Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ernst Lubitsch, 1892-1947

Comic director Ernst Lubitsch was born on this day in 1892. I see that I've already recommended Heaven Can Wait and To Be Or Not To Be. I would have liked to recommend his final completed movie, Cluny Brown, which I first saw when TCM aired it this past Christmas Eve, but it's not available on DVD here in the US. Instead, you can't go wrong with his 1939 movie Ninotchka.

The scene is the Paris of 1939. The Soviets are trying to sell off some of their crown jewels for desperately needed foreign currency. However, the three envoys who are supposed to sell the jewels decide that Paris is much better than Moscow, so they'll do everything they can to extend their stay. That is, until faithful, no-nonsense Communist Ninotchka Ivanova (played by Greta Garbo) shows up to see what's going on.

Ninotchka seemingly has no sense of humor, and no desire for any of the finer things that the West has to offer. That is, until she meets the Leon, the count who is acting on behalf of the seller of the jewels (played by Melvyn Douglas). At first, Ninotchka maintains her icy exterior, but eventually, she falls in love with him, which causes a whole host of problems.

Who knew that Greta Garbo could do comedy? Ninotchka shows that she indeed could, and she's outstanding. Hers is, for the most part, a deadpan humor, with the laughs being found in the stark contrast to everything else that's going on around her. Paris is supposed to be a place for lovers, but when Ninotchka sees the Eiffel Tower, she's much more interested in all the technical aspects of the tower. When the Count tries to tell Ninotchka jokes in a proletarian restaurant, she finds none of it funny -- untill the Count inadvertently does a slapstick fall out of his chair! Melvyn Douglas is fine, too, although he generally serves as more of a foil for Garbo's deadpan. Although Douglas is technically the male lead, he's really playing second fiddle to Garbo. This isn't to demean Douglas; he was a fine supporting actor, as we saw last week in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House; also, Douglas went on to win two Supporting Actor Oscars.

Ninotchka is one of the better anti-Communist movies made by the studio system, and it's interesting that the message (even if wrapped in comedy) could be so clearly made in the Hollywood of the 1930s, when it was generally thought that socialism was the wave of the future. Lubitsch's portrayal of the privations of the Soviet Union isn't that heavy-handed or inaccurate, except in that a real-life Ninotchka would probably have been part of the elites and enjoy a better standard of living. Of course, Lubitsch was helped immensely by a screenplay written by Billy Wilder before he became a director.

Ninotchka is available on DVD, and even though Soviet Communism is a thing of the past, this movie still glitters and remains fun 70 years on.

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