Monday, February 1, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Ninotchka"

"Ninotchka" may just have been the very first romantic comedy.

Although Hollywood produced many romances around 1939, and many of them were funny, I think "Ninotchka" stood out for several reasons. One is that it was Greta Garbo's second-to-last film. She famously abandoned acting in her mid-thirties, at the height of her fame.

Another is that it was among the first mainstream movies to explicitly criticize the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. Don't forget, he was "Uncle Joe" until after the war.

But watching it today, what most jumps out at me is how closely it resembles the structure and form of modern films like "The Proposal," "When Harry Met Sally" or "Leap Year."

The basic formula of the romantic comedy is two very different people meet, hate each other, but eventually come to realize they're in love. External forces conspire to drive them apart, but they subvert them and end up together. The End.

There are obviously a lot of variations, but most films that we dub romantic comedies follow this basic outline. And "Ninotchka" trailblazed the way.

Garbo plays the title character, an envoy from Russia (the movie never refers to the U.S.S.R.) sent to Paris to negotiate a settlement to the jewels belonging to the Grand Duchess Swana, a former member of Russian aristocracy. She lost her family jewels in the Communist takeover, and is trying to prevent three bumbling Russian diplomats from selling them.

The unsmiling, brusque Ninotchka is brought in to iron things out. On the street she runs into a suave gentleman, Leon (Melvyn Douglas), who pitches woo. He's a slick capitalist who prefers not to work, and basically represents everything she reviles. Nevertheless, she's soon smitten.

Soon they realize that Leon is a friend (and perhaps lover) of the duchess. As soon as the business with the jewels is concluded, Ninotchka has to return home and end the romance. Leon attempts to follow her, but is denied as a counter-revolutionary.

In the end, Leon cooks up another diplomatic mess in Constantinople that forces the Russian minister (Bela Lugosi, in a bit part) to send Ninotchka, reuniting them.

The film was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, the German-born master who segued easily from silent to sound pictures. But I think the real triumph of this film is in the screenplay, by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch. It just crackles with great dialogue and humor that bites without ever seeming nasty.

For me the best exchange comes when Ninotchka and the duchess meet at a swank restaurant. Ninotchka is there with Leon, and Swana is none too happy with the presence of the woman who has (from her perspective) stolen her jewels and her man. Ninotchka has just made a pointed reference to the aristocracy using the Cossacks to whip the people into line:

Duchess: "You're quite right about the Cossacks. We made a great mistake when we let them use their whips. They had such reliable guns."

Or this exchange, when Ninotchka steps off the train and refuses to let a porter take her suitcase.

Ninotchka: "Why should you carry other people's bags?"
Porter: "Well, that's my business, ma'am."
Ninotchka: "That's no business. That's social injustice!"
Porter: "That depends on the tip."

I can't say as I was particularly dazzled by the Garbo/Douglas pairing. It's one of those goofy movie romances where the leading man falls in love within minutes of meeting his lady, and he spends the next reel or two convincing her -- and the audience -- it's true love.

If "Ninotchka" were made today, it would come off as a cliched knock-off of the old romantic comedy model. But it endures because it is the mold, not the imitation.

3.5 stars

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