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.

 

 

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Anna Karénina (1935)

Greta Garbo, Fredric March star in Anna Karenina

Anna Karénina, 1935, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Greta Garbo, Fredric March, Basil Rathbone. Directed by Clarence Brown. B&W, 93 minutes.

Anna Karénina (Greta Garbo) is bound in a financially and socially comfortable, yet deeply unsatisfying, life at home with her husband of ten years, Karénin (Basil Rathbone), and the son she adores, Sergei (Freddie Bartholomew). She wistfully, if somewhat indirectly, relates her feelings of malaise and longing to young Kitty (Maureen O’Sullivan) moments before she meets the dashing Count Vronsky (Fredric March). From there her life is changed forever.

Time and again, Anna and Vronsky defy society with their clandestine and illicit meetings. Gradually they are less discreet, and she is warned by her husband to stay away from the Count. Captivated by the intensity of her feelings, Anna makes a decision that has consequences she had been cautioned were inevitable, yet chose not to believe.

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Greta Garbo, Basil Rathbone

The restraints of bringing Tolstoy’s tome to the screen in little more than 90 minutes are offset by fine performances, stylish set decoration and costuming, and deft direction from Clarence Brown. The result, while not epic, is opulant and moving.

The movie was well-received critically, and did well in the box office, although it was met with mixed feelings by the general public. The London Observer‘s film critic wrote, “it is handsome and dashing, with enough social sense to present divorce as a problem to an age which has come to regard it as a commonplace.”

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Greta Garbo, Fredric March

A superb actress, Garbo’s experience in silent films served her well in Anna Karénina. Her final scenes in particular are subtly nuanced yet fully expressive, with all that is in her heart seen in her eyes, and barely a word said. She is the strength of this film. As the aggrieved husband, Basil Rathbone’s performance is taut and precise. While you may not have sympathy for the man, you understand his point of view. In contrast, Fredric March is perhaps not as compelling, but does not take away from the power of the story.

Dissatisfied with the way the adaption of Tolstoy’s classic had been handled in 1927 in a silent version of the tale titled Love, Garbo had long campaigned for another opportunity to bring Anna Karénina to the screen. She was met with resistance from her studio, yet remained undeterred until they gave in.

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Greta Garbo

Anna Karénina has been remade several times, and each version is a reflection of the era in which it is produced. The story, however, is timeless, and was brought to the screen in 1935 in a powerful manner, making this classic film one of the better movies of the early period of filmmaking.

 

Grand Hotel

greta-garbo-john-barrymore-starring-in-grand-hotel

Grand Hotel, 1932, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Greta Garbo, Lionel Barrymore, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford. Directed by Edmund Goulding. B&W, 112 minutes.

Five diverse individuals, each battling his or her own demons, are staying at the Grand Hotel where their lives and stories intersect. All lives are changed during that stay, some improve, some are left with nothing.

Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) is a retired assistant bookkeeper with only a short time to live. He’s decided to play out his last days in luxury, and despite his meek nature, demands an elite room. Baron Felix von Geigern (John Barrymore) is an aristocrat without a penny to his name, forcing him to resort to thievery to maintain his standard of living. His latest victim is to be ballerina Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo), whose declining career has led her to despair.

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Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore

There’s also Kringelein’s former employer, General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery), whose business is depending on a merger that has fallen through, and ladder-climbing Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford), the stenographer he hires for a business meeting with potential investors.

The Baron, despite his tawdry livelihood, is a gentleman and the one pivotal to moving all lives forward, whether to disaster or triumph. His fate seals that of the others.

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John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore

This pre-code film was the first to use an all-star ensemble cast, a tradition studios carried out for years to come. It also is known for its deft storytelling. The winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, it was not nominated in any other category, the only film in the Award’s history to hold that dubious distinction.

Garbo’s famous line “I want to be alone” is uttered by her character in Grand Hotel, and is credited with solidly establishing her reputation as a recluse and loner. Later she clarified the real-life meaning of the phrase for herself when she said, “I just want to left alone.” In addition to that famous line, this film, along with Anna Karenina, is often credited as the movie that proved her star power was not just in silent films, but was also found in the new “talkies.”

She was initially reluctant to be in Grand Hotel, in part because she felt that, at the age of 27, she was too old to play a diva ballerina. Studio head Irving Thalberg convinced her otherwise, and promised she could select the actor who would play Baron von Geigern, her love interest in the story. Initially she wanted her former fiancé John Gilbert, but his career was in a decline, and she accepted Thalberg’s suggestion of John Barrymore instead.

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Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery

Thalberg had to convince Beery and Crawford to star in the movie as well, but lucky they did, given its success. Crawford in particular was credited for rising to the level of the performances of her well-established co-stars and gaining credibility as an actress in talking pictures.

The movie had a huge budget for the time, a good portion of which was spent on the phenomenal Art Deco set.

Grand Hotel established a new style of film, one of many characters whose lives may or may not be entwined, that Neil Simon, among others, later copied in some of his productions. It also was the direct inspiration for the production of Dinner at Eight a year later. It is a credit to the then still-young movie industry that it holds up so well today.