Thursday, April 10, 2014

Great movies of 1939 -- "Ninotchka"

"Ninotchka" was marketed with the tagline "Garbo laughs!" Greta Garbo had been one of Hollywood's tragedy queens for more than a decade when she earned her fourth and final Oscar nomination in the title role of this Ernst Lubitsch comedy. Here's the scene that provided that famous moment:

Director Lubitsch, a German emigre and three-time Oscar nominee himself), made two films about Europe during World War II: "Ninotchka" and "To Be or Not To Be." His urbane comedies often dealt with serious subjects in a witty way, whether lampooning Hitler in "To Be Or Not To Be" or mocking Soviet totalitarianism in "Ninotchka."

Garbo plays Ivanovna Yakushova, who has been sent to Paris to supervise the sale of jewelry the Soviet government has confiscated from murdered or imprisoned citizens. The first three men sent over to do that job have been corrupted by Count Leon d'Algout (Melvyn Douglas), who's trying to get hold of the jewels himself for a duchess.

The three envoys know they're in trouble, and they try to smooth things over when they meet her. "How are things in Moscow, comrade?" one inquires. "The last mass trials were a great success," replies the stone-faced Ninotchka. "There are going to be fewer but better Russians." (Hmmmm...just like the newspaper business these days.)

Capitalism triumphs, of course. So does love. The film proved so popular it was turned into the Broadway musical "Silk Stockings" 16 years later, with Hildegarde Neff as the commissar and Don Ameche as the charmer. (Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire took the roles in the 1957 film.) Cole Porter wrote the score, which included "All of You." That number looks like this:

Neither movie appealed to the Soviet Union, of course. "Ninotchka" did well at boxoffices across Europe, but it was banned in the USSR; a proposed revival late in World War II was allegedly suppressed on the grounds that the Soviet Union was now our ally. Those Commies never did laugh much.