Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Ninotchka (1939)

By Eric Jessen 7/6/09

To hell with politics. Turn that frown upside down. What about love? What about laughter? Lets first start with a smile. It will make the whole world better.
This is the lovely and enduring message of Ninotchka and of To Be or Not Be (an equally splendid movie) and of any Ernst Lubitsch movie for that matter. To explain Lubitsch's approach further look at what Leon (Melvyn Douglas) says to Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) as he tries to get her to laugh. He pleads “Smile at anything, at the whole ridiculous spectacle of life, at people being so serious, taking themselves pompously, exaggerating their own importance” and later saying “I can't leave you. I won't, not until you laugh at least once.” That is Lubitsch's mission, and he fulfills it over and over again. Go see Ninotchka or To Be or Not to Be or Trouble in Paradise because they're all wonderful. There is so much love and joy for people, so much elegance and playfulness in a Lubitsch movie. His characters have an endearing silliness about them but are at the same time nuanced. While their comedy may at times seem slapstick, it can be very biting satire.
In Ninotchka we first meet three Russian comrades on an assignment in Paris to sell diamonds formerly owned by the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire) to raise money for starving people in Russian. When the three buffoon comrades Iranoff (Sig Ruman), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart) and Kopalski (Alexander Granach) get manipulated by Leon, who is working for Duchess Swana, the hard boiled diligent Ninotchka is sent from Russia to help. When Ninotchka arrives at the train station in Paris, a man comes to help her with her bags and she calls it a “social injustice.” She's very red. The minute she meets Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski she gets right down to business and refuses to meet with the scheming Leon. When she has a break in her work she decides to go scout Paris and study its mechanical structure. While on the street she stumbles upon Leon (one of the movie's many perfectly scripted coincidences). They immediately fall in love. Leon breaks Ninotchka's rough exterior with charming wit. They don't realize that they are enemies in the legal battle over the diamonds. Their love intersects with their politics. Leon is a bourgeoisie consumerist dilettante. He once thought of love as simply juvenile and middle class. Ninotchka says she puts her country, her morals, convictions, all that stuff first and before love. But she has one precious week until she'll be sent back to Moscow so why not treasure the few moments she has with her beloved Leon? Leon has broken her shell. She can finally laugh at the world, at Russian grumpiness, and at scoundrels like Iranoff, Buljanoff and Kopalski. She looks at the photo of Lennon she carries with her and says “Smile little father, smile.” During the week Ninotchka comes to her senses. (And here comes the satire.) Who cares about the ideals, the morals, the poor workers? All her troubles wash away with one lustful glance by Leon. Shucks, what's wrong with liking the weird hats and fancy dresses they sell in Paris? Ninotchka thinks Russia might want to give crazy old capitalism a whirl. She pronounces (though drunk) “Lovers of the world unite. No we won't stretch up our arms. We won't clench our fists. Our solute will be a kiss.” In the end she forgets all that communist mumbo jumbo and just lets herself live happily ever after with Leon.
So, what about love and what about laughter? What about that first smile, that smile that will brighten the world? You'll find it in Ninotchka.

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