when he reveals he’s stolen the garter right off her leg.

Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

So far this month, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about movies where you end up rooting for the criminals, even though censors didn’t want moviegoers to be rooting for the criminals. Trouble in Paradise may very well be one of the ultimate examples of that. Lily and Gaston aren’t even thieves who are sorry for what they do or steal out of desperation, they steal for the sheer pleasure of it. But Trouble in Paradise‘s writing is so incredibly witty and the premise is presented in such an outrageous way, it’s easy to want to go along for the ride. The love triangle aspect of the plot was also pretty racy by 1932’s standards.

Pre-Code Essentials: Blonde Venus (1932)

 Blonde Venus Marlene Dietrich Cary Grant


Helen Faraday (Marlene Dietrich) gives up being a showgirl to marry American scientist Ned (Herbert Marshall) and become a housewife and mother to their son Johnny (Dickie Moore). But when Ned comes down with radiation poisoning and needs to get treatment in Germany, she goes back to the stage to get the money they need. She performs under the name “The Blonde Venus” and during her first night as a performer, she gets the attention of millionaire Nick Townsend (Cary Grant), who comes backstage to see her. He gives Helen the money for Ned’s treatment and she keeps Ned in the dark about how she got the money.  While Ned is away, Nick continues to woo Helen.

When Ned returns earlier than expected from Germany, Helen is off gallivanting with Nick, but it doesn’t take long for Ned to figure out what’s been going on. He wants Helen out of his life and threatens to take her to court to get custody of Johnny. She loves Johnny too much to let that happen, so she grabs him and goes on the run. She makes her way from town to town, resorting to prostitution to get by, with the police hot on her trail all along the way. Eventually, Helen turns herself in and lets Johnny go back to Ned. A

fter sinking to an even lower depth, Helen pulls herself up and becomes a hugely successful nightclub performer. Her new career reunites her with Nick and it isn’t long before they’re engaged. But Nick knows how much Helen misses Johnny and he wants Helen to be able to see her son again, even if it means reuniting her with Ned.

My Thoughts

Blonde Venus is one of my favorite Marlene Dietrich movies and my favorite of the Dietrich/Josef von Sternberg collaborations. I love how Dietrich gets to be the impeccably glamorous character we all know as, but as much as I love glamorous Dietrich, I also love seeing her in her drab housewife clothes. Dickie Moore was an adorable addition to the movie and I’m always up for seeing Cary Grant. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly entertaining.

The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

The movie opens with women swimming in the nude.

Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Yesterday, I talked a bit about why Midnight Mary was a great example of a “fallen woman” type of movie and Blonde Venus is another excellent fallen woman tale. But unlike Mary from Midnight Mary, who is consistently a sympathetic and likable character, Helen isn’t nearly as innocent. She’s a married woman who starts spending all her time cavorting with a wealthy playboy while her husband is away getting medical treatment. But like Mary, Helen also ends up with an optimistic ending and Helen is the type of character a lot of censors didn’t want to have a happy ending.

Murder! (1930)

Murder! 1930When a young actress Edna Druce is found dead in her flat, all circumstantial evidence points to her friend/rival Diana Baring (Norah Baring) being the culprit. Diana has absolutely no memory of what happened, but most of the jury at the trial agrees that she is guilty. The lone objector, Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall), believes she is innocent, but eventually submits to pressure to vote that she is guilty. Diana is sentenced to be hanged, making Menier feel riddled with guilt.

Determined to save Diana from death, he starts doing a little investigation of his own. Not only does he feel guilty for voting her guilty, but he has another reason to want to save her –Menier is an established stage actor and had suggested Diana take the job in the theater troupe with the murder victim as a way to gain experience. So if it weren’t for him, she wouldn’t have ended up in this mess at all. After talking to Diana for a while, he finds out there was another man in the flat that night, but she won’t say who. Using his theatre connections, Menier concocts a way to get to find the real killer.

Murder! is probably one of the least interesting Alfred Hitchcock movies I’ve ever seen. Although the story sounded interesting on the surface, it just didn’t hold my interest very well in action. It has a few moments of cleverness and I thought the climax was good. On the whole though, this just did absolutely nothing for me. Dull, dull, dull.

The Letter (1940) vs. The Letter (1929)

The Letter Jeanne Eagels Bette Davis

If I ever want to talk about the differences between the pre-code era and the Hays Code era of filmmaking, I can’t think of a better example to use than The Letter.  The Letter was originally a stage play by Somerset Maugham and was adapted as a film for the first time in 1929 with Jeanne Eagels starring as Leslie Crosbie. The Letter returned to the silver screen in 1940 with the incomparable Bette Davis having her turn as Leslie. So we have two movies based on the exact same source material, but because of the production codes that were in place for the 1940 version, the movies are incredibly different.

One of the key differences is that in the 1940 version, it takes the viewer time to find out whether or not Leslie is telling the truth.  The movie opens with Leslie shooting Mr. Hammond, but we don’t see what led up to it and the truth doesn’t come out until later.  But in the 1929 version, we see everything that led to Hammond’s death. We see Leslie writing the letter inviting Hammond to come over and we see what happens when he tries to end his relationship with Leslie. (We also see that Mr. Hammond is living with a woman who isn’t his wife, which would have been strictly verboten by the Hays Code. Hammond was married in the 1940 version.) So while audiences might have been able to sympathize with Bette Davis’ Leslie Crosbie for at least part of the movie, there’s nothing sympathetic about Jeanne Eagles’ Leslie Crosbie. In the 1929 version, we watch Leslie kill a man in cold blood, lie through her teeth about it, and get away with it.

In fact, the Leslie Crosbie played by Jeanne Eagels is a perfect representation of so many things the Hays Code abhorred — a completely unrepentant sinner who literally gets away with murder. When Jeanne delivers the famous line, “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed,” it is as an act of defiance in response to her response to her husband trying to punish her. But when it was Bette’s turn to deliver the same line, she couldn’t get away with saying it the same way. Not only is there nothing defiant about it, Mrs. Hammond makes sure Leslie pays for what she’s done.

It’s also worth noting that in the 1929 version of The Letter, it’s much more apparent that Leslie’s hatred of Li-Ti, Hammond’s mistress, is very racially motivated. As if it weren’t enough that Hammond had moved on, Leslie can’t stand that he moved on with a Chinese woman. Li-Ti realizes this and has a little fun with it by doing everything she can to make Leslie very uncomfortable when she comes to buy the letter. While Li-Ti takes the opportunity to humiliate Leslie in front of as many people as she can during that scene, the 1940 version of this scene plays out with a lot  more tension and drama and with fewer witnesses.

But despite the differences between the two versions of The Letter, there is one very notable similarity — Herbert Marshall.  In the 1929 version of The Letter, Herbert Marshall played the ill-fated Hammond. In the 1940 version, he played Robert, Leslie’s husband.

Trouble In Paradise (1932)

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.

Blonde Venus (1931)

Blond Venus 1931 Marlene Dietrich

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.

Riptide (1934)

Riptide 1934 Norma Shearer

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!

The Letter (1929)

The Letter 1929 Jeanne Eagels

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.