(director: Ernst Lubitsch; screenwriters: from the play The Honest Finder by Aladar Laszlo/Grover Jones/Samson Raphaelson; cinematographer: Victor Milner; music: W. Franke Harling; cast: Miriam Hopkins (Lily Vautier), Herbert Marshall (Gaston Monescu/LaValle), Kay Francis (Mariette Colet), Charlie Ruggles (The Major), Edward Everett Horton (Francois Filiba), C. Aubrey Smith (Adolph Giron); Runtime: 83; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Ernst Lubitsch; Paramount; 1932)

“The lighthearted Depression-era comedy clearly has the famed Lubitsch touch.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Ernst Lubitsch’s (“Heaven Can Wait”/”To Be or Not to Be”) personal favorite of all his films is a gem. The lighthearted Depression-era comedy clearly has the famed Lubitsch touch. The marvelous screenplay is by Grover Jones and his longtime collaborator Samson Raphaelson (who actually wrote the entire script), who base it on the Hungarian play The Honest Finder, by Aladar Laszlo. The engaging gossamer of a story is about two sophisticated jewel thieves, Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) and Lily Vautier (Miriam Hopkins), posing as aristocrats who meet in Venice and team up as both lovers and thieves, and after finding success as pickpockets travel together to Paris. It was filmed during the pre-Hays Code, which is the reason they get away with so many sexual things. The Hays Code did not begin until 1934. The opening scene is a real hoot, as there’s a Venetian gondolier lip-synching Caruso singing something about Trouble in Paradise on his gondola hauling a full load of garbage. That sets the musically inspired comical mood for the enchanting tale to follow that covers the usual vices over sex and money, but with a total indifference to the mores of the day.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

In Paris, the thieves target the wealthy young listless recent widow of France’s largest perfume manufacturer, Mariette Colet (Kay Francis). While Mariette’s at the opera with one of her stiff suitors known as the Major (Charlie Ruggles), her other even stiffer suitor Francois Filiba (Edward Everett Horton) waits for her in the lobby after bickering with his rival. In the meantime Gaston steals Mariette’s diamond-studded purse and then posing as Monsieur LuValle, a member of the “nouveau poor,” he returns it only when she offers a 20,000 franc reward. Gaston then charms her into hiring him as her secretary. When Gaston observes that Mariette keeps 100,000 francs in her house safe, he makes plans to steal it. Lily works as Gaston’s assistant under the alias of Mlle. Votier, and though jealous of the attention the widow gives Gaston nevertheless gains her confidence. In due time Gaston meets Filiba, who recognizes him as the one who robbed him in Venice, and also meets Monsieur Giron (C. Aubrey Smith), the chairman of the board at Colet’s perfume firm, who accuses Gaston of pinching money from the firm but is overruled when the widow boss defends her secretary. The thieves feel things closing in on them, so they move up their target date to rob the widow and flee Paris. But before pulling off the heist Gaston makes plans to meet the widow again that night to consummate their relationship. This impels the jealous Lily to steal the valuables in the safe. When the widow returns from an evening out, Gaston informs her that Giron is an embezzler who has been robbing her for years and then confesses to being the famous bank robber Monescu and to stealing the 100,000 francs. He then tells her he still loves her. But Lily returns and confesses it was she who took the money, then gives Mariette permission to sleep with Gaston if she allows her to keep the 100,000 francs. Gaston decides it would be better to stay with Lily and says good-bye to Mariette, who just sighs and says “it could have been divine.” In a generous gesture, Mariette agrees to let Gaston take the pearl necklace that Lily wanted. In the departing cab, Lily will reveal she not only has the necklace, but the money and diamond-studded purse. The unrepentant couple kiss, as they head for their next paradise.

This amoral, mistaken identity comedy sparkles with a poignant sense of class consciousness, witty dialogue, a graceful style, stunning worldly art deco sets (thanks to Hans Dreier, head of the Paramount art department) and charming sexual innuendos. It was made for the 1930s to target the idle rich as buffoonish when vulnerable to their vanities, but stands the test of time as it’s still a scream today.