Sunday, July 08, 2018

Tonight's Movie: Ninotchka (1939) at UCLA

The new series at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater, celebrating the films of director Ernst Lubitsch, opened last Friday evening.

While I wasn't there for opening night, I was in attendance for last night's wonderful double bill of NINOTCHKA (1939) and THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940). I've seen both films before, but I hadn't seen NINOTCHKA in a very long time, and better yet, it was my first time to see either film in a theater.

Author Joseph McBride was on hand to introduce the films and sign his brand-new book, HOW DID LUBITSCH DO IT?, which looks like a wonderful read. My friend Chris Yogerst has just reviewed the book for the Washington Post; be sure to check out the review and then order the book!

Mr. McBride also kindly signed my copy of one of the earliest books in my film library, a book on John Ford which he cowrote with Michael Wilmington. That book played a key role in my falling in love with Ford's movies, and it was wonderful to be able to share that with him and have the book signed.

I've previously reviewed THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, which may be read here. Both films were shown last night in gorgeous 35mm prints; the last part of NINOTCHKA had a bit of a green tinge but otherwise they were absolutely beautiful. Frank Morgan's final snowy scenes in THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER were particularly exquisite; the sharpness and depth of the black and white print were a real "wow." If I didn't know otherwise I would have thought it was a nitrate print, it looked that good.

NINOTCHKA was written by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and Walter Reisch, based on a story by Melchior Lengyel. I think I appreciated the performances and humor much more now than I did when I last saw it many years ago; of course, it's always wonderful to see a comedy with an appreciative audience! Some of the dialogue about the Eiffel Tower was laugh-out-loud funny.

Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), a White Russian in exile in Paris, has learned that Soviets emissaries have arrived in the city trying to sell her jewels to raise funds for the Communist government, and she throws up legal roadblocks to try to get them back.

A Soviet bureaucrat named Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) travels to Paris to find out why three of her comrades (Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, and Alexander Granach) are having so much trouble selling off the jewelry.

The stern Ninotchka is all business, but playboy Count Leon d'Algout (Melvyn Douglas), who has been involved with Grand Duchess Swana, chances to meet Ninotchka and is charmed by her. He takes her to the Eiffel Tower and romances her; gradually Ninotchka unbends and begins to enjoy both Leon and capitalism, but their relationship seems doomed when she must head back behind the Iron Curtain.

This is the film which had posters proclaiming "Garbo laughs!" and she does indeed; when she finally breaks up it's quite charming. Douglas is likewise adorable in this as man who genuinely falls for her, even when she only wants to talk about how the Eiffel Tower was constructed. I loved that he was fascinated by Ninotchka at all steps of her "evolution," not simply when she finally unwinds. Douglas is one of my favorite romantic comedy leads, and he was surely never better than he was in this.

The supporting cast is superb; it also includes Bela Lugosi, Dorothy Adams, George Tobias, Mary Forbes, and Gregory Gaye. Look for Peggy Moran as a cigarette girl and Bess Flowers in a nightclub scene.

The movie was filmed in black and white by William Daniels. It runs 110 minutes.

NINOTCHKA is available on DVD in the Greta Garbo Signature Collection, and it's also available on Blu-ray. It's available for streaming on Amazon Instant Video.

I expect to see more Lubitsch films at UCLA later in July! Additionally, I might even see one at the Egyptian Theatre.

1 Comments:

Blogger Stefano said...

Laura, I'm glad you saw such good prints. The previous night's 35mm print of the witty "So This is Paris" was quite good. Joseph McBride and Nicola Lubitsch shared many fascinating tidbits concerning Lubitsch. McBride related that Garbo just loved "So This is Paris", which was the first step to her working with the director. Nicola said her father's sympathetic treatment of his female characters stemmed from his upbringing in a family of strong, highly accomplished women. As the youngest child he was apparently quite spoiled and indulged, but the outcome for his personality was delightful.

Nicola also said that Ernst had little use for personal possessions, interesting given his masterful use of movie props (that cane in "So This is Paris": calling Dr. Freud!). He couldn't read music but was a skillful pianist, composing airy melodies "from Lubitschland". Ernst's approach to movies was always musical, even in the silent era, and "Paris" has the same source as the operetta "Die Fledermaus".

McBride said that the splendidly restored "Rosita" will be shown at the Egyptian Theatre in the fall, which probably means at the Cinecon festival.

9:04 AM  

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