Monday, February 16, 2009
Sometimes it certainly pays to give a movie a second chance. This happened to me with Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932), a movie of high repute that I wasn't sure about the first time I saw it, but which I thought was clearly a masterpiece on second viewing. Recently it happened again with Lubitsch's Ninotchka (1939). I liked the movie well enough the first time I watched it a few years ago. But I absolutely loved it when I watched it a second time a few weeks ago and could only wonder how the full extent of its charm eluded me the first time around.
What had happened in the meantime? Maybe my initial failure to appreciate Ninotchka fully was because it was only the second movie directed by Lubitsch that I had ever seen. In between viewings I'd seen several more movies by Lubitsch, and perhaps it simply took me awhile to become attuned to the Lubitsch touch. Or maybe it was because I was comparing it too much to the antic screwball comedies of the late 1930's and early 1940's that I love so much. A Lubitsch comedy often has definite similarities to a screwball comedy, but ultimately it has a distinctly more ethereal quality than the typical screwball comedy. In a Lubitsch comedy the situations are generally more restrained, the pacing more relaxed, the character relationships more complicated, the contrast between refined leading characters and eccentric supporting characters more subtle, the dialogue more polished.
The Lubitsch touch is an altogether lighter touch than that of, say, Howard Hawks—more cerebral and less visceral. Of Lubitsch's comedies Roger Ebert observes, "Turn up the heat . . . and you'd have screwball comedy." But the thing is that Lubitsch never does turn up the heat. In his comedies Hawks immediately turns the heat up all the way and brings things to a full, rolling boil, which he maintains for the rest of the movie. But the more mellow Lubitsch always keeps things just bubbling merrily along at a gentle simmer.
Another reason the obvious charms of Ninotchka didn't register fully the first time around no doubt had to do with its star, Greta Garbo. This was the first movie I ever saw the legendary Garbo in, and I really didn't know what to expect. In between viewings, though, I had seen her in her some of her most celebrated roles of the 1930's—in Queen Christina, Grand Hotel, Anna Karenina, and Camille—so when I saw Ninotchka again I had other performances to compare this one to.
Some find Garbo's screen personality remote and her acting style overly controlled and dependent on artifice. While I can understand this view, I find that these traits actually make her well-suited to her best roles, and that she succeeds better in those parts than would an actress with a warmer personality and more spontaneous, naturalistic acting style. Her Camille, for example, is essentially a professional performer who is always "on," working hard for her keep by acting the role that her succession of sugar daddies expect. Upon rewatching Ninotchka, I caught on to its deliberately calculated strategy. I realized that the movie was actually designed to showcase these familiar traits in the beginning in order to catch us off guard and surprise us later on by revealing a new and unexpected side of Garbo.
In Ninotchka (co-written by Billy Wilder, Leigh Brackett, and Walter Reisch) Garbo plays a Russian communist functionary who has been sent to Paris to check on the activities of three errant comrades, the comical and bumbling Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski. The mission of these three is to raise money for the government by selling jewelry confiscated during the Russian Revolution from the family of the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), herself an émigrée living in Paris and the mistress of Léon (Melvyn Douglas), a French count. The three emissaries have been neglecting their duty and living it up at a ritzy hotel, and Ninotchka has been charged with bringing them back in line.
Ninotchka is a woman whose personality lacks any trace of humor or emotion. With her immobile facial features, stiff, unfeminine martial gait, and asexual, uniform-like clothing, she is all business, almost a secular nun devoted not to religion but to her political beliefs. Upon arriving in Paris she announces to her chastened colleagues, "I want to use my free time to inspect public utilities and make a study of all outstanding technical achievements in the city." The first item on her agenda is to study the engineering details of the Eiffel Tower. It is while asking directions to it that she first encounters Léon, who is instantly smitten with her.
He follows her to the Eiffel Tower, where she proves resistant to all his efforts to romanticize it or the city as viewed from the observation deck. She does, however, permit herself to be enticed to his apartment, where he makes an all-out effort to seduce her. What follows is one of the most memorable scenes in this or any other movie.
In a long, unbroken take Garbo and Douglas are framed in a static two-shot, Douglas feeding her his lengthy patter of seduction while she listens. I have always believed that one of the most difficult things for a movie actor to do is simply to listen while another actor speaks, especially when both are in the frame together. The listener must convince the viewer not only that he or she is actually listening attentively but also that this is the first time he or she has ever heard these lines spoken. This sounds easy but actually must be quite difficult, and I have always considered how well an actor is able to do this a measure of acting ability.
