Oh my! This just might be the most charming film I’ve ever watched. Everything about it just oozes style and wit and I have to agree with roujin that Gaston Monescu is just so perfect that I am devastated to note that this is just a single film and not a series of films! The central cast is so charismatic that the screen just sparkles with magnetism throughout. In the opening sequence Herbert Marshall plays a suave gentleman thief and Miriam Hopkins plays a small-time pickpocket, each posing as nobility in a posh Venice hotel. This is followed by this superbly executed dinner-cum-seduction sequence where they (and we the audience) both become aware of each other’s real identity and end up falling in love. Firstly, Marshall’s quiet sophistication complements Hopkins’ spirited performance beautifully and the way they deliver the lines that could so easily appear too clever or too slick on paper is just so delightful to watch.
Lily: I have a confession to make to you. Baron, you are a crook. You robbed the gentleman in 253, 5, 7 and 9. May I have the salt?
Gaston: (passing the salt) Please.
Lily: Thank you.
Gaston: The pepper too?
Lily: No thank you.
Gaston: You’re very welcome. Countess, believe me, before you left this room I would have told you everything. And let me say this with love in my heart: Countess, you are a thief. The wallet of the gentleman in 253, 5, 7, and 9 is in your possession. I knew it very well when you took it out of my pocket. In fact, you tickled me. But your embrace was so sweet.
Then there’s the brilliant transition to the second act. The way Lubitsch begins the transition with a radio announcement that we see an announcer deliver into a microphone, then we see the actual advertisement and then transition to the actual owners of the perfumerie. Then there’s the scene where Herbert Marshall & Kay Francis are out to dinner and instead of showing us the dinner scene, we get to see a clock. We hear them giggling off-screen and while looking at the phone ringing and the clock ticking, we get caught up in the same anxiety that Hopkins is currently experiencing. I just loved these choices that Lubitsch makes to create comic tension with such gentleness.
The best part about the film is the affection with which it treats every one of the characters. For such an old film, it’s amazing how non-judgemental the film is about the central characters, who are after all, crooks! Secondly, the film is never coy about the sexual tension between these characters. When Hopkins realizes that Marshall has robbed her garter, she is charmed by his dexterity and jumps up and seats herself on his lap. Likewise, Hopkins and Francis are able to carry on a dialogue about spanking in the same vein in which they are discussing her carelessness with money. All of these characters have such a sincerity to them and an ability to shrug their shoulders, cut their losses and move on. Kay Francis’s character is no helpless victim but neither is she an icy cold-hearted society-type that deserves to be conned. She is capable of tenderness in her own way but also a sound head above her shoulders. The final scene between Gaston and Mariette is just perfect and has such a sense of such easy grace. Even Mariette’s other suitors are never exploited for cheap laughs.
For some reason, I feel like I haven’t heard this film being mentioned quite as much as a lot of the other classic Hollywood comedies and I am really surprised by this. I would love some recommendations on other Lubitsch films that I should be rushing out and watching.