Wednesday, October 26, 2005

100 Films: Ninotchka

The setup for Ninotchka[1] is simple: we need to corrupt three Soviet emissaries to a decadent Parisian lifestyle, and we need to do it in the space of a lunchtime. The comic possibilities for such a lunch are endless, and there are a lot of ways to handle it. This is how Lubitsch does it: the camera is on the door of the emissaries' hotel room, and we watch as various hotel staff enter, to a crescendo of Russian exclamations from behind the door, and exit, often with barely restrained looks of amusement: waiters with gourmet roasts and bottles of champagne, and first one, then three, cigarettes-girls. When we finally get to look in on the party, the party is about over, and one of our Russian emissaries is lying drunk on the floor. This same technique is used later in the movie, when Garbo (also drunk) enters a night club powder room and seconds later there is an exodus of scandalized socialites (we soon learn she has been rambling communist slogans at everyone ready to hand). In both situations we are essentially sitting in a dark room watching a door, but watching the door turns out to be just as interesting as watching what is going on behind it. This is all to say that though the writing in this film is sometimes very clever, the most interesting parts are the parts that have no dialog; this is a silent film--the Wilder and gang dialog can be thought of a part of the score (it is significant that what breaks Ninotchka into laughter is a slapstick pratfall, not a clever story).

So, how does the movie hold up after 65 years? Ok, I guess. The love story isn't believable, nor is the central conflict, but that isn't really the point in a screwball comedy. The scenario has the clockwork precision of Studio System Hollywood: we don't ask for, expect, or receive anything either original or credible. We are supposed to want to see Garbo laugh, and that is exactly what is delivered. The problem is I don't find Greta Garbo particularly appealing. Frankly, I would prefer to see Carroll Lombard laugh (or for that matter Ina Claire). But that is my own problem, I suppose. Still, would this make anyone's top 100 list if Greta Garbo wasn't the star? I doubt it, but there are enough treasures here, mostly due to the director and also perhaps to the Wilder jokes[2], to make it worth watching if you happen to like old movies.

Because this is a Hollywood film, we are dealing with stereotypes (the man about town, the shrewd noblewoman, the shrew that need taming, the bumbling bureaucrats) rather than real people. To show that the corruption of our emissaries is complete, we see the a coat-rack with three ragged workaday hats dissolve into a coat-rack with three new top hats (the classic symbol of capitalists in political cartoons). All this is fine because both the filmmakers and the audiences know they are stereotypes and view them a such (just as their children didn't believe that any mice looked like Mickey). That is why I think it is unhelpful to view this movie as propaganda. Both capitalistic and communist caricatures are revealed as hollow, and the joylessness of Russia was playful and, anyway, present for technical reasons (when you need a cold woman, you have to go cold country). Further, the filmmakers use stereotype to comic effect (the scene at the train station comes to mind: a man looks like a good communist until he greets his wife with an exuberant 'Heil, Hitler!').

In the end, what disturbed me about this movie wasn't the anti-communist flavor (you get the feeling while watching that the filmmakers are good sports and would just as happily be anti-Canadian or anti-Dentist if given the opportunity). Instead, the blows that land against the Soviet Union strike me as way too light-hearted. After arriving in Paris, Ninotchka mentions, "The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians." A great one-liner to be sure. But is the murder of tens of millions of Russians something to chuckle about?


[1] See the listing on IMDB or Lucas's review

[2] Comedies are always filled with clever lines, so a few good gags are par for course. I assume there are many old comedies with merely adequate jokes that will never see the light of DVD.


At 10:55 PM, Blogger lucas said...

generally speaking, i despise the use of the "s" after the apostrophe when my name in used in a possessive (sp?) way.

that's quite the method of chosing films.

perhaps the anti-USSR stuff is as soft as it is b/c we are still allies and while you can jest w/ your ally, it is better not to be mean.

there's a button for the photos. i'm not sure that i should keep adding them. i haven't yet decided.

At 10:56 PM, Blogger lucas said...

oh, and i broke down and bought the new kieslowski box set yesterday. the mailman should bring it soon

At 8:55 AM, Anonymous ryan estes said...

despise the use of the "s" if you will; it's grammatically correct. not using the "s" is only correct in "classic" names ("Jesus'", etc.).

Dammit, I am such a nerd.

At 10:23 AM, Blogger mattreed said...

1) I do believe Ryan is right:
at least, according to Strunk and White. Sorry, Lucas, but you are not a great historical figure yet.

2) It might be informative to see a few soviet era 1939 films and see what they might have been saying about us! Of course, you're right: they would be sans Garbo, which would make it harder for them.

At 2:55 PM, Blogger lucas said...

so i have consulted Strunk and White, and of course you are correct, but another similar text i purchased in college tells me that both are correct.

either way, i reserve the right to detest it.

obviously, the soviets were making films in the 40's, but i haven't a clue what they were saying. i assume, though, it wasn't along similar lines.

it is much more important, however, that we haven't had a cartoon from ryan in a long, long time.

At 2:55 PM, Blogger lucas said...

edit paragraph 3: was along similar lines.

At 9:18 PM, Blogger mattreed said...

it is really annoying that we can't edit comments...


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