Tuesday, October 06, 2009


Capitalism: a love story

By Edward Copeland
The words that appear on the screen at the opening of Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka, 70 years old today, tells us that the film is set in Paris at the time when a siren was a brunette not an alarm and that when a Frenchman turned off a light, it wasn't because of an air raid. You have to think that those words came from the typewriters of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, who are credited with the screenplay along with Walter Reisch. Lubitsch, Wilder, Brackett and to top it all off, you've got Greta Garbo in a film that was marketed under the tag: Garbo Laughs. So will you.
The tone in a way seems reminiscent of Wilder's classic from decades later, One, Two, Three. The story concerns a trio of bumbling of Soviets who come to Paris attempting to sell the jewels of a former grand duchess only to have the deal legally thwarted by the duchess's man in Paris, Leon (Melvyn Douglas), who gets an injunction saying the goods still belong to the woman (Ina Claire) and the Russians have no right to them. When he talks the trio (Sig Rumann, Felix Bressart and Alexander Granart) into messaging back to Moscow an agreement where the the duchess and the Soviets will split the proceeds of the sale, the communist superiors are furious and send a special envoy to straighten things out in the form of Garbo. Garbo plays Nina Yakushova Ivanoff or Ninotchka, a prim, pure committed communist, devoted to her country's ideals and the eventual fall of capitalism that its inherent corruption will bring. She's insulted that Parisians make an issue of her womanhood, feeling perfectly capable of carrying her own bags. She's shocked at the cost and extravagance of the hotel suite in which she's been booked, which could purchase seven cows for her Russian people a day. As she tours Paris, including the requisite trip to the Eiffel Tower, by coincidence she runs into Leon and the two competing economic systems can't get in the way of a mutual attraction, especially since Ninotchka doesn't know Leon is her legal rival at first. She appreciates he might have qualities despite being "the unfortunate product of a doomed culture." Ninotchka brought Garbo the third (or fourth, depending how you count the year she was nominated for two movies) and final Oscar nomination of her career and there is probably a good chance she might have won had she not been facing one of the all-time best actress juggernauts in Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara. Garbo is a wonder here, from her rigid beginnings, to the slow seduction the trappings of Parisian society and Douglas' flirtation make on her. Few times on film has such a humorless character been so hilarious, so much so that when Ninotchka finally lets loose with laughter, it is a true joy to behold. For many, Douglas also might prove to be a revelation as the charming Leon. Many may know him best from his Oscar-winning roles from much later in his career, as Paul Newman's tough, grizzled father in 1963's Hud and as the billionaire industrialist who takes a dim gardener under his wing in 1979's Being There. The younger Douglas is witty, charming, fleet on his feet and a great match with Garbo when the two do a drunken duet. Garbo and Douglas also get able support from the rest of the cast which includes Bela Lugosi who gets fourth billing for a single scene as a top Russian official. It's always nice to see Lugosi in a first-class production before his life and career fell apart. Still, it's Garbo and Douglas, with the strong underpinnings of Lubitsch's grace and Wilder and Brackett's wit, that make Ninotchka such a charmer, even 70 years later.

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Remember the "summit-of-a-volcano" monstrosity of a hat used to represent Capitalist decadence?

Ninotchka eventually succumbs and(buys) wears it for Douglas who rejoices Capitalism has won over his "Red" sweetheart.

Garbo was la-creme-de-la-creme in the looks department back then...my, my, how tastes change.

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