Thursday, June 7, 2012

Pre-War Commie Comedies

By Ed Garea

There was something about Russia that always seemed to fascinate Hollywood. Perhaps it was the fact that a large number of the studio moguls came from the Motherland. Perhaps it was the fact that Soviet Russia was a closed society, and it was almost impossible to get the real story of what was happening there most of the time.

We knew it wasn’t the paradise it was trumpeted be in some sections of the press, but yet there was an inscrutable dimension to the country; a curtain we weren’t allowed to see behind. Hollywood painted the U.S.S.R. as a backwards dictatorship full of True Believers, who were such only because they never got to see over the fence. There were already rumbling at the time from The House Un-American Activities Committee, which was always looking for Commies under the carpet. (And what better place to look than Hollywood?)

Of the two films featured in this review, the first is a recognized classic of cinema while the second was an attempt to cash in on the success of the first. This view of the Soviet Union, however, would not last long, as our entry into World War II made the Russians our allies, and thus the depiction of the Soviet Union in Hollywood became a lot rosier, with Russia practically turned into a worker’s paradise, complete with happy, singing peasants and a proto-democratic way of life. Of course, once World War II ended and the Cold War began, the U.S.S.R. now became the one threat to our cherished way of life, and spawned in Hollywood a new line of unintentional comedies, otherwise known as The Red Scare Film. We’ll examine both genres in later columns.

NINOTCHKA (MGM, 1939): There is a common phrase familiar to fans of 30s and 40s movies called “The Lubitsch Touch” named for the director Ernst Lubitsch, whose films exhibited a sophistication and wit that enabled them to rise above their skewed panorama of the human condition. And nowhere is “The Lubitsch Touch” more on display than in Ninotchka.

The premise is simple: Three Russians entrusted to go to Paris to reclaim jewels are living it up at the best hotel while delaying the sale. Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) is dispatched to discover what’s really going on. She meets with Count Leon (Melvyn Douglas), the faithful retainer of the former Grand Duchess Swana, to whom the jewels ostensibly belong. Ninotchka wants the jewels; they belong to the people and as she tussles back and forth with Count Leon he falls in love with her – but can’t get to first base.

She is a no-nonsense dedicated Party member seemingly without any sense of humor, so Leon dedicates himself to trying to melt the wall of ice that surrounds her. (Garbo fit the role well – Lubitsch described her as “the most inhibited person he had ever worked with.”) It’s a tricky game to play and this is where Lubitsch is at his absolute best, as the give and take eventually leads us to an unexpected breakthrough. This happens at a restaurant where the Count is trying vainly to get Ninotchka to laugh with a few jokes. Totally frustrated and realizing defeat, he leans back and falls over in his chair to the delight of the crowd. As he looks up he sees Ninotchka laughing hysterically.

It’s the breakthrough moment, but though she comes to realize she’s in love with the Count, she still considers him the property of the Grand Duchess and reluctantly agrees to return to the Soviet Union and forget him. But soon after arriving back, her commissar (Bela Lugosi) dispatches her to Istanbul, where the three envoys from Paris are now messing up again. When she arrives she is surprised to see that it was a ruse to get her there as they brought along Count Leon, who straightens out everything between them and convinces her not to return to Russia.  A++

Memorable Quote - Ninotchka: The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.

COMRADE X (MGM, 1940): With the success of Ninotchka, MGM tried to make lightning strike twice with this rather pallid copy. Clark Gable stars as a reporter stationed in Moscow who sends coded reports to his newspaper under the pseudonym “Comrade X.” His trick in coding the messages is discovered by hotel valet Vanya (Felix Bressart) whose price for his silence is Gable taking his daughter out of the country before she is shot for being overly zealous.

Vanya’s daughter, Theodore, is a streetcar conductor with the icy personality of Garbo’s Ninotchka. However, as played by Hedy Lamarr, whom MGM was grooming to take over as the studio’s next Garbo, she comes off as stiff and uninteresting, though in terms of sexuality she far surpasses Garbo. In the end Lamarr proved to be no Garbo though this film did little, if anything, to help her reach that plateau. It lacks the sophistication – the give and take – that made Ninotchka so memorable. Gable was simply playing Gable, though he proved more amenable to comedy than did Lamarr.

Blame director King Vidor for that, for it seems that Lamarr was unprepared as how to approach her role, and Vidor wasn’t exactly known for his comedies. The best thing in the picture is the tank chase at the end, as Gable and Lamarr escape to Romania. Granted, it’s a smart take on tried and true slapstick methods. However, it isn’t enough to overcome the dull stretches in the middle where we’re waiting for something – anything – to happen.   C+

Memorable Quote - Vanya (Felix Bressart): The Communists have ideas. But they found out you can't run a government with everybody going around having ideas. So what is happening, the Communists are being executed so that Communism should succeed.

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