Wednesday, September 9, 2009

1939 - Ninotchka

Today's entry may be a little shorter than usual on account of the plane I need to catch in a few hours, a plane not bound for Brazil, where my friends Jon and Aline are getting married today. Sadly, due to financial and other constraints, it was necessary for Kat and I to tick the "I/We regretfully decline" box on the invitation, so no trip to Brazil, unfortunately. Subsequently, I was offered a spot on the Australian team in an international improv tournament in Atlanta, Georgia. And since the organisers are paying for my airfare and accommodation, I was more than happy to oblige. So, I still get to fly somewhere this week, although, it is without my beautiful wife.

My absence may also result in a steep deceleration in film viewing, so I may not be able to update this blog over the next five days. I'll be taking the last two 1939 Best Picture nominees with me to Atlanta in the event of some free time, but I'm not even certain I'll have internet access, so it still may be next week before you read the next post. We'll see...

In the meantime, this morning I watched the eighth nominee from 1939...

Ernst Lubitsch
Melchior Lengyel, Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch
Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire, Bela Lugosi
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
0 wins

It is a wonderful thing not knowing anything about a film when you sit down to watch it. Apart from the knowledge that it starred Greta Garbo, I really hadn't the first clue as to what Ninotchka was about. As it turns out, it is a very pleasant romantic comedy with a load of political satire thrown in. Three Soviet delegates arrive in Paris with instructions to sell some confiscated jewellery for the government, but the allure of French capitalism sidetracks their mission, so the uncompromising and unsentimental special envoy Ninotchka is sent to move things along. Into the mix comes Count Leon, initially representing the original owner of the jewellery, the aristocratic Grand Duchess Swana. But Leon begins to fall for Ninotchka, and Ninotchka's eyes are opened to the glorious wonder of laughter and love ... and material objects.

Billed as Greta Garbo's first comedy, Ninotchka is a charmingly romantic and witty film. The scriptwriters, including the brilliant team of Brackett and Wilder, create a world of goofy characters and situations with some clever wordplay to boot. I found myself chuckling many times, a feat not easily achieved by such a dated picture.

There is a great deal of political discussion in the film as it pits capitalism and communism against each other. But it pokes fun at both sides of the coin, so it never really comes across as too politically motivated. To demonstrate his newfound freedom in a capitalist society, one Russian yells out his room, "The service in this hotel is terrible," and is pleased to discover he is totally ignored. See, capitalism is certainly not without its faults.

For her first comedy, Greta Garbo delivers a brilliantly funny performance as the stuffy and no-nonsense Ninotchka, who confesses her romanctic feelings in a deadpan and almost robotic tone, "Chemically, we're already quite sympathetic." As a movie star, though, she must have been disappointed at all the drab clothes in which she was attired, including a downright ridiculous hat (pictured). Melvyn Douglas, who would go on to win two Oscars in the next 40 years, also delivers a finely dry portrayal as Ninotchka's love interest. And the three hapless Soviet delegates are a joy to watch, as well. You can also spot classic horror star Bela Lugosi as the Commissar.

With all its political commentary, Ninotchka is essentially about love conquering all barriers, and its romance is sure to leave a warm fuzzy feeling in the hardest of hearts, communist or otherwise.

1 comment:

  1. This was one of the few 1939 contenders that I was never able to get through when shown on TCM. I just rented the DVD and watched it. It isn't my favorite Lubitsch film. That would come next year - The Shop Around the Corner (unfortunately non-nominated for Best Picture). However, I must admit that Ninotchka was quite charming as a film and as a performance. Garbo was very good, even while wearing that nuclear power plant hat.