Sunday, November 09, 2014

Garbo Laughs!

"The last mass trials have been a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians."

Ninotchka (Greta Garbo)

(1939 is widely regarded as the greatest year ever for the motion picture. Ten movies were nominated for Best Picture that year, and today I take a look at the eighth of those 10 movies to hit the theaters.)
In the first half of "Ninotchka," which premiered 75 years ago today, Greta Garbo lived up to her reputation for being somber and melancholy. But her character, a Soviet envoy, was seduced by the capitalist Count Leon (Melvyn Douglas) in the second half of the movie, and all bets were off.

The pitch for the movie 75 years ago was "Garbo Laughs!" and it was jarringly easy to make her laugh. All Douglas really had to do was take a pratfall, and she was laughing with the best of them.

But in that first half of the movie, she was a real stoneface.
Ninotchka (Greta Garbo): [on a street corner] How long must we wait here?

Leon (Melvyn Douglas): Well, until the policeman blows his whistle again.

Ninotchka: At what intervals does he whistle?

Leon: What?

Ninotchka: How many minutes between the first and second whistle?

Leon: You know that's very funny. I never thought of that before.

Ninotchka: You've never been caught in a similar situation?

Leon: Yes, I have, now that I've come to think about it. It's staggering. Good heavens. If I add it all up, I must have spent years waiting for signals. Imagine, an important part of my life wasted between whistles.

Ninotchka: In other words, you don't know.

Leon: No.

Ninotchka: Thank you.

Leon: You're welcome.

Garbo and Douglas had an impressive chemistry — which was appropriate, given that Garbo's character told Douglas that love was nothing more than a "chemical reaction." It's really no wonder that the story worked as well as it did. It was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and it was co–written by Billy Wilder. Plus, its female lead is the fifth–greatest female star of all time, according to the American Film Institute. AFI also ranks "Ninotchka" #52 among the comedies. "Ninotchka" ranked even higher (#40) among the love stories. How could it go wrong?

My guess is that it must have caught a lot of people by surprise that Garbo was so skilled at comedy; paired with Douglas, perhaps the most sought–after romantic lead of his day, the result was a sophisticated romantic comedy that is often overlooked, I think, by people who regard themselves as students of film.

That's a shame because "Ninotchka" is still funny, especially if it is kept in context when it is watched. It was one of the first movies to poke fun at the humorless culture of the Russian Revolution — and how vulnerable people in such a culture were after they had been exposed to the freedom of the West.

Ninotchka: Why should you carry other people's bags?

Porter: Well, that's my business, Madame.

Ninotchka: That's no business. That's social injustice.

Porter: That depends on the tip.

"Ninotchka" received four Oscar nominations. In addition to its nomination for Best Picture, it was nominated for Best Actress, Best Story and Best Screenplay, but it didn't win any of them.