Monday, September 21, 2009

Target #282: Ninotchka (1939, Ernst Lubitsch)

TSPDT placing: #282
Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch
Written by: Melchior Lengyel (story), Charles Brackett (screenplay), Billy Wilder (screenplay), Walter Reisch (screenplay)
Starring: Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire, Bela Lugosi, Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach

I find it a little odd that, on the cusp of WWII, Hollywood delivered a piece of anti-Communist propaganda, when clearly there were, at that time, more immediate threats to European freedom. Ninotchka (1939) was produced while Ernst Lubitsch waited for Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart to become available for The Shop Around the Corner (1940), but it was by no means merely a fill-in project: the film was Greta Garbo's first and only collaboration with Lubitsch, and the actress' penultimate role before a premature retirement. MGM's publicity campaign used the tagline "Garbo Laughs!" to advertise that this was a new type of role for the enigmatic actress, a comedy that promised to humanise her otherwise somber screen persona {this campaign deliberately referenced the tagline for Garbo's Anna Christie (1930), which had proclaimed "Garbo Talks!"}. Though the screenplay by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch unsurprisingly has many genuine sparks of wit, the balance of romance, farce and political commentary never quite sits as comfortably as one would expect given the talents involved.

When three Soviet diplomats (Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart and Alexander Granach) arrive in Paris to sell off some jewelry confiscated from the Grand Duchess (Ina Claire) during the Bolshevik Revolution, they find it difficult to keep their minds on their work. Far away from the cold, drab apartments of Moscow, the French capital is bustling with life, warmth and prosperity (just forget that the French upper-class are not, in fact, a reasonable yardstick for comparison with the Soviet proletariat). Playful aristocrat Léon (Melvyn Douglas), the Duchess' romantic lover, succeeds in corrupting the bumbling diplomats by flaunting the luxuries of capitalistic society. To ensure that the transaction goes through smoothly, the Soviets send down Ninotchka (Garbo), a curt, tight-lipped Bolshevik with a militant hatred of Capitalism and everything it stands for. Against all odds, the debonair playboy Léon and the belligerent Ninotchka fall for one another, an attraction that ultimately proves more significant than one's national allegiance.

Unfortunately, once love softens the formerly stone-faced Ninotchka, the film shifts from being a lighthearted political farce {not unlike To Be or Not to Be (1942) or Wilder's One, Two, Three (1961)} to a weepy romance. Lubitsch followed Ninotchka with The Shop Around the Corner. What worked so well in the latter film, I thought, was that Lubitsch's heart was not necessarily with the star-crossed lovers – James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan – but with Frank Morgan's shop owner, and his familial relationship with its employees. The three reluctant Soviet diplomats in Ninotchka are utterly charming supporting characters, but too often they are shunned in favour of the central romance, which seems to tread water once, as advertised, Garbo breaks character and enjoys a hearty chuckle. Nevertheless, Melvyn Douglas is magnificently debonair, bringing something distinctly likable to the role of a lazy playboy aristocrat. During her opening act, you can almost see a smile forming beneath Garbo's icy exterior, and she plays the role with just the right amount of breeziness.

Currently my #11 film of 1939:
3) Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks)
4) The Wizard Of Oz (Victor Fleming, Mervyn LeRoy, Richard Thorpe, King Vidor)
5) Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood)
6) The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (H.C. Potter)
7) The Hunchback of Notre Dame (William Dieterle)
8) La règle du jeu {The Rules of the Game} (Jean Renoir)
9) Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding)
10) Another Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke)
11) Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch)
12) Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford)

No comments: