My Totally-Subjective Classic Movie Guide, Part 3
This post continues a list of Golden Age movies that I’d recommend to someone unfamiliar with old movies. It’s based on movies I personally love, but I’ve also made an effort to include several different genres and some recognized all-time classics (which I also happen to love). They are in no particular order.
“Oh, Ninotchka, don’t take things so seriously. Nothing’s worth it, really.”
Greta Garbo, perhaps the biggest star of the 1930s, certainly one of the biggest, was not known for comedy. She was known for “Camille” and “Anna Karenina”— the type of pictures often known as “weepies” because of their tragic element.
I’m not really into Garbo’s weepies, except maybe “Grand Hotel,” in which her story is just one of several. But Garbo’s first true comedy is one of my all-time favorites, and she’s terrific in it, displaying razor-sharp comic timing. Yes, her character is supposed to be humorless. But it takes someone with a great sense of humor to play this part as well as Garbo does. She knows exactly how to serve the comedy.
It doesn’t hurt that she and co-star Melvyn Douglas are working with one of the great comedy directors, Ernst Lubitsch. Lubitsch had such a knack for sophisticated comedy that his style became known as “the Lubitsch touch.”
“Ninotchka” is set in Paris. Some jewels that had belonged to the Russian nobility are in dispute. The Soviets, needing cash, want to sell them, but a former Russian duchess enlists her charming paramour, Léon (Douglas), to step in and try to claim the jewels for her.
The Russian emissaries handling the case have already been entranced and corrupted by their Paris lifestyle, so it doesn’t take much for Douglas to distract them and delay the sale of the jewels. Moscow then sends in the deadly-serious Ninotchka (Garbo) to take charge of the situation.
Ninotchka is a true believer, someone who sees everything in terms of class struggle. Douglas is a bon vivant.