Ninotchka

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And the Winner Is . . . 

Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, two movies that turn 75 this year, are being celebrated all over the place. We give the laurels instead to Ninotchka as the best film made in the great filmmaking year of 1939. Ernst Lubitsch directed Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas (whom we’ve discussed before) in this brilliant MGM comedy created from an original story by Melchior Lengyel.

Lengyel (born Menyhert Lebovics) and Lubitsch were Europeans, and knew the most subtly clever ways of making fun of the Russian Revolution. Stalin is perpetually short of cash, so he dispatches three Soviet officials to Paris to hock some jewels that the regime confiscated from a grand duchess. The trio is waylaid in Paris by the duchess’ charming aide, Melvyn Douglas, who is trying to get the jewels back. When Moscow sends a stern comrade (Garbo) after the delegation to put the mission back on track, Douglas wears her ideological commitment down, too.

Reviewing the movie for Time magazine was none other than Whittaker Chambers who wrote: “Unlike most pictures about Russian Reds, this one is neither crude clowning nor crude prejudice, but a literate and knowingly directed satire.” Garbo, he said, “succeeds in the difficult task of making her tight-lipped fanaticism funny without making it ridiculous. Even her change of heart is winning and plausible.” But, Chambers added, “why she should change under the impact of Melvyn Douglas is one of those things even the genius of Karl Marx could not explain.”

That Lubitsch and Lengyel were anti-communist and anti-fascist in equal measure became clear during the war. Their weird but daring and interesting 1942 movie, To Be or Not to Be, was set in Nazi-occupied Poland. It starred Jack Benny and Carole Lombard as Polish actors whose troupe pretends to be a pack of Nazis, in an effort to expose a fellow Pole who is spying for the Germans.

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