Sunday, March 28, 2010

Film #18: Ninotchka (1939)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: Once (about five years ago)

20 Words or Fewer Summary (no spoilers):

Robotic Commie cutie goes to Paris, falls in love with a Frenchy.

The Story (A full blow-by-blow, with spoilers. Fair warning):

Cold-as-ice Communist Russian negotiator Ninotchka is sent to Paris to clean up a bungled attempt by three clownish comrades to sell off some jewels confiscated from a past Russian aristocrat. When she arrives, she is hard as steel, forged by the communist ideals of Marx and Lenin. She soon meets French Duke Leon, an easy-going, semi-rakish lawyer whom she initially sees as representing all of the excesses of capitalistic society.

The first meeting of Ninotchka & Leon

And yet, she is attracted to him. Leon steadfastly melts her icy exterior and gets her to embrace some of the joys of living for the moment rather than eternal self-sacrifice. Even though they truly love each other, Ninotchka's imminent return to Russia upon the completion of her mission hovers over everything. Pushing a final fly in the ointment is Duchess Swana, the original owner of the jewels and Leon's past lover. Swana manages to ferret away her jewels and sends Ninotchka back to Russia with no Leon and no jewels. Leon is distraught and tries, by hook or by crook, to get a visa into Russia to see his love. Alas, he fails.

Back in the Soviet Union, Ninotchka cannot abandon her memories of Leon and the freedoms she had in Paris. Eventually, her superior sends her as an envoy to Constantinople, seemingly to clean up a mess similar to the one that begins the whole story, even involving the same three goofs from the first jewel mission. Once she arrives, however, she learns that the "mess" has all been a contrivance by Leon to get her out of Russia and reunite with her. Ninotchka agrees to stay with him and they live, presumably, happily ever after.

How sweet.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after one viewing, before any research):

Eh - it was OK. This was how I remember feeling about it the first time I watched it. What you basically have is a romantic comedy with the added weight of certain social ideals thrown into the mix. I certainly wasn't counting down the minutes to the final credits, and I was even quite engaged for certain parts, but I won't go out of my way to watch it again.

The story itself is half-decent, and it's what kept me watching. The rightful possession of the jewels serves to conjure up questions about rightful ownership of aristocratic property. Who owns royal jewelry? The nobles whose families bought them and passed them through the decades and centuries, or the laborers whose toils truly paid for them? These interesting questions are raised and touched upon in several places, but serve as mere spice to the larger tale of love and freedom.

The love story isn't too bad. There's a light peal of truth to the fascination that the worldly Leon and the stoic Ninotchka have for one another. Yet it needs to be said that the viewer is quite obviously meant to sympathize with Leon's point of view. I guess this is natural since this was a Hollywood picture, and Paramount sure as hell wasn't going to try and sell any sympathy for communist Russian ideals.

Comedically, the film is very flat to me. There are a few bits that I think are funny. This was an early work for Billy Wilder, who co-scripted it, and his fingerprints are all over it. From the first scene, we can see the sly visual humor at work. The script is clever enough, though it's sometimes much in the screwball comedy vein of rapid-fire dialogue and predictable hoakiness that seems ingenuine to me. Still, the actors pull them off well.

Here's the initial appearance of the title character, wearing her bone-chillingly scientific efficiency on her sleeves:

Acting-wise, things are solid, with Melvyn Douglas's turn as the affable Duke Leon the standout. Garbo is good, but, as I mentioned in my review of Camille, I don't totally get the Greta Garbo sensation. The old movie posters proclaim, "Garbo Laughs!!", which is a clear indication that her frigid exterior was a selling point. She has a masculine quality that doesn't do it for me, but that's just one heterosexual man's opinion, I guess.

I had three main problems with this film. One. The break-neck turnaround of Ninotchka from hard-core commie to dreamy-eyed lovebird borders on ridiculous. For the first part of the film, she's as immovable in her beliefs as a pillar of iron, and is as humorless. She literally doesn't so much as crack a smile. Then, at a restaurant, Leon decides to try and break her by telling her jokes. One joke after another fails miserably until he slips and falls out of his chair. At this point, the entire restaurant breaks into uproarious laughter, Ninotchka included. It was too odd. It would have been like watching Terminator 2 during the scene where a stone-faced Arnie annihilates the entire squadron of police from the second story of Cyberdine Systems, only to then have Sarah Connor slip on a banana peel, at which the T-101 starts giggling like a school girl. It just ain't right.

This laughter comes across as authentic as a seventeen-dollar bill.

Which brings up another pair of personal bugaboos. Forced laughter and faux drunkenness. I hate the way they did it in those old films. The aforementioned restaurant scene is a perfect example, as was the last ten minutes of Swing Time. In Ninotchka, I got the double whammy of seeing Garbo and Douglas pretend to be completely shitfaced. This was almost always overdone in old films, and this was no exception. Why was no one ever the quiet, sullen drunk? Or maybe the frighteningly violent drunk? We all know those people, right? Well, Hollywood films back then had no use for them. Everyone always did the same things - slurred speech and wobbling back and forth. That's it. It annoys me.

The final nuisance was that I was a bit uneasy at the way communist Russia was protrayed. This film was made in 1939, when the serious problems that the Soviet Union was facing were becoming very real. And yet, Hollywood seemed to have no trouble poking fun and making light of it all in a somewhat condescending way. Can you imagine if George Clooney decided to do a romantic comedy in which he fell in love with a North Korean woman, and then made light of the horrors and deprivations of that society, just to give us a few yuks? I suppose I can imagine it, but it's a freaking nightmare. Ninotchka isn't as severe as all that, but there is a taint of such insensitivity there.

Ninotchka's got things that obviously bug me, but it's not bad. I certainly enjoyed it more than the trial that was The Awful Truth, or even slightly-less-annoying films like Camille or The Crowd. As with others of its day, any lover of classic cinema would surely enjoy it, as its extremely well-produced and effective in its purpose.

Take 2; or, Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some further research):

No real shockers here. Back in the day, viewers loved the potent combination of clever humor, the "opposites attract" love tale, and the clear jabs at Stalinist Russia. Even the original TIME magazine reviewer back in '39 wasn't above admitting the schadenfreude felt in trashing the already-cracking communist experiment: here's his review.

Interesting to note how all of the reviews that I've read do admit to the perplexing attraction that Duke Leon inspires in Ninotchka. While I didn't see it as too absurd, I have to disagree with modern reviewer Richard Schickel's take, in which he seems to have adored the "Garbo Laughs" selling point. I found it really contrived and phony, myself.

One final point of interest is how this film was marketed in the U.S. as Garbo's first comedy, hence the focus on her laughter on the movie posters and such. Such was actually not the case, as she had done various comedy and dancing films years before in European releases. Whatever the case, it worked like gangbusters - Ninotchka grossed a mint in the U.S. and was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Side-note: One of the minor roles of Ninotchka's superior officer in Russia was played by none other than Dracula himself - Bela Lugosi. In an odd twist, right after I watched this film, I caught a few minutes of Tim Burton's Ed Wood on TV. If you haven't seen Ed Wood, for God's sake, do yourself a favor and watch it now! One of the most underrated quirky comedy films ever.

That's a wrap. 18 shows down. 87 to go.

Coming Soon: His Girl Friday (1940):

Oh boy. Another screwball comedy with Cary Grant. That last one, The Awful Truth, was the most trying thus far. I have actually seen this one, and the memories are not good. The things I do for...actually, I don't know why I'm doing it. Still, inertia is a helluva thing.
Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out...