Sunday, December 11, 2016


The other night I had the rare treat of rewatching one of my favorite comedies from the 30’s, “Trouble in Paradise”. The film was directed by Ernst Lubisch, 
who in his comedies took up serious subjects and spiced them with elegance, sophistication, cynicism and witty lines - It became known as "the Lubitsch Touch.” 

The plot of Trouble revolves around a jewel thief, Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall)  and a pickpocket Lily (Miriam Hopkins) who meet and fall in love, the major part of their attraction being their mutual admiration for each anothers skills. When they begin to work on their next mark, the beautiful Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis) she quickly falls for the seductive charms of Gaston. Lily , so it seems, has absolutely no problem with any of this, even as it is made clearly evident in the film there is a sexual relationship between Gaston and Madame Colet. But once Lily suspects Gaston is blowing the con because he’s becoming romantically involved, things began to heat up. Check out the hilarious scene where Gaston and Lily decide to join forces:

The film has an excellent supporting casts with the likes of such great character actors as Charles Ruggles, Edgar Everett Horton and C. Aubrey Smith. And Lubisch gets the most out this entire combination. Some of my other favorite Lubisch films are “Ninotchka”, “Design For Living”, “The Shop Around the Corner”, “To Be or Not to Be”, and “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife”.

(Kay Francis, Miriam Hopkins, Herbert Marshall.)

(C. Aubrey Smith on right.)

(Charles Ruggles and Edgar Everett Horton.)

What struck me on this viewing was how much this film and others by Lubisch must have influenced Will Eisner when he was working on the Spirit. Eisner and Lubisch both came the Jewish immigrant background, the latter coming from Germany in the early 20’s and the former born in NYC shortly after his parents arrived there from Austria.  Will certainly worked at creating a similar “Lubisch touch” in his stories. While there was crime, mayhem and betrayal, the reader always understood that there would be a happy ending. Villians might be dastardly, but they were never truly dangerous. In the midst of the Holocaust and the Atomic Age, Eisner still portrayed a kindler, gentler world for his readers. Even in his later career when Eisner was trying more thought-provoking material (such as “A Contract With God”), he doesn’t abandon his cartoonier style for a more realistic one, as if suggesting that we don’t take this stuff TOO seriously.
(Greta Garbo and Melvin Douglas in "Ninotchka".)

(Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in "The Lady Eve")

The influence of film has always been very obvious to me in the visual aspects of Eisner’s work. The canted camera angles of Orson Welles and the noir lighting of the so many of the mystery films. He was certainly studying not only the cinematography of “The Third Man”, but also the lighting and sets in “The Maltese Falcon” and the early Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto series. Certainly George Sanders in his roles as the Saint and as the Falcon form a good part of his Spirit character. You can see a lot of Hitchcock in the Spirit with the combination of humor and suspense. And you can’t leave out Preston Sturgess in this discussion. The Lady Eve might well have inspired any number of Eisner’s larcenous heroines. 

(Scenes from Carol Reed's "The Third Man", with Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton and Alida Valli.)

Eisner was absorbing all of this material and recreating it in his wonderful Spirit stories all with his own unique approach. In that time, cartoonists were looking at movies, illustration and literature for their inspiration. It’s a different world today where it seems every big film coming out of Hollywood has to be based on a comic book. The new paradigm with the carnival ride action and video game plot is that most movies are now marketed for a 12 -20 year old audience. If you are looking for more thoughtful intelligent stories, you’re more apt to find them on TV, which is now geared for that older audience.

With Eisner as with Lubisch the world as it would and should be is always the setting for their stories. As the comedic director, played by Joel McCrea, who seeks to direct more serious material learns in  the Preston Stugess classic “Sullivan’s Travels” , entertainment trumps reality every time. 

(Guilty pleasures....Peter Lorre as Mr. Moro, George Sanders as the Falcon, and Warner Oland as Charlie Chan.)

(Last add: Watch David Mamet’s “House of Games” about the romance between two of the most cold-blooded con artists and compare it to the basic warmth of the characters in “Trouble in Paradise” Similar story, but a very different handling and results.)

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1 comment:

  1. A particular thank you for this post. You've set out an Eisner connection I was completely unaware of, and look forward to exploring.