Billy Wilder

Ninotchka Greta Garbo Melvyn Douglas

Ninotchka (1939)

As a way to raise money, the Russian government sends Iranoff (Sig Rumann), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart), and Kopalski (Alexander Granach) to Paris so they can sell some jewels that had been taken from the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire) during a revolution. Swana now lives in Paris and when she hears about the sale of her jewels, she wants them back and gets her boyfriend Leon (Melvyn Douglas) to put a stop to it. Leon distracts Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski from their mission by giving them a taste of the luxuries life in Paris has to offer (not that it takes much effort to distract them).

Once the Russian government finds out about the sale getting off track, they send special Envoy Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) to make sure the job is completed. While Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski were easily tempted to enjoy a taste of the good life, Ninotchka is a devout Communist, deeply loyal to Russia, and very stern and humorless. The sophisticated, decadent Parisian lifestyle appalls Ninotchka and her only interests lie in selling the jewels and admiring Paris strictly from an architectural standpoint.

While headed toward the Eiffel Tower, Ninotchka meets Leon, who is immediately attracted to her. Neither of them realize who the other is and Leon continues trying to flirt with her. Even when he finds out who she is and why she’s in Paris, he still continues to pursue her. Meanwhile, Ninotchka starts to fall in love with Leon, too, and being in love helps to soften Ninotchka’s stern attitude and even gets her to change her minds about the way of life in Paris.

In my book, Ninotchka is Garbo’s finest talkie. As much as I love movies like Queen ChristinaNinotchka is a perfect cocktail of a film. This was Garbo’s first attempt at comedy and she proved to be an expert at very dry, deadpan comedy. As great as Garbo is when Ninotchka is at her sternest, her finest moments come as Ninotchka softens and starts to let go of herself. These are the moments when Garbo is at her most delightful; they let us see a side of Garbo that we don’t see in any of her other films.

Melvyn Douglas was easily one of Garbo’s best leading men; he’s my second favorite of her co-stars, just behind John Gilbert. (Melvyn Douglas is vastly under-appreciated in general, in my opinion.) His debonair, sophisticated style in this movie is the perfect contrast to the uptight Ninotchka.

And I certainly can’t neglect to mention director Ernst Lubitsch, who is completely in his element with Ninotchka. This is exactly the type of material Lubitsch is best remembered for working with. To make things even better, Billy Wilder had a hand in writing the screenplay. I adore Billy Wilder both as a writer and a director and I have yet to be completely disappointed by a Lubitsch film, so to be able to see those two creative forces come together in one movie is a true delight for me.

A Few Thoughts on Some Like it Hot

Some Like it Hot Tony Curtis Jack Lemmon

Even though Some Like it Hot is now regarded as one of the all-time great comedies, I think one of the most remarkable things about Some Like it Hot is how easily it could have been just another run-of-the-mill movie instead of the classic it is today.

There have been times when I’ve tried explaining the plot of Some Like it Hot to someone who has never seen it before, only to have the person seem less than impressed by its premise.  In all fairness, I can see how people might get that impression because when you strip it down to its bare bones, it doesn’t sound particularly unique.  The whole trope of men dressing up as women for comedic purposes is one of the oldest tricks in the book; it’s been done for centuries.  Even one of Some Like it Hot‘s most memorable scenes, the party in the train compartment, is very reminiscent of the infamous stateroom scene from the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera.

However, the fact that Some Like it Hot is anything but mundane is a testament to the talent of Billy Wilder.  It’s like he figured out the recipe for the perfect comedy and it’s a recipe that hinges on the quality of the ingredients.  Everybody involved with it needed to bring their “A” game or it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as it did.

First of all, there’s the brilliant writing by Wilder and his frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond.  It may not have been the most original premise for a movie, but it’s easy to forgive that when it’s written so well.  Add to that three outstanding actors in the lead roles and one rock-solid supporting cast.  But most importantly, the actors were under the direction of someone who really brought out the best in them; even the notoriously difficult Marilyn Monroe.  All of these things combined are what took a movie that seems so common on the surface and elevated it to a much higher level.

Paramount in the 1950’s

Paramount in the 50’s just wouldn’t have been the same without Billy Wilder.  He made two of his most, in my opinion, under-appreciated movies at Paramount: 1953’s Stalag 17 and 1951’s Ace in the Hole.  But in 1950, he released a movie that defined not only his career, but the entire film industry — Sunset Boulevard.

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What’s on TCM: June 2012

Hard to believe it’s already almost June!  June’s Star(s) of the Month are Teen Idols.  Every Thursday will be showcasing movies starring the likes of Elvis, Frankie and Annette, The Monkees, and Troy Donahue.  TCM will also be doing a series called The Immigrant Experience every Wednesday night this month.  June 10th is a very noteworthy day as it marks what would be Judy Garland’s 90th birthday.  TCM will be celebrating by playing her movies for a full 24 hours, all chosen by noted Judy Garland expert John Fricke.  The Essentials, Jr. series also makes its return to Sunday nights this month.

