“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!”
So begins the riotous story of Ninotchka and Leon in Paris, penned by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. They are surely one of the more famous writing teams in film history, and the fact that they were so respected in the 1930s and 1940s (the “Golden Age” of American cinema, and the period that I have called the era of the “great American screenplays”) only goes to show how much they deserve that fame. They were involved in two screwball comedy screenplays in 1939, one of which I’ve already reviewed (Midnight), and the other of which I will review now.
Ninotchka is one of the best films from the incomparable Ernst Lubitsch. Simply put, it is a delightfully funny, fast-paced, dialogue-driven romp with a superb romantic and political element. As a matter of fact, it stands alongside Duck Soup and The Great Dictator as one of the premier political satires of the generation. There is little more pleasure than what can be had by hearing how three Russian agents got drunk and threw a rug out of their hotel window, only to complain to the management later on that it didn’t fly. There is great joy in watching the transformation of Greta Garbo’s Ninotchka character from a stern Russian tovarishka to a lovable, affable protagonist. There is no better humor out there than to be constantly bombarded by a serious of hilarious one-liners, delivered within the context of outrageous conversations and venues.
Really, it is all a product of the genius of the writers, as well as the genius of the director. Of the two Wilder/Brackett films of the 1939, Ninotchka is universally considered the superior one, and that is undeniably because of the revered and mythical “Lubitsch touch”.
Attempting to define the famous “touch”, Scott Eyman said:
“With few exceptions Lubitsch’s movies take place neither in Europe nor America but in Lubitschland, a place of metaphor, benign grace, rueful wisdom… What came to preoccupy this anomalous artist was the comedy of manners and the society in which it transpired, a world of delicate sangfroid, where a breach of sexual or social propriety and the appropriate response are ritualized, but in unexpected ways, where the basest things are discussed in elegant whispers; of the rapier, never the broadsword… To the unsophisticated eye, Lubitsch’s work can appear dated, simply because his characters belong to a world of formal sexual protocol. But his approach to film, to comedy, and to life was not so much ahead of its time as it was singular, and totally out of any time.”
See, this is where Lubitsch’s Ninotchka came to differentiate itself from the Midnight of Mitchell Leisen. Both were written by the same two people (actually, Ninotchka was also written by Walter Reisch, who only ever collaborated with Brackett and Wilder on this one film). Both take place in Paris. Both are members of the same genre and part of the same year’s batch of films. Both deal with the correlations between class and sexual politics, as well as the confusions of multi-cultural relationships. Both stand as pillars in the history of American comedy. But, Lubitsch’s film inhabits a world unto itself.
It’s particularly interesting to view this “Lubitsch touch” in the context of Ninotchka because it is a movie that is so dependent on the real world. Without politics and geography, much of the heart of Ninotchka is gone. After all, how do you make jokes about the USSR when you create a completely different “world” wherein your characters reside?
Like in Midnight (and in many other films), Paris is the location where all the people of all the cultures come together. It is viewed not so much as a home for these people as it is a hub, a place where they all cross paths on the way to other things. What Lubitsch succeeds in doing in this film is that he is able to create a Paris that is not so much geographical as it is situational. He embraces the transient element of his setting: it is a place that transcends residency and, rather, symbolizes fraternity and love. It’s that Parisian lure that brings us the film’s most remembered line, a line that made my list of the great movie lines in an earlier post: “Ninotchka, it’s midnight. One half of Paris is making love to the other half.”
Or, there is another “midnight” line: “It’s midnight. Look at the clock, one hand has met the other hand, they kiss. Isn’t that wonderful?”
As we can see from Midnight and Ninotchka, Wilder and Brackett saw midnight in Paris to be the period of most romance, but also the period of most truth. It is a symbol, a very Cinderella-like symbol, of that moment when everything makes sense. The guises are discarded, and the true self is exposed. That is what happened to Eve in Midnight, when Tibor Czerny the taxi driver showed up with the ability to turn her royal carriage back into a pumpkin and take her dress and glass slippers away. That is the romance and the reality that comes with Cinderella making love at midnight.
Wilder and Brackett seem to both love and mock the reputation of Paris as the city of lovers. It’s the same brilliant blend of respect and satire that gave life to Midnight that same year. But, with the Lubitsch touch, Paris becomes more than just a city. He makes it a world.
The characters all meet in that world because of the politics which go on in our own. As part of the Communist plan for government funding, three Russian emissaries are sent to Paris with jewels that the Bolsheviks stole from the aristocracy during and after the Revolution. Though attempting to sell them to the highest bidder, they end up becoming stalled by a French Count named Leon who is in the employ of the now impeached Russian Grand Duchess Swana who only wants her precious jewels back. Because the emissaries never return, the Soviet government sends Nina (or Ninotchka, which is a diminutive declension of the name; such declensions are common in Russia as terms of endearment or familiarity). Ninotchka is a stern envoy, high on Soviet spirit and low on humor. We see this from the moment she steps off the train: “The last mass trials were a great success,” she says. “There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”
But, then she meets the French lover, Leon, who has a few things to say to her, regardless of her opinion of the mass trials. “A Russian!” he exclaims, “I love Russians! Comrade, I’ve been fascinated by your five-year plan for the last fifteen years.”
