1939: From Russia, with love
"This picture takes place in Paris in those wonderful days when a siren was a brunette and not an alarm --- and if a Frenchman turned out the light it was not on account of an air raid!"If I have found one clear through-line connecting most of the films I've studied from the great year 1939, it's that in some way or another, they all treat on the immediate coming of World War II: some with nostalgia for the past, some by stressing the wonders and strength of America, or glancing sideways or directly at the European indulgences that permitted the rise of that conflict in the first place. But of all these films, none has had quite as intriguing a relationship to tonight's subject, one of the most politically intriguing American films of the 1930s. It is a satire of the tense relationship between two ideological enemies who for reasons of good tactical sense were clearly going to end up as allies in the fight against Nazi Germany; a document of pre-Cold War tensions like none that I've ever seen. It is also one of the most frothy and luxurious romantic comedies in cinema history.
It boggles my mind that I've been operating this blog for so many years, and I've never managed to review a single film directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Ah, Lubitsch! Lubitsch, of the Lubitsch Touch, a preternatural gift for romantic comedy and sexual farce so perfect that it defies both description and duplication! I must confess that although Ninotchka was the first of his movies I ever saw, it is not at all my favorite, nor do I think it his most typical or successful. In all three cases, I think that honor would go to Trouble in Paradise, or perhaps The Merry Widow if one should be in the mood for a musical (as one should always be). Like a great many directors, Lubitsch didn't survive the beginning of the Hayes Code era intact, although he did a much better job of it than a lot of people. And conceding that as his earlier films are more ribald and thus necessarily funnier, I think it's absolutely the case that Ninotchka is the masterpiece among his later films (though I have admittedly not seen them all).
The story goes that the director was forced into taking a screenplay that he didn't especially like by MGM - the studio had commissioned it for the most mercenary of reasons, looking to put the great melodrama star Greta Garbo into a comedy - and hoping to get something worthwhile out of it, he tossed it to three screenwriters, two of whom he'd worked with before: a pair of relative nobodies called Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. Walter Reisch filled out the trio, and with Lubitsch himself providing enough notes and ideas that he ought to count as a fourth writer, they produced a screenplay that- well, let us just note that the three nobodies became three very significant somebodies as a direct result of Ninotchka, and no nobodies have ever deserved it more.
As these four men put it, the story of Ninotchka first concerns three Soviet emissaries, Iranoff (Sig Ruman), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart), and Kopalski (Alexander Granach), who have been sent to Paris to sell a cache of extremely valuable jewels to free up some cash with which to buy food for the hungry people of Russia. Unluckily for them, Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), the owner of those exact same jewels before the revolution, is also in Paris, and unluckier still, she is une amoureuse of a very slick operator by the name of Léon, Comte d'Algout (Melvyn Douglas). In hardly any time, Léon has well and completely corrupted the three comrades into a life of worldly pleasure, French-style.
And so the Soviets send another emissary to censure the first emissaries: Nina Yakushova Ivanoff (Garbo), or familiarly, Ninotchka. Shocked by the decadence of the West, she is still impressed by the technological advances of the City of Light, and on a walking tour en route to the Eiffel Tower, who should she meet by Léon - cue the Frenchman falling quickly in love, the Russian admitting to a her certain chemical attraction, and cue further still the complication of one of Mother Russia's sternest comrades melting a little bit in the face of Parisian romance, even as her Paris boy decides that the best way to seduce her is with a crash course in Marxism.
We need not concern ourselves with exactly what plays out afterward - if you haven't seen the film, I am not remotely prepared to spoil it for you. Anyway, the greater joy is in the how: watching as Hollywood's all-time finest romantic comedy filmmaker does what he does. Comedy being subjective, it's not much but my opinion that Ninotchka is assuredly one of the great sparkling gems of all time, but the gentle way that Lubitsch uses tiny things to signify what is going on inside characters' minds - for example the justly famous business with the hat, which according to Wilder in later interviews, Lubitsch came up with quite casually and without premeditation - must be a sign of genius. The director's style was always very staged and artificial, and I suppose I can see how this would be a turn-off to some people; but romantic comedy is an artificial business. That Lubitsch's key motif in almost all of his films is of a door, with all its implications of off-screen activity, a trope taken from his work in comic theater in Austria, has always struck me as one of his great strengths, not the weakness it is sometimes called: I love that his movies are so compulsively framed, calling attention at all times to how we are watching the film, and not just what we are watching. But then, I don't mind movies that step and announce their fakeness. It makes it easier to enjoy the action if I'm not supposed to imagine that it's happening to real people.
As for the dialogue, I don't think that I need to argue that it pops and sparkles, not when I can have it do the work for me:
"We don't have men like you in my country. That is why I believe in the future of my country."
"It's midnight. One half of Paris is making love to the other half."
"The service in this hotel is terrible! See, nobody comes, nobody pays any attention. That's freedom."
"That's bad management."
"Why do you want to carry my bags?"
"That is my business."
"That's no business, it's social injustice."
"That depends on the tip."
"The mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians."
I ended with that example for a reason: it points to the fascinating politics of Ninotchka, a film made by arguably the most successful capitalists in the world up to that time (Hollywood executives) about the relationship between communism and capitalism, made at a time when most Americans didn't like communism as such, but had to like Russia, if they wanted to see Hitler get his ass whupped (shortly before Ninotchka appears with that memorable line, the three Russians observe a Hitler supporter, with no small amount of comic trepidation).
To that end, the film milks a great deal of comedy out of the knowns of Soviet Communism - it's godless, unemotional, lots of people die or are disappeared, it's woefully inefficient - but carefully skirts around actually implying that these things are bad - that's just the way those Russians are, y'know. Yes, the joke depends on our knowledge that Stalin killed innocents by the truckload - but once we laugh at it, we're no longer invested in the terror of that fact. Ninotchka is absolutely not a dark comedy, and insofar as we're invited to dislike anything about Ninotchka at all, it's that she's so stern and mirthless that she deprives herself of the basic joys of being a human in Paris, not that she's a willing and eager representative of a murderous regime.
If I'm being completely honest, I don't actually have a concrete idea what all this is building to, exactly. I'm tempted to read into the later career of Billy Wilder, and suppose that he intrinsically found the idea of mess death so tragic that it's hilarious, but Lubitsch's treatment of the material doesn't square with it. So I can only raise possibilities: perhaps it's a reflection of American nervousness about striding onto the world stage? A good-natured piss-taking of our dear friends the Commies? A cynical attempt to use real-world situations to add some unearned heft to an otherwise standard scenario about a goofy horndog and an ice princess? Probably none of these, or some combination. I do not know, I only observe the intriguing peculiarity of it all.
What I do know is this: Ninotchka is a deliriously grand thing, full of gorgeous sets, gorgeous costumes, and of course the gorgeous Garbo, who proved herself quite adept at a comic line in her second-to-last film (her last was another comedy with Melvyn Douglas, Two-Faced Woman; I haven't seen it, and I hear it's pretty mediocre). And most importantly, it is hilarious: not wall-to-wall funny, in fact it builds up rather deliberately, but the gags all hit home with the effortless brilliance of several geniuses; and as a bonus, there's even a "theory of comedy" scene that quite effectively proves that a man falling off a chair is the funniest thing in the world. Politics or not, WWII or not, there's no taking away Ninotchka's triumph as one of the comedies that everyone must see, and if you've already seen it, see it again: its charms and bubbling spirit are perhaps even more precious in these days of degraded romantic comedies than they were at the moment of its premiere.