By this measure, Garbo proves herself in this scene to be one of the most gifted performers ever to appear on the screen. My normal reaction to such a scene is instinctively to focus on the speaker and occasionally remind myself to look at the other person too. Here, though, the situation was for me exactly the reverse. My attention was entirely focused on Garbo; I literally could not take my eyes off her. She is costumed and made up to look frumpy. Her blank expression never once changes. Her response to Douglas consists solely of occasionally moving her eyes and slightly adjusting the attitude of her head. Yet she completely dominates the scene; I never once looked at Douglas the entire time. If you have ever wondered what is meant when it is said that the camera "loves" an actor, you need look no further than this scene for a perfect example.
At the end of his speech, the glacial Ninotchka looks at Léon expressionlessly and observes that she is aware he is trying to seduce her, adding dispassionately that his speech was unnecessary because she doesn't believe in the bourgeois concept of love. For her, attraction is a simple matter of mutual biological and chemical reactions, and those reactions are already happening, whereupon she permits him one passionate kiss. Léon has tried his hardest but still hasn't succeeded in breaking through Ninotchka's wall of ice. Ninotchka's message is clear: the physical attraction is there, but she has no intention of acting on it for so frivolous a purpose as personal pleasure. And the strangest thing of all is that Garbo's stiffness and her complete immunity to romanticism is in its rigidity and its ability to frustrate the enamored Léon very, very funny.
For his next approach to Ninotchka, Léon sets his sights considerably lower than immediate seduction. Following her to an unpretentious working man's cafe, he sets out simply to make her laugh. What ensues is another unforgettable classic sequence. Léon seats himself at her table and proceeds to tell her jokes. As he tells joke after joke, the rest of the cafe is in stitches, but Ninotchka simply sits and listens expressionlessly. She does nothing but put food into her mouth and chew. Finally overcome with his own exuberance, Léon gestures wildly, his chair topples backwards, and he falls on the floor. The entire cafe breaks into laughter . . . and so does Ninotchka—helplessly, uncontrollably. (It is a well-known anecdote that Garbo told Lubitsch she could not laugh on cue, so she silently mimicked laughter and the sound was later dubbed in.)
While the verbal strategies of seductive rhetoric and joke-telling have both failed to break through Ninotchka's wall of ideology and absolute self-control, the universal physical comic gesture of the pratfall succeeds. This is the scene that gave the movie its catchphrase and signaled the transformation of Garbo's image. Her first sound film was adverstised with the slogan "Garbo Talks!" Ninotchka was advertised with the slogan "Garbo Laughs!"
Léon's accidental success at loosening up Ninotchka leads to the third great sequence of the movie, when she agrees at last to accompany him to a night club on a date. For the first time Ninotchka abandons her drab hairstyle and clothing and actually begins to look feminine: the ugly duckling is starting to look glamorous. At the night club her reaction to her very first taste of champagne is one of delight, as is her response to the music being played. Ninotchka is susceptible to sensory pleasure after all. But this first tentative appreciation of pleasure is spoiled by the arrival of the jealous Swana (a wonderfully bitchy Ina Claire, the ex-wife of John Gilbert, Garbo's frequent costar in earlier years—a curious piece of casting), who wants her jewelry back. When Swana invites herself to sit at Ninotchka and Léon's table and begins maliciously baiting them, Ninotchka temporarily returns to her old humorless self.
After Swana leaves, Ninotchka reacts by drinking too much champagne and for the first time in her life getting drunk. Léon too gets drunk and together they stagger back to her hotel room, where their repartee playfully lampoons political ideology: "We'll form our own party. . . . Lovers of the world, unite! . . . Our salute will be a kiss." Léon stands Ninotchka against the wall, blindfolds her, and "executes" her with the pop of a champagne cork. "I have paid the penalty," she jokes. "Now let's hear some music." Throughout the movie political ideology has been the brunt of both gentle mockery and pointed barbs, but in this scene it takes its most direct hit from Wilder, Lubitsch et al. as love triumphs over dogma.
Of course, as in all romantic comedies, circumstances—in this case provoked by the conniving Swana—intervene to separate the lovers before they are happily reunited in the end. This last section of the movie is as entertaining and witty as the rest. But the heart of the movie is those three key sequences I discussed above, each one a compact masterpiece of writing, acting, and direction.
Watching Ninotchka is a pure delight, as effortless and effervescent a pleasure as sipping a glass of champagne.