Ernst Lubitsch

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.

Pre-Code Essentials: Design For Living (1933)

Design for Living Hopkins March Cooper

Plot

After commercial artist Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins) meets aspiring playwright Thomas Chambers (Fredric March) and artist George Curtis (Gary Cooper) on a train, the three of them hit it off with each other very well. Thomas and George are best friends and live together, working on their respective art forms. Unbeknownst to each other, they each start having an affair with Gilda. When they realize what’s been going on, Gilda announces that she can’t decide between the two men, so she’d rather serve as a platonic muse to both of them. However, nobody follows through with the “platonic” part of their arrangement.

With Gilda’s help, Tom’s play is produced and becomes a big hit. But with so much of Tom’s attentions on his play, George and Gilda have time to pursue their affair, which inspires him to become a successful artist. It isn’t long before Tom and George realize that Gilda has continued having affairs with both of them, there is some initial anger, but before anything else can happen, Gilda leaves both of them to marry her dull boss Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton).

Not long after her marriage to Max, Tom and George pay a visit to Gilda and find her deeply bored with her new role in life. Being Max’s wife is positively mind-numbing to her and she misses the days of having affairs with both George and Tom.


My Thoughts

Ernst Lubitsch was responsible for directing many great pre-codes, but Design for Living is the most risqué of them all. It’s a perfectly witty, stylish, sophisticated cinematic concoction that certainly would have left conservative types clutching their pearls. And who can blame Gilda for being forced to choose between men played by Gary Cooper and Fredric March? I love this movie.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

Basically, the entire movie is one big pre-code moment.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

When a movie’s entire plot is  hinges around ideas that would have been very strictly forbidden just a year later, that automatically earns it a spot pretty high on any list of essential pre-codes. In a lot of other pre-codes, objectionable scenes might have been removed as deemed necessary by local censors. That couldn’t happen with Design for Living since its shock factor is built into the story. A movie ending with three people deciding a three-way relationship is right for them, especially when one of them is openly rejecting a traditional marriage in favor of this three-way relationship, would still be pretty eyebrow raising by today’s standards.

Pre-Code Essentials: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Trouble in Paradise

Plot

When pickpocket Lily (Miriam Hopkins) meets notorious thief Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall), it’s love at first heist. They meet in Venice, where they are each posing as nobility in order to rob rich people. After they take turns robbing each other blind, Lily and Gaston fall madly in love and become partners in crime. As they steal their way to Paris, they set their sights on robbing perfumer Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis). While at the opera one night, Gaston steals an extremely valuable purse Colet had been carrying and when she offers a reward for its return, Lily and Gaston decide they’d get more money by returning it.

As Gaston goes to return the purse and collect the reward, he pretends to be Gaston Lavalle and charms his way into becoming Colet’s personal secretary so he can have easy access to her money. Lily naturally becomes Gaston’s assistant and isn’t impressed when she realizes there’s a romantic spark between Gaston and Colet. Even though Colet doesn’t believe in marriage and has turned down many other suitors, she can’t resist Gaston. But it isn’t long before some of Colet’s colleagues begin to realize that here new secretary looks awfully familiar…


My Thoughts

Lubitsch. Hopkins. Francis. Can you ask for any better ingredients for a delightful pre-code comedy? Trouble in Paradise is the cinematic equivalent of drinking a glass of champagne. It’s sharp, witty, light, and oh so sophisticated. This is definitely one of the all-time great comedies; it’s always a pleasure to revisit this one.

1932 was truly the year for Kay Francis to make witty movies where her character falls in love with thieves. This was the same year she made Jewel Robbery with William Powell, where her character falls madly in love with the thief who comes to rob the jewelry store she’s shopping in.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

As Lily and Gaston have dinner together in Venice and essentially seduce each other by robbing each other, particularly when he reveals he’s stolen the garter right off her leg.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

So far this month, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about movies where you end up rooting for the criminals, even though censors didn’t want moviegoers to be rooting for the criminals. Trouble in Paradise may very well be one of the ultimate examples of that. Lily and Gaston aren’t even thieves who are sorry for what they do or steal out of desperation, they steal for the sheer pleasure of it. But Trouble in Paradise‘s writing is so incredibly witty and the premise is presented in such an outrageous way, it’s easy to want to go along for the ride. The love triangle aspect of the plot was also pretty racy by 1932’s standards.

