A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939)

Greta Garbo and Bela Lugosi in Ninotchka
Nina Ivanova Yakushova: Greta Garbo
Count Leon d'Algout: Melvyn Douglas
Grand Duchess Swana: Ina Claire
Iranoff: Sig Ruman
Buljanoff: Felix Bressart
Kopalski: Alexander Granach
Commissar Razinin: Bela Lugosi
Count Alexis Rakonin: Gregory Gaye
Hotel Manager: Rolfe Sedan
Mercier: Edwin Maxwell
Gaston: Richard Carle

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Walter Reisch, Melchior Lengyel
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Art direction: Cedric Gibbons, Randall Duell
Film editing: Gene Ruggiero
Costume design: Adrian
Music: Werner R. Heymann

I had forgotten how audacious Ninotchka is when viewed in the context of the volatile international politics of 1939, a year teetering on the brink of a world war that had already begun in Britain when the film was released in November. All of the jokes about Stalin's show trials ("There are going to be fewer but better Russians"), about the ineffectual economic planning ("I've been fascinated by your five-year plan for the past 15 years"), and about the deprivations suffered by the Soviet people feel edgy, even a little sour, when we remember that almost everyone was just about to embrace the Soviets as a valued ally against the Third Reich. It's a film that shows a bit less of the "Lubitsch touch" than of the cynicism of Billy Wilder, who co-wrote the screenplay. That it transcends its era and still feels vital and funny today has mostly to do with Greta Garbo, whose shift from the Party-line drone to the vital and glamorous convert to capitalism, along with the delicate way she retains elements of the latter on her return to Moscow, is beautifully delineated. That it was her penultimate film is regrettable, but except for her definitive Camille I think it's her greatest performance.

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