An Early Dialogue Sequence

As stated earlier, the very first dialogue sequences were visually structured to facilitate the actual recording of the sound. Consequently, the mid- to long shot was used to record entire dialogue sequences.

As the technology developed, more options complemented the midshot approach to the dialogue sequence. But as important as the technology proved to be, the creative options developed by directors were equally effective in broadening the editing repertoire of the dialogue sequence.

By examining the creative style of an early dialogue sequence and following it with the examination of a contemporary dialogue sequence, the reader gains perspective on the developmental nature of editing styles. The reader can also appreciate how much those changes have contributed to the spectrum of current editing styles.

Trouble in Paradise (1932) was written by Samson Raphaelson and Grover Jones and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Lubitsch's direction of the dialogue sequences in Trouble in Paradise represents an economy of shots unprecedented in film with the possible exception of Luis Bunuel's work (Figure 18.1).

When he wished, Lubitsch could be very dynamic in his editing of a dialogue scene. For example, toward the end of the film, two of the three main characters are committing themselves to one another. Madame Colette (Kay Francis) speaks. She has been trying to seduce her secretary, Gaston (Herbert Marshall), and this is her moment of triumph. She doesn't realize that he is a thief whose interest, thus far, has been her money. The two embrace, and she says they will have weeks, months, and years to be together. Each word—weeks, months, years—has a different accompanying visual. The first is of the two embracing, as seen in a mirror in the bedroom. The second shows the two of them in midshot embracing. The third shot is of their shadows cast across her bed as they embrace. Not only is the sequence dynamic visually, it is also suggestive of what is to come.

Figure 18.1 Trouble in Paradise, 1932. Copyright © by Universal Studios, Inc.

Courtesy of MCA Publishing Rights, a Division of MCA Inc. Still provided by British Film Institute.

Figure 18.1 Trouble in Paradise, 1932. Copyright © by Universal Studios, Inc.

Courtesy of MCA Publishing Rights, a Division of MCA Inc. Still provided by British Film Institute.

Lubitsch usually did not take quite as dynamic an approach. He tended to be more indirect, always highlighting through the editing the secondary meaning or subtext of the dialogue. An excellent example is the second scene in the film, which follows a robbery. It opens on Gaston, posing as a baron, instructing a waiter about the food and the champagne and about how little he wants to see the waiter. The anticipation is crosscut with a scene that reveals that a robbery has taken place. The baron's guest, Lili (Miriam Hopkins), arrives. She seems to be a very rich countess who is spending time in Venice, but she is not what she appears to be. We realize this when she receives a call and pretends that it's an invitation to a party, but the cutaway shows that it is her poor roommate.

During this sequence, which appears to be a romantic interlude between the baron and Lili, there is a lengthy cutaway to the victim of the robbery (Edward Everett Horton) as he is being interviewed by the police. He provides some detail about the thief, a charming man who pretended to be a doctor.

When the film cuts back to the baron's suite, the relationship has progressed. The two are eating dinner, and the talk seems to be less about gossip and more reflective of the baron's unfolding romantic agenda for the evening. The dialogue sequence is presented as a mid-two-shot with both parties seated. During the meal, Lili tells the baron that she knows he is not who he appears to be: He is a thief who stole from the guests in suites 203, 205, 207, and 209. The baron is calm and notes that he knows that she knows because she stole the wallet he had stolen from the guest.

A short sequence of shots follows as the baron locks the door, closes the curtains, and approaches Lili in a menacing fashion. He raises her from her seat and shakes her. A close-up of the floor shows the wallet that falls from her dress.

Seated again in midshot, but now in a different tone, they profess their affection for one another and describe other items they have stolen from one another: a brooch, a watch, a garter belt. He introduces himself as Gaston, revealing his true identity, and now they really do seem to be in love. They have shed their facades and discovered two like-minded thieves. A series of silent shots follow that suggests the consummation of the relationship and the consolidation of a partnership.

This sequence used crosscutting to suggest another meaning to what was said through the dialogue. Where possible, Lubitsch also used short visual sequences to build up dramatic tension in the scene, but for the most part, he relied on the midshot to cover the sequence. In the entire 15-minute sequence, there are no more than four or five close-ups.

Later in the film, Lubitsch shed his reliance on crosscutting to suggest the subtext of a dialogue sequence. It's useful to illustrate how he undermined the dialogue in this sequence to get to the subtext.

Gaston and Lili are now a team. They have stolen a diamond-studded handbag from a rich widow, Mme. Colette. When they read in the paper that she is offering a reward of 20,000 francs for the bag, Gaston decides to return it. Madame Colette is a young romantic widow who is pursued by older, more serious suitors who are not to her taste. When she meets Gaston as he comes to return the bag, she is clearly charmed by him.

In the scene that follows, Lubitsch allowed the performances and the consistent use of a two-shot of the characters to communicate all of the nuances of meaning. In the scene, Mme. Colette is taken with Gaston, but he must convince her (1) that he is a member of her class and (2) that his intentions are honorable. The two talk about the contents of her purse; Gaston criticizes one of her suitors as well as her make-up. She seems to appreciate his interest, and when she is embarrassed about giving him the reward, he assures her that she needn't be: As a member of the nouveau poor, he needs the money.

He follows her up the stairs, where she looks for her checkbook. In this scene, she demonstrates her reliance on others. She can't find her checkbook, and she alludes to the ineptitude of the secretary she had to fire. While she looks for the checkbook, Gaston looks for the safe. It is in the secretary desk in the bedroom. Although he speaks of period furniture, he is obviously scouting a new location for robbery.

As she opens the safe, Lubitsch cuts to a close-up of Gaston's fingers as they mimic the turns of the dial on the safe. Once she gets the safe open, he scolds her for keeping only 100,000 francs in the safe. She is indifferent to his criticism, and the following dialogue closes the scene. The two characters are seated on a chair. The midshot is tight on the two of them.

GASTON (sternly, an uncle): Madame Colette, I think you deserve a scolding. First you lose your bag—

COLETTE (gaily): Then I mislay my checkbook— GASTON: Then you use the wrong lipstick— COLETTE (almost laughing): And how I handle my money! GASTON: It's disgraceful!

COLETTE (with a flirtatious look): Tell me, M. Laval, what else is wrong? GASTON Everything! Madame Colette, if I were your father—(with a smile) which, fortunately, I am not— COLETTE (coquettish): Yes?

GASTON: And you made any attempt to handle your own business affairs, I would give you a good spanking—in a good business way, of course.

COLETTE (complete change of expression; businesslike): What would you do if you were my secretary?

GASTON: The same thing.

COLETTE: You're hired!


This elaborate scene, which reveals the character of Mme. Colette and Gaston as well as advances the plot, has a very specific subtext: the verbal seduction of Gaston by Mme. Colette and of Mme. Colette by Gaston. The dialogue contributes to the progress of this new relationship. Consequently, by focusing on a midshot of the two characters together, first standing and then sitting, Lubitsch directed for subtext regardless of the actual lines of dialogue. Because of his direction of the actors in this sequence, he relied less on editing than he had to in the Gaston-Lili seduction sequence.

Both approaches are options for the editor. The earlier sequence relied more on editing; the second sequence relied more on performance and direction.

Film Making

Film Making

If you have ever wanted the secrets to making your own film, here it is: Indy Film Insider Tips And Basics To Film Making. Have you ever wanted to make your own film? Is there a story you want to tell? You might even think that this is impossible. Studios make films, not the little guy. This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment