Monday, September 15, 2014


seen on TV @ TCM

I think it was sometime in the mid-to-late 90s. At least, I'm fairly sure it was around then. I don't remember if I was channel surfing and discovered it by accident or if I knew about it in advance. I distinctly remember seeing it though: PBS aired a bunch of Greta Garbo silents. They may have been clips or they may have been full-length films; I don't recall. 

The point is that I remember watching them on TV and being mesmerized by them. Part of it has to do with the way silent films force you to pay attention to everything, because you'll miss the flow of the plot if you don't. Mostly, though, it was Garbo herself, a singular, rare beauty, timeless and exquisite, someone who belonged on a movie screen, more than most.

Modern movie stars, indeed, modern celebrities in general, can be and often are more down-to-earth and accessible, thanks to social media, than ever before. Garbo was different, though: the detached, distant superstar high up in her ivory tower, so to speak. Perhaps it was appropriate that she rose to fame as a silent star. There's something almost otherworldly about silent film stars. You can't hear their voices, or indeed the world in which they inhabit, so they seem less real, therefore, it's easy to project what you want onto them.

But then came the sound era, and hearing Garbo talk turned out to be no detriment to her career, to say the least. People today don't realize how huge a star she was. To pick one example: there's a poster for a sound movie she did called The Painted Veil, which doesn't sell the movie so much as it sells her. Not only is she above the title, her name - GARBO (no first name necessary) - is in huge letters, underneath a large, dominant shot of her. 

It's the tag line that's the real kicker, though: "The STAR whose flame fires the world!" It's breathtaking in its blunt, naked propagandizing. What is this movie about? Doesn't matter, GARBO is in it. Modern movie posters use large head shots to sell their stars all the time, even in this age of the non-movie star, but there's something about an image like this, used to sell a superstar like Garbo, that speaks to not only her fame, but her public's total adoration of her. Which modern star could you describe in such hyperbolic tones: Jolie? Streep? Depp?

And it's not even like she was that exceptional an actress, to be perfectly honest. She was good in the roles she inhabited, but it's not like she had the versatility of, say, Stanwyck or Hepburn, or the pure power of Davis. I think her appeal rested with her on-screen persona; the magnetism that her face radiated, which I experienced when I saw those silents of hers on TV. One look (preferably on a big screen) at her and you'd be willing to watch her do anything.

Ninotchka came at the tail end of her career, and in re-watching it last week, it occurred to me that this may be one of, if not the most romantic movie I've ever watched. Making an ice queen melt is a rarely-talked-about guy fantasy, an old-fashioned one. There's something about reaching the heart of a woman who seems cold on the surface that represents an almost irresistible challenge, because we guys like to believe that we're creative enough and witty enough to see beneath that cool exterior. Plus, in this case, there's the added bonus of the chick in question being from a foreign culture. More to discover, more to learn.

Melvyn Douglas' character, of course, believes himself up to the task, but it's not until he's caught in an unprepared moment with egg on his face that the object of his affection finally cracks a smile, and indeed, that's a telling moment. Only by letting oneself be exposed and vulnerable, with one's defenses down, we're being told, can one connect with another, and all the pick-up lines and bad jokes can't change that. It's a very human moment, and a very real one.

Once Douglas and Garbo hook up, though, all bets are off. (Does anyone else ever confuse Douglas with William Powell? I used to, but not anymore.) Theirs is a very chaste romance, something else I noticed in watching it last week. Ninotchka and Leon get loaded and stumble back to her hotel room, playing around with the movie's Macguffin, the disputed jewelry, but when she falls asleep, he simply puts her to bed and quietly slips away. It's more than just not wanting to take advantage of her, it's a loving gesture. Ninotchka's not just an infatuation for Leon. By this point in the movie, he genuinely adores her and he wants to do right by her.

Ninotchka is Lubitsch and Wilder (and Brackett), of course, the first Ernst Lubitsch film I ever saw, long before I knew and appreciated who he was, especially in relation to Billy Wilder. In Cameron Crowe's book Conversations with Wilder, Wilder cited the French hat in this movie as an example of the "Lubitsch touch": each time we see Ninotchka and that hat, her attitude towards it changes slightly, from contempt to curiosity to acceptance. Wilder called it a "superjoke," though to me it's less a joke than a shorthand way to define character. The hat in itself is not as important as Ninotchka's perception of it.

As Europeans, Lubitsch and Wilder were in a prime position to examine Soviet Russia and Communism in general in this movie, not just in the culture-clash jokes, but in the contrast between Garbo's Ninotchka, who represents the "new," post-Revolution Russia, and Ina Claire's Grand Duchess Swana, who represents the "old." Claire's is a terrific role, and she gets some great scenes, such as the one where she meets Ninotchka and Leon at dinner and Ninotchka's wearing that stunning evening dress for the first time. 

Swana, as a former member of the aristocracy, wears her sense of entitlement like the jewelry she's fighting to get back, and in this scene she keeps trying to bait Ninotchka, a true believer in the "fairer" world offered by Karl Marx and Communism, who won't fall for it. It's more than a battle of wills, it's a battle of ideologies, and as such, it's not easily resolved.

I can easily watch Ninotchka again and again, even though it kinda drags a little bit after she returns to Russia, and I was pleased to find new things about it to appreciate while watching it last week. (Brief aside: in searching for pics for this post, I had the misfortune to see a few stills from a colorized version, and they look absolutely awful! May that version never see the light of day again!)


  1. I love the point you make about having to pay more attention while watching a silent. That's so true! Great review.

    And a colorized Ninotchka is an abomination! I'm glad I haven't seen those pics yet.

  2. Not that I approve of colorization, but I've seen it done well. This just wasn't. Scary.

  3. I've seen the film so often that my over familiarity has started to blunt its charms. You made me see them anew.

  4. Good to know! I totally know what you mean about becoming too familiar with a movie, though. Something about this one doesn't get old for me, though. Not yet, anyway!


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