And, later, when asked by Nina what he has done for mankind, he responds in perfect Lubitschland French: “Not so much for mankind… for womankind, my record isn’t quite so bleak.”
We all probably know what happens next. That’s what is so great about the Wilder/Brackett scripts. They are not wildly unpredictable. The joy lies in watching their story unfold before you, not so much in watching their story shock you. The greatest shock lies in the bold nature of some of their lines, and the script is full of them. As I made clear in my first essay on the “Great American Screenplays”, screwball comedy is, first and foremost, about the banter. Witticisms, repartee, and innuendo (political or sexual) are at the heart of these comedies that never seem to get old.
The script’s hilarity is reason enough for it to be included in the blog. But, the fact that it came out in 1939, and the way in which it came out, only adds to the reason why it has a worthy place in this group of reviews. That is because the story of Ninotchka is one of marketing mastery. Despite being released the same year as blockbusters like Jesse James and The Wizard of Oz—not to mention the most block-busting blockbuster of all time, Gone With the Wind—, and despite being banned in basically every Eastern bloc country there was, it still pulled in a domestic gross of over $2,290,000, which, adjusted to inflation, puts it somewhere in the vicinity of films like 2012’s 21 Jump Street or 1990’s The Hunt for Red October.
The marketing was focused on a couple words, which made up the most famous tagline in movie history: “Garbo Laughs!” This was Greta Garbo’s penultimate film, and the first one that was a full comedy. Garbo, at the time, was one of the most beloved film actresses in the world. Her oeuvre of performances dated back to 1920. Now, in all those films, she had laughed plenty of times. The most notable of these, as is stated on her Wikipedia page for all who read to know, was in Queen Christina, when she dresses up in disguise as a man and creates some real comedy for a large section of the film. What Queen Christina showed was that this, the most dramatic of Hollywood actresses, had real comic chops, and needed to show them off. The makers of Ninotchka and the production guys at MGM capitalized on this brilliantly. They were giving Garbo a swan song for the ages, on a note that no one really had come to know from her before.
Known primarily for her face, which was considered to be “perfect” for silent film, Garbo struggled more than most to transition to talking pictures. Comparable female stars like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Claudette Colbert were hitting it big, but Garbo hadn’t had quite the success. She had resurrected her silent role of Anna Karenina from the 1927 film Love in a 1935 film called Anna Karenina. And she had had some relative success in Queen Christina. But, since the advent of sound, her only real masterpiece film was Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel, which was released in 1932. Perhaps the most famous scene in the film, other than the shocking murder which almost made my list of the greatest plot twists in movie history, is the sequence when Garbo’s character, Grusinskaya the Dancer, leans in melancholy against the door frame to her room and pleads, “I want to be alone…I just want to be alone.” (Again, I refer you to my list of movie quotes).
Well, one of the most funny sequences of Ninotchka rings some familiar bells. The character Iranoff approaches her with a simple question. “Do you want to be alone?” he asks.
“No,” she says.
Without question, this is a sign of the Lubitsch touch, as well as evidence to what makes the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s so fun to watch. They never pretend to be anything but what they are: they are movies, they know it, and they embrace it. I love it when a comedy doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t; and when movies enjoy an element of self-awareness, they are more accessible and fun. As long as I brought up 21 Jump Street a few paragraphs ago, I might as well address its sequel, 22 Jump Street. In that movie, we are given plenty of references to how 22 Jump Street is just another corporate attempt to capitalize on past success. It is aware that it is a sequel, it embraces it, and, as a result, is surprisingly vindicated.
A more contemporaneous example of this would be His Girl Friday, which came out the following January (1940). The most famous instance in that movie of this sort of inside joke is when Cary Grant’s character is stumbling over words to describe Ralph Bellamy’s character, and says, “He looks like that fellow in the movies…you know, uh….Ralph Bellamy!” Or, elsewhere in the film, when Grant warns of the frightful end of the last person who crossed him, “Archie Leach”—it’s funny, since Cary Grant’s birth name was Archibald Alexander Leach.
With Ninotchka, you’re given a world full of self-awareness. I think that is one of the quintessential elements to the Lubitschland that Scott Eyman said was the essence of “the Lubitsch touch”. In movies like Trouble in Paradise, To Be or Not to Be, and Ninotchka, Ernst Lubitsch creates a world that operates like only a movie-world can. It turns propriety on its head, it deals with the shattering of class, sex, and cultural boundaries. And yet, it is culturally poignant in the real world.
To build a movie around an actress who never laughed, and to make her laugh, required a brilliant script and a brilliant director to bring it to life. It required that director to create a world different from our own, in order for her laughs to seem real. It also required that world to have a lot in common with our own, in some sort of oxymoronic, paradoxical way. That is why so many people have struggled for so long to define what “the Lubitsch touch” is. It is a paradox, most of the time. It’s tough to tell. You just have to see it and experience it for yourself.