Ninotchka (1939)

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.

As of May 9, 2017, “Ninotchka” is scheduled to air on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on Monday, June 5, 2017 at 6:00 p.m. ET/5:00 p.m. CT.  Scheduling is subject to change; check TCM’s schedule for the latest information and to receive e-mail notifications about air dates of your favorite films.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, 1948, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, Melvyn Douglas. Directed by H. C. Potter. B&W, 93 minutes.

Tired of life in their crowded Manhattan apartment, Jim Blandings (Cary Grant) and his wife Muriel (Myrna Loy) have decided to move to the country. Their tour of properties leads them to a dilapidated home the realtor convinces them is a gem in the making, and their troubles begin.

The home, it turns out, needs to be torn down, and the Blandings set out to build their new dream house. It isn’t long before the first setback occurs, and trouble after trouble follows, slowly but surely increasing the cost of their humble — but increasingly customized — home to astronomical proportions.

Steadily advising them, with sardonic wit and a skeptical view, is their closest friend, Bill Cole (Melvyn Douglas).

melvyn-douglas-myrna-loy-cary-grant-in-mr-blandings-builds-his-dream-house
Melvyn Douglas, Myrna Loy, Cary Grant

Produced at a time of prosperity, when millions of Americans were building homes, this movie remains funny and relevant today. The foils and fobbles of new construction are familiar to anyone who’s faced the drama surrounding the bringing of that particular dream to life.

Grant and Loy are perfectly cast as the upwardly mobile couple seeking a tranquil life in the country. This was the third of three films they made together, the other two being The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer and Wings in the Dark. They worked well together, so well it’s regrettable they didn’t star together in more movies.

Douglas brings a dry wit to the story, both in his character and in the narration of the story. It was his notable brand of humor, and it served this movie well.

cary-grant-myrna-loy
Cary Grant, Myrna Loy

The studio built an actual home for the set, and later that building served as an office for Malibu Creek State Park. In addition to this home, 73 homes were built across the United States as part of a promotion for the film. Some of these homes were raffled off, and several still stand today.

The movie was based on the popular book of the same name by Eric Hodgins. In real life, the budgeted cost of his home of $11,000 was overtaken by final costs of $56,000. Hodgins was forced to sell the house two years later, but ultimately his sorrows paid off by the money made from his tale.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is fun fare, particularly for fans of Grant and Loy. It is light viewing with sharp humor that has stood the test of time.