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What’s on TCM: March 2012

Happy March, everybody!  There are plenty of things I’m looking forward to on TCM this month!  First of all, there’s the tail end of 31 Days of Oscars.  The end of 31 Days of Oscars means the return of Silent Sunday Nights, and it’s back with some excellent silents.  Lovers of pre-codes should definitely keep an eye on the schedule this month because I noticed quite a few pre-codes mixed in there.  Starting this month, Drew Barrymore will take over Alec Baldwin’s co-hosting duties for The Essentials.  Karl Malden is the star of the month and I haven’t seen very many of his movies, so this is a good chance for me to see more of his work.  Every Monday night this month will feature films from the British new wave era, which is something I’m very eager to see.  So, let’s get on to all my highlights for the month:

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What’s on TCM: June 2011

How is it already June?  But anyway, it’s shaping up to be a fun month on TCM.  Every Thursday this month, TCM will be showing a night full of classic drive-in movies.  So if you’re like me and love cheesy monster movies, you’re going to love this month.  There’s also the return of Essentials, Jr. on Sunday nights at 8:00 PM, hosted this year by Bill Hader.  The Star of the Month is the lovely Jean Simmons, who I’ve always found to be a bit on the under-appreciated side.  With no further ado, let’s go on to my TCM picks for the month…

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The Major and the Minor (1942)

Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers) is just one of the thousands of people who move out to New York City in hopes of a more glamorous life.  After spending a year there, she’s gone through twenty-five jobs and eventually winds up working as a scalp massager.  When she gets called to take care of Albert Osborne (Robert Benchley), the appointment goes awry when he makes a pass at her and she finally decides she’s had enough.  She packs her things and tries to catch the next train back to Stevenson, Iowa.  Only problem is that she doesn’t have quite enough money for a ticket.  But if she were a child, she could ride for half fare.  She heads to the ladies room and does what she can to make herself look about twelve years old and manages to get a half fare ticket.

Even though she manages to fool the man at the ticket counter, some conductors on the train are pretty suspicious.  They keep giving her the third degree, but she blows her own cover when she goes to have a cigarette and gets caught.  As they conductors chase her through the train, she ducks into what she thinks is an empty drawing room, but instead finds Major Phillip Kerby (Ray Milland), a teacher at a military academy.  Phillip buys her disguise and when she tells him a story about not feeling well, he buys it hook, line, and sinker and invites her to spend the night in his room so she could lay down.  That night, there are some major thunderstorms and the train ends up being delayed because the tracks are washed out.  Meanwhile, Pamela, Phillip’s fiancée, and her father, who also happens to be his commanding officer, are waiting to meet him at the station.  When they find out the train has been delayed, they drive out to find the stopped train.

Pamela hurries on board and isn’t too pleased to find Susan in his room.  Phillip quickly comes up with a story about how Susan is his niece and he’s bringing her to the military academy until her parents can come get her. Pamela goes along with it and arranges it so that Susan can stay with her sister Lucy.  But Lucy’s a smart girl and can see that Susan is clearly not a kid.  She could easily blow the lid off this whole scheme, but she keeps her mouth shut because she wants Susan to help her with something.  Even though Phillip really wants to be put on active duty, Pamela has been arranging it so that he will stay at the academy with her.  Lucy can’t stand to see this so she recruits Susan to help get Phillip where he ought to be.  Meanwhile, Phillip has arranged it so that Susan will always have an escort from one of the boys on campus and she becomes quite popular with them.  During her time at the academy, she falls for Phillip and when Phillip looks at her with his bad eye, he thinks she looks like a pretty good-looking adult.  All goes well until the night of a big dance that is attended by some of the students’ parents.  Unfortunately, it turns out that Albert Osborne from New York is the father of one of the cadets and recognizes Susan immediately.  She flees from the academy and finally gets back to Iowa, but can’t get Phillip off her mind.  Phillip can’t forget her, either.

The Major and the Minor wasn’t Billy Wilder’s directorial debut, but it was the first American film he directed.  I wouldn’t call it his best comedy, but it is a wonderfully upbeat movie and very strong considering it’s only the second movie he ever directed.  The writing is pure Billy Wilder, Ginger was a riot in it, and Ray Milland wasn’t too bad, either.  I love the story about how Billy Wilder got Ray Milland to be in this movie.  The story is that Billy was driving along one night when he ended up stopped at a red light next to Ray Milland and on a whim, yelled to him, “I’m doing a picture.  Would you like to be in it?”  Ray said yes, so Billy sent him the script and the rest is history.  If you’re looking for a nice, lighthearted comedy, The Major and the Minor is right up your alley.   It’s one of those movies that’s so much fun to watch, I just don’t get tired of it.