Ninotchka (1939)

Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas in Ninotchka

Ninotchka, 1939, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. B&W, 110 minutes.

After her three comrades are taken in by the pleasures of Paris, Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova (Greta Garbo) is sent by the Russian government to complete their task of selling jewelry seized from the aristocracy during the Russian Revolution. Standing in her way is suave Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), who is representing the woman (Ina Claire) who claims to be the true owner of the jewels. The Count finds himself falling for Ninotchka, who, in her own cool, calculating way, begins to be seduced by both his charms and the sway of capitalism.

Ninotchka is practical and analytical, Count d’Algout is ardent and idealistic. The cold ideals of communism are faced with the bright lights of capitalism, and the hearts of all are quickened by the romance of Paris.

Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas star in Ninotchka
Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas

This was the first comedy for Garbo, and she was well-cast as the reserved Russian on a mission for the state. Her skills are put to good use in developing the character, and her delivery of some of the funniest lines is impeccable. As one of the finest actresses of her time, had she been given further opportunity in comedy, she may have been a shining light.

Studio executives were seeking an appropriate romantic comedy for Garbo, one with which they could use the line, “Garbo Laughs!” as a takeoff on the immensely popular “Garbo Talks!” marketing campaign used for her first talking film, Anna Christie. They approached Melchior Lengyel, who came up with this three-line synopsis of a story:

“Russian girl saturated with Bolshevist ideals goes to fearful, capitalistic, monopolistic Paris. She meets romance and has an uproarious good time. Capitalism not so bad, after all.”

and Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch turned it into the Academy Award-nominated screenplay.

Greta Garbo in Ninotchka
Greta Garbo

In what many consider to be the best year for films in the Golden Age of Hollywood (1939), Ninotchka was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actress (Garbo), Best Story (Melchior Lengyel) and, as mentioned above, Best Screenplay. It won none, but this was a year when it truly could be said, “it’s an honor just to be nominated.”

The timing of world events just prior to the release of Ninotchka played a part in its initial success. For years, Russia had been seen as a friend of the United States, and its anti-Nazi sympathies helped solidify the camaraderie. Being a communist sympathizer had not yet reached the point of being considered dangerous to the American way of life.

However, in August of 1939, Germany and Russia became allies, and anti-Nazi sentiment outweighed support of the Russian government or lifestyle. A political satire mocking this new-found enemy was timely.

Felix Bressart, Greta Garbo, Sig Ruman, Alexander Granach in Ninotchka
Felix Bressart, Greta Garbo, Sig Ruman, Alexander Karlach

The satire remains fresh today, and the performances of both stars as well as those of the numerous character actors, including the three men who played the Russians first sent to Paris, are strong and funny. Felix Bressart, whom Ernst Lubitsch also used with great effect in other films, such as The Shop Around the Corner and To Be or Not to Be, is particularly appealing. As is this film.




To Be or Not To Be (1942)

Carole Lombard, Jack Benny in To Be or Not To Be

To Be or Not To Be, 1942, United Artists. Starring Jack Benny, Carole Lombard, Robert Stack. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. B&W, 99 minutes.

A renowned Polish acting troupe is compelled to take on the performance of their lives with an impromptu spy plot in this wickedly funny satire of Naziism and Hitler’s Germany. Actor Josef Tura (Jack Benny) and his lovely actress wife Maria (Carole Lombard) have both talent and ego, as well as the affections of the Warsaw public.

Among those devoted to Maria is aviator Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), who Maria sneaks backstage as her husband is giving his dramatic performance of Hamlet. The two have taken to a clandestine romance under the eaves.

Until the war begins. Like all Poles, the Turas are living in uncertainty. Sobinski, in the meantime, is flying for freedom, and in an unfortunate case of mistaken identity, potentially puts dangerous information in the Gestapo’s hands. His realization of his error and the resulting attempts to set it right lead the entire troupe in a witty, deceptive game that inevitably trips them up at each turn.

Sadly, Lombard died in a plane crash while promoting war bonds only two months before the film’s release. She was never more dazzling, or funnier, than in this movie, and her comic delivery of the sharp one-liners with their subtle innuendo is flawless. Benny, for his part, is in his element as the husband torn between unleashing his fury at his wife’s betrayal and giving his finest performance for the sake of his country’s freedom.

To Be or Not To Be was met with sharp criticism from some, who questioned how something as serious as the Nazi occupation of Poland could be made comedy material, and strong praise from others, who recognized the satire for what it was. German-born Lubitsch defended his work, pointing out the story is as much about an actor’s drive to act, no matter what the circumstances, as it is about the war, which was heavy on the hearts of all at the time.

Robert Stack, Carole Lombard
Robert Stack, Carole Lombard

The movie received one Academy Award nomination, for Best Music, Scoring. It is now recognized as a comedy classic, one of the best of the era, and is considered by many to be Lubitsch’s finest work.

The 1983 remake of the same title, starring Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, is an enjoyable movie, but not of the calibre of the original. There is nothing quite like a film with the Lubitsch touch.

Jack Benny Carole Lombard in To Be or Not To Be
Jack Benny, Carole Lombard


The Shop Around the Corner

margaret-sullavan-james-stewart-frank-morgan in The Shop Around the Corner

The Shop Around the Corner, 1940, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, Frank Morgan. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. B&W, 99 minutes.

One of the most charming and disarming romantic comedies ever made, The Shop Around the Corner is a story of two co-workers seeking both romance & security, neither knowing the other is the one to provide it. Both believe they’ve found love with their own mystery pen pal, unknown persons who possess all the desired qualities.

Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) is constantly at odds with fellow sales clerk Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan). They work at Matuschek and Company, a  Hungarian shop that sells such goods as suitcases and musical cigarette boxes.  Each has been corresponding with someone they gratefully say is nothing like the other, and they’re both anxious yet hesitant about meeting their pen pals.

In the meantime, shop owner Mr. Matuschek is heartbroken to learn his wife has been having an affair. He first suspects Alfred, going so far as to fire him on the evening of this once highly-favored employee’s first date with his secret correspondent.

Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart

Alfred heads off to meet his date anyway, and that’s when he learns he and Klara have been in love with each other without knowing it. That same night, Mr. Matuschek’s despair leads him to take even more drastic, very nearly tragic, action.

Things come together on Christmas Eve at the Shop Around the Corner in a yes, predictable, but nonetheless appealing way.

The well-written script together with the fine direction result in a story told as much in the details as the broader scope of the plot. While often considered a holiday movie, it is an ideal story year-around with its feel-good nature, top-notch performances and timeless tale.

Margaret Sullavan

A good part of the charm is due to the genuine chemistry between real life friends Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart. In fact, it was Sullavan who, early in Stewart’s career, predicted he’d be a star and advocated for larger roles for him. Rumor has it Stewart was in love with Sullavan, who was married, and his feelings for her kept him from marrying until he was 41.

Director Ernst Lubitsch later would call The Shop Around the Corner his favorite of all his films. One of the most popular directors of his time, he was known for his sophisticated style and use of innuendo, qualities seen even in this simple tale.

The movie has been remade several times, including You’ve Got Mail, a loose adaptation which pays homage to the original by naming a bookstore key to the plot “The Shop Around the Corner.”