A man lies unconscious in his room in this swanky Venice hotel room as two ladies of the night knock on his door to no avail. Nobody has seen the other man escape over the balcony, and as the victim, François Filiba (Edward Everett Horton) comes around he's in no state to identify him. He chatters away to the excitable Italian staff as upstairs in a nearby room to his a suave character calling himself Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) is setting about his dinner, after specific instructions to the waiter for things to be exactly right. But once the waiter leaves, a woman bursts in claiming to be a Countess who has been accosted on the way here: she is actually the poor thief and con artist Lily (Miriam Hopkins), which is a coincidence because Gaston is one too...
Director Ernst Lubitsch named Trouble in Paradise as his favourite of all his work and many of his fans would agree, as it encapsulated his style of romantic comedy, all that sophistication and allusion that flattered the captivated audience they were seeing more than the non-aficionados were as far as the innuendo and subtleties went. This was the tale of two thieves who appear to be made for each other - they practically fall into one another's arms the second they realise their shared, dishonest profession, and we are in no doubt they are at it like knives the whole time they are preparing for the main course of the movie which involves a complicated confidence trick on perfume millionaire Mariette Colet, played by Kay Fwan - sorry, Kay Francis.
In contrast to the two criminals, she has so much money she doesn't know what to do with it, so you could imagine the Depression-era audiences were not exactly on her side when the plan commences. All Gaston has to do is implement his immense charm as a supposed gentleman and persuade Mariette that he knows the best way to arrange her diary, and he does, before long acting as her private secretary with Lily acting as his private secretary (Lily doesn't have one of her own, however). As this goes on the considerably less well-to-do lady thief grows ever more jealous that her man has been dazzled by his new boss's lifestyle, so much so that he'd give up life flitting from con to con with Lily to stay with Mariette, who has undeniable charms of her own.
Therefore a three-way romance develops, one which saw this film disappear for decades when the censorious Production Code was introduced just over a year after its release. The sexual situations, while nothing to frighten anybody these days, were seen as rather too much for the public to take which seems ridiculous now: there's a considerable romantic charge to the two relationships Lubitsch depicts, but the dialogue can come across as rather mannered in this era of more direct communication, which not only is a source of regret to plenty of this film's fans, but also why it has endured as an example of the sort of movie they really don't make anymore. It may be a comedy, but there was a sincerity to it to ensure everyone leaves the story sadder and wiser.
It's plain to see that Gaston would be ideal for both women in his life as he can move between the classes while remaining outwardly a man of means and urbanity. That class element is important, especially in this decade, as most of those watching this in the cinema were desperately wanting for income, so some may observe it was curious they flocked to movies featuring characters who were blessed with far more money than they could ever dream of. That was the key: the dreams, that one day they could achieve their aspirations as live in luxury as Kay Francis did here, reassured that even she, with all that cash in the bank, could suffer too, though her sufferings were because her suitors were two planks (Horton and Charles Ruggles, perfectly matched love rivals of the clueless variety) and this new new man behaves as if he wants to sweep her off her feet at the first opportunity. Which he does, he admits finally, and that's perhaps why Trouble in Paradise doesn't sparkle as you expect, it's light on its feet over troubled and painful depths.