Last week I was all a twitter over One, Two, Three, so I added the similarly-themed, early Wilder-scripted Ninotchka to my Netflix. Oddly, I’ve never seen it. The director, Lubitsch basically “invented” the romantic comedy and the world has suffered ever since. His legendary (and to be fair, solidly aggreable) Shop Around The Corner was remade as You’ve Got Mail, so even if you’ve never seen one of his films, you get the idea. Not so much “ha ha” and a lot of “meet-cute” to use a contemporary term of cinema slander.
The entire movie made so that they could slap the tag line “Garbo Laughs” in the ads… seriously, that’s historical fact. And it’s that super fake Old Hollwood “room full of drunks” laugh as well. At least once in many old movie there will be a loud assault of “HAW HAW HAW” group of people laughing that bears absolutely no resemblance to real laughter. At what point did that go out of fashion? Some NYU student should write a thesis on that.
Ninotchka’s premise three comic-relief Communist agents (played by German Jewish character actors, natch) who come to wonderful backlot-Paris to sell jewelery to raise money for the country. They get seduced by the luxury of the west so mean no-makeup Garbo comes from Russia to close the deal. Then she falls for a Parisian gigilo, puts on some make up, buys a hat that looks like a dunce cap mated to a plunger and we’re solidly in rom-com cliche land with “can opposites attract” bla bla bla and so on.
I was trying to figure out why the leader of the Russian trio looked so familiar. Since I keep my laptop on the coffee table, I looked him up in IMDB
—he’s the villian in Night at the Opera
(among other things) —he’s the owner of the Opera who beats the crap out of Harpo at the top of the flick (and then is the butt of their mayhem). I ignored pretty much the last act of Ninotchka
because I kept looking up other actors.
I have to say, the love interest for Garbo was pretty fucking goofy in this—Melvyn Douglas. He has kind of puffy cheeks and buggy eyes and when he’s rattling off all this love garbage—real Attack of the Clones caliber crap (but it’s 1939, so I’ll let it slide)—his eyes kept bugging more and he’s raising one eyebrow in a way that looks more jerkily nervous than seductive. Bill even asked, what’s this guy’s deal? Is he just like another William Powell or something? I said I remembered seeing him, or at least his name, in other stuff but the details escape me.
Looking him up too, I got a couple of interesting facts. He was the husband in Being There. He’s the grandfather of Illeana Douglas. And he was married to Helen Gahagan, the politician who ran against Nixon for senate (Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady), later was in Kennedy’s cabinet and gets referenced in a Tom Leher song. His life story is actually pretty interesting, check it out.
The most noteworthy thing in Ninotchka happens pretty early on and at the time was probably a throw-away gag. The trio are at the station to meet Garbo, coming from Russia, but they know know she’s a she. They just know some superior officer is coming to close the deal for them. So they’re looking at everyone getting off the train and a bearded man gets off. “That’s probably him” they say and they walk behind him. “Heil Hitler!” he says to a woman waiting at the station “Heil Hitler!” she shouts back, and the man and woman embrace in a kiss. “That’s definately not him” the Russians say, shaking their comic-relief heads in synchronized weariness.
Now, I get the joke was supposed to be “ah we thought he was Russian but he’s actually German.” But a man GREETS HIS WIFE after a train trip with “Heil Hitler” and then they start making out. Sieg Heil + Tender Kiss just seem totally not compatible… unless you were making out with Hitler. At least do the kiss first. Like, “I missed you honey, by the way… we’re both Nazis.”