In 1939, MGM released an effervescent, lightly satirical romantic comedy called NINOTCHKA (available on DVD) which ranks well among the enduring delights of American cinema, yet virtually all its makers were heavily accented Europeans: a Swedish superstar, Greta Garbo; a Polish-German director-producer, Ernst Lubitsch; two Viennese scenarists, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch; a Hungarian story-writer, Melchoir Lengyel; a German composer, Werner Heymann; Prussian, Hungarian and German supporting actors, Felix Bressart, Bela Lugosi, and Sig Ruman. While the picture is about Russian aristocrats and communists (seduced by the Western world) in Paris, it was shot entirely in Culver City, California, and the closest anyone got to Russia was co-star Melvyn Douglas’s father, a Russian-born concert pianist. Among the other above-the-line talent, only Irish-descended supporting actress Ina Claire, and witty, sophisticated co-screenwriter Charles Brackett were born in the U.S.A.
Can anyone argue, therefore, that a great part of the golden age of American film—-from the twenties through the fifties—-was not enormously influenced by the vigorous and various talents from abroad? Remember, our most beloved star of the silent era was the Englishman, Charlie Chaplin, and among our most influential directors was another Englishman, trained in Germany, Alfred Hitchcock. Could we use more of this foreign impact right now? French master Jean Renoir—-himself a Beverly Hills resident from 1940 until his death in 1979—-used to say that the mischievously urbane Ernst Lubitsch “invented the modern Hollywood,” by which he meant that American films were significantly colored by Lubitsch’s cosmopolitan humor after his arrival here in 1923. Ninotchka is a terrific, and extremely popular, example—-with lots of lighthearted joshing of the Soviets—-who were about to become one of our strongest allies. How much more sophisticated the world was then!
The original ads for the movie were notoriously succinct: “Garbo Laughs.” This signaled the waiting populous that it was the divine diva’s first comedy—-and what a lovely comedienne she turned out to be—-kidding brilliantly her own sullen reclusiveness. Who else could get such a beautiful laugh from a two-word response to Douglas’s admission that he has an overwhelming compulsion to flirt with her? She says languidly, “Suppress it.” Of course, Lubitsch and his writers designed the whole picture for Garbo, and the big moment—-when, after Douglas has tried in vain to make her laugh, he accidentally falls off his chair and she completely breaks up—-is deservedly famous and breathtaking in its simple audacity. Talk about effectively playing off a star’s persona…But this sort of picture-making essentially disappeared with the fall of the studio star system. Today we encourage versatile actors, not star personalities, and so another major glory once exclusive to the movies is taken away.
Ninotchka was only the second really great film of Garbo’s long career (the other was George Cukor’s 1936 version of Camille) and also, sadly, it would turn out to be her penultimate picture. (Her last was a better-forgotten, ill-conceived comedy, Two-Faced Woman, ironically also directed by Cukor.) But what a true and wonderfully human exit Ninotchka remains. Lubitsch used to say, “I have been to Paris, France, and I have been to Paris, Paramount—-I prefer Paris, Paramount.” Well, this is Paris, MGM—-a fantasy world of charm and merriment, and of that fabled “Lubitsch Touch,” which implied charm, provocative circuitousness, and gaiety, combined with a slightly bittersweet awareness that all happiness is transient—-but isn’t it swell while it lasts?! With pictures like Ninotchka, we can savor this unique and very special Lubitsch feeling forever. Perfect, by the way, for any holidays you can imagine.