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Western Decadence at its Best
Member Name: TheChocolateLady
Advantages: Acting, Directing, Script, Scenery, Costumes
Disadvantages: You can't buy the film in the UK and its hardly ever on TV
If you like Greta Garbo, and I do, then this is one of her "must see" films of all times. If you don't like Greta Garbo, then go and see it anyway! Why? Because, believe it or not, this is pure fun.
Scene 1 - Introduction:
OK, so there is no Iron Curtain anymore and Communism has all but disappeared, so a movie about Russian agents might be a bit outdated. But who cares? This film makes you realize that if the script is good enough, the acting stellar and the cinematography classic, nothing can stop you from enjoying it.
This film was originally a stage play and later was made into the Broadway musical "Silk Stockings" which was also made into a film of the same name - which always reminds me of the similar case of the comedy "Philadelphia Story" which was made into the musical "High Society". Personally, in both cases, I found the non-musical versions to be better than the musical ones.
Scene 2 - The Story:
This film is, of course, the classic "boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl" story with a little twist. Nothing new, really, except that the script by Billy Wilder (Sabrina - both versions, Some Like it Hot, Witness for the Prosecution, Casino Royal), who joined the team of Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch (Journey to the Center of the Earth, Sunset Blvd.) is fresh even today - despite what Leonard Maltin's book describes as "outdated sociological banter".
No romantic relationship is without its problems, and Hollywood made sure that the films of the late 30's and early 40's were filled with good romance with lots of bumps along that road to love to make the trip more interesting. Having a Communist agent fall in love with a decadent Westerner was the perfect twist when this film came out. And obviously, you’ll probably figure out which side will win in this hot version of the "cold war". Director Ernst Lubitsch (Heaven Can Wait - 1943 version, Shop Around the Corner) uses every trick in the book to get just the right balance of soft vs. hard and drama vs. humour into this piece.
Scene 3 - The Hook:
But what makes this movie so special? For me, it was the way in which the characters develop and grow through the film - even if they do so at a slightly exaggerated, 1930s rate, the growth is still there. Here we have a cold-hearted, business-like female Soviet Agent who is off to do a specific job in the decadent city of Paris. Can Paris be the undoing of the hard-hearted Nina Ivanovna Yakushova (aka Ninotchka)? And what of this handsome, charming, Count Leon d'Algout (played by Melvyn Douglas)? Why, he’s an aristocrat - the very symbol of everything that “Mother Russia” despises! What comrade worth her salt (not jewels, but salt, mind you) would be swayed by such a being. And yet… like the taste of Champaign that starts out bitter and biting, but ends up smooth and inviting - all these things insinuate themselves into the mind and heart of the noble Ninotchka. Or, as we might say today “resistance is futile”. But it is just that resistance - and its breakdown - that makes this whole movie.
As I said before, Garbo shows her excellent comic abilities in this movie. If you always thought of Garbo as a more serious actress, you should also see "Two Faced Woman" (her last film) which only proves that she was hugely underemployed in the area of comedy by Hollywood. That said, you should also look out for the other dramatic actor in this film who has a tiny role here - Bela Lugosi of the horror film fame! See if you can pick him out.
Douglas was well known during this era of film for his romantic comedy parts. He teamed up with Garbo again for her last film (mentioned above) as well as an earlier, less known film. He was probably the obvious choice for this part, as at this point in his career, both his ability to play a romantic lead in a comedy and the public desire for both Douglas and these types of films, was at an all-time high. Douglas doesn’t disappoint and when Garbo first cracks a smile to one of his witty comments, the whole screen lights up. How unfortunate that this team were limited to three films.
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, this is a beautiful example of his abilities in directing comedy. What only surprises me (and I am thankful for it) is that no one has tried to re-make this film as they did with his "Shop Around the Corner" with the far inferior "You've Got Mail". Perhaps the Communist vs. Western twist in this love story is just outdated enough to spare us some horrid re-make with an even more unlikely sub-plot than the original. Thank heavens for small favors, right?
This is, of course, a black & white film. One often forgets that when watching movies so wonderfully directed as this. Mostly because everything seems so alive and colourful. For instance, somehow, all of the scenes that take place in Paris have a feel of light and air and bright party colours. On the other hand, for the scenes that are supposed to be taking place in Russia, everything seems dark and dingy and dull. As if, like in “The Wizard of Oz” the harsh reality scenes are filmed without colour and the fantasy has full colour to enhance the magical mood.
How this was achieved with only monochrome film is something that only Lubitsch and his crew were masters of. That, and the clever use of textured fabrics to dress the characters in for the appropriate scenes. You’ll see the difference between the shiny silks and gossamer netting in Garbo’s Paris garb vs. heavy wools and stiff cottons in her Russian outfits - all lending to the air of the settings. Even the scenery was carefully designed to give the illusion of vibrant colour vs. dull black & white. The overall effect is amazing.
Scene 3 - The Wrap Up:
What more can I say about this film? Its lively, fun, well directed, cleverly written, perfectly performed and even has some great music to round it all out. Is it a bit outmoded? Yes, but who cares - do you want to just have some watching fun? Well then, forget world politics for 110 minutes - sit back to watch this treasure and enjoy!
Thanks for reading.
This is a review of the film only, as per the criteria below.
According to Internet Movie Data Base (www.imdb.com) this movie is only available for sale on in the USA on US system DVD for $15.98 and NTSC VHS Video new or used only from $1.73. It has a rating of NR - meaning its not rated at all, and is listed as coming from Warner Studios.
Every so often, movie channels like TCM will have a Garbo festival or something of the kind. That’s when you should keep your eyes peeled for this movie. Then, like I did, set your VCR or DVD recorder and capture it for yourself for enjoyment whenever you’re in the mood.
This is one of my old Epinons ops that I’ve embellished upon for the benefit of my readers both here and on Ciao!
Summary: Probably Garbo's best comedy - a true classic film!