We have an extremely specific topic to explore for this month’s double feature: “romantic comedies about pickpockets.” The appeal of crooks, hustlers and artful dodgers is entirely familiar in American movies, but these two films in particular join the thief’s craft with the subtler manipulations of love. Made on either end of the implementation of the Production Code, the films take radically different approaches — one a suave, nonchalant caper, the other a nervous farce. The later film, as it happens, presents larceny as a psychological compulsion that will be cured by the ending, while the older film revels in the legerdemain of pickpocketing, emphasizing the double entendres of deft hands. This is a lopsided match-up. Trouble in Paradise (1932) is comfortably enshrined as one of the pinnacles of its genre. Hold That Blonde! is a scarcely remembered 1945 comedy that, as far as I can tell, has never been released on home video. (A copy, apparently recorded off a TV broadcast, is available on YouTube.) If you’ve come here expecting me to upset the apple cart when it comes to the film canon, you’ll be disappointed. But Hold That Blonde! is pretty good in its own way.
Each film opens with a compact encomium to civilization, barbed with irony. In Trouble in Paradise (hereafter TIP), a jolly gondolier serenades the Venetian evening; it just so happens that his vessel is carrying garbage. In Hold That Blonde! (hereafter HTB), the Manhattan skyline is accompanied by a sonorous voice-over, praising the achievements of the wealthy and the diligence of night watchmen, as Veronica Lake in a maid’s uniform lurks behind the drapes and Eddie Bracken walks right into a bank vault unnoticed. Bracken’s counterpart in TIP, played by Herbert Marshall, executes his first job in feline silence, departing his mark’s hotel room by the window and slinking back into his own in time to plan his dinner. Bracken is neither so polished nor so unrepentant. Tripping the alarm, he weakly insists to the assembled police officers that he was just putting the money back. His character is a kleptomaniac, hardly even aware of what his hands are doing at any given time.
The last real point of connection between these two stories is the fact that the love interest for each man is likewise in the thieving business. The characters played by Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins discover each other’s skills while on their first date. The swiping of various items, followed by the blithe revelation of where they’ve gone, acts as unmistakable foreplay. The two decide to go on the road together, their financial and personal bliss only interrupted by the appearance of an especially attractive (in more ways than one) victim, played by Kay Francis. The dramatic intensity of this triangle is fully credible due to the scintillating chemistry of the actors. Meanwhile, Bracken and Lake in HTB seem to have been cast together primarily because they could both wiggle their ears. In a priceless screenwriter’s contrivance, Bracken is advised by his psychiatrist that, since his kleptomania arose after a girlfriend dumped him, finding the cure will be a simple matter of getting him romantically involved again. He pursues Lake, unaware at first that she’s mixed up with some jewel thieves. (In keeping with the Production Code ethos, neither one of them is an unabashed crook.) To solve both their problems at the same time, he resolves to steal a coveted necklace himself, but it won’t be so easy.
A sophisticated highlight of the brief pre-Code era, TIP is one of director Ernst Lubitsch’s defining films. He takes a serene approach to the coy games of attraction between men and women. Romantic comedies in which the principal players seem incapable of breaking a sweat are exceedingly rare; Lubitsch could not only pull it off but could in fact make it feel like the best formula for a movie. TIP is a film of surreptitious binoculars and suggestive staircases, the shadows of clasping lovers stretched onto a bed and a montage of clock faces to chronicle a special evening. Samson Raphaelson’s script is laced with witty insinuation. These fully adult characters delight in playing with each other while keeping it entirely clean on the surface. Marshall and Francis are a tantalizingly urbane pairing, while Hopkins is a scrappier figure whose determination ends up winning back Marshall’s heart. Edward Everett Horton and Charlie Ruggles are pitch-perfect as Francis’s sexless suitors, the dull foils to the elegant leads. All the performances are great, but I’ll make special mention of Leonid Kinskey’s single scene as a killjoy Trotskyite spouting “Phooey!” This is just the best of several examples of Depression-era self-awareness in the film.
George Marshall, director of HTB, had a long career directing comedies, as well as westerns and films noir. Best known for Destry Rides Again, he also directed a number of Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis comedies, most of which I haven’t seen. There are a few strong comic sequences in this film — I laughed pretty hard at a short, escalating bit involving matches and a newspaper — but entire setpieces fail to transcend what they owe to similar scenes in silent movies. Bracken hides under a table like Keaton in The General. Later, his adventure on the side of a building barely hints at the variety of what Harold Lloyd accomplished in Safety Last. The finale has a decent setup, with its bumbling henchmen and detectives crossing paths with the main heroes and villains, and there’s some welcome ambiguity about who the villains are. But a bunch of dogs get thrown into the mix for sentimental value, and a polar bear throw rug fails to deliver on the strangeness it promises. Inevitably, HTB is a more strenuous affair than TIP. This isn’t entirely a fault of the film; certainly there’s a place for a more manic variety of humor.
This blog series has seldom had the virtue of raising the profile of a smaller film. I’m often content to stick with well-known films, and there’s no doubt that I haven’t been at this long enough to exhaust those. But I read about HTB somewhere and thought it would make an interesting pairing with TIP. The Classic Hollywood era of moviemaking, like so many things, is a great deal more diverse than it might appear from a distance. Even these superficially similar stories could yield markedly different results. But if the word “comedy” doesn’t suffice as a hint, let me assure the reader that both stories reach the same outcome.