Pre-Code Essentials: The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

The Smiling Lieutenant

Plot

Austrian Royal Guard Lieutenant Niki von Preyn (Maurice Chevalier) is madly in love with violinist Franzi (Claudette Colbert), but when the royal family from Flausenthurm comes to town, Niki winks at Franzi as the royals are moving through town and Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins) sees it and thinks it was directed at her. She is insulted and the whole incident causes quite the scandal. But when Niki convinces Anna that he couldn’t help himself because she was so beautiful, she insists on marrying Niki right away and he is forced to go along with it.

Being a married man does nothing to make Niki forget about Franzi and they continue to see each other in secret. When Anna finds out what’s been going on, she plans to confront Franzi about it. But when Franzi realizes how much Anna loves Niki, she gives Anna a makeover to make her more appealing to Niki.


My Thoughts

Ernst Lubitsch is one of those directors whose movies never seem to completely let me down and The Smiling Lieutenant is one of my favorites of his. It’s just so…Lubitsch. It’s extremely witty, sophisticated, and has that unmistakably lightness that was Lubitsch’s trademark. Chevalier, Colbert, and of course, Hopkins are just so perfect for his style of direction and the movie’s sharp writing. It’s a really wonderful, delightful little comedy.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

The Smiling Lieutenant is easily the most fun I’ve ever seen a movie have with the subject of marital infidelity. Only in the pre-code era could you get away with making a comedy that involves a wife confronting her husband’s other woman and the two women end up singing a song together about jazzing up their lingerie.

What’s on TCM: January 2014

Joan CrawfordHappy new year!  I hope you all had a very happy holiday season. I had a lot of fun revisiting all my favorite holiday movies in December, but now it’s time to get back to watching more regular movies and luckily, TCM is going to make that transition very easy for me.

Break out the shoulder pads, eyebrow pencils, and Pepsi because Joan Crawford is the Star of the Month!  A marathon of Joan Crawford movies will start every Thursday night at 8:00 PM and each week will focus on a different era of Joan’s career.

This month’s installment of Friday Night Spotlight will feature Science in the Movies and is going to be hosted by Dr. Sean Michael Carroll, PhD, a senior research associate at the California Institute of Technology’s Physics department.

Other noteworthy things happening in January include Judge Judy as Guest Programmer, a celebration of past and present recipients of the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, and 24 hours of movies by Columbia Pictures to commemorate the studio’s 90th anniversary.  Now, let’s take a more detailed look at the line-up…

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Monte Carlo (1930)

Monte Carlo 1930 PosterJust as she’s about to marry Duke Otto von Liebenheim (Claude Allister), Countess Helene Mara (Jeanette MacDonald) leaves him standing at the altar and hops on the next train to Monte Carlo.  Helene may be a countess, but she’s broke and only would have been marrying Otto for his money.  She’d rather try her luck gambling with what little money she has than marry Otto.

On her way to the casino one night, Helene passes by Count Rudolphe Falliere (Jack Buchanan) and he knows he has to meet her.  He tries to get her attention, but doesn’t have much luck.  So Rudolphe comes up with the idea of posing as a hairdresser named Rudy as a way of getting close to her.  The plan works and it isn’t long before they fall in love with each other.  Helene has no idea that Rudy is actually very rich so as her financial woes continue to worsen, she’s tempted to go back to Otto.  But when Rudy offers to take the last bit of Helene’s money to the casino and comes back with 100,000 Francs (not from gambling winnings, from his own money), Helene’s decision gets even harder.

Just when it looks like Helene is going to marry Otto, Rudy gets her to see an opera about a familiar story — a man who gets close to a woman by posing as a hairdresser.  During the show, Helene realizes who she really belongs with and finds out the truth about who Rudy really is.

If you’re a fan of Ernst Lubitsch’s musicals, you’ll probably enjoy Monte Carlo.  It’s not the best of his musicals, but it is so unmistakably Lubitsch that I couldn’t not like it.  It’s a pleasant little lark.  Even though the story isn’t the strongest, Lubitsch’s distinctive brand of style and sophistication was enough to hold my interest.  However, I didn’t really care for Jack Buchanan as the leading man.  I would have preferred to see Maurice Chevalier in his role.

Heaven Can Wait (1943)

Heaven Can Wait PosterWhen Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) dies, he has no delusions about going to Heaven.  But before he can go anywhere, he has to explain to the devil why he belongs in Hell.  So he starts telling his life story, beginning with his privileged childhood spent living with his parents and doting grandfather (Charles Coburn).  As a teenager, his family hires a maid and tutor who helps put him on the path to becoming a real playboy.  Just as Henry is about to turn 26, Henry meets Martha (Gene Tierney), the woman of his dreams.  The only problem is that she is already engaged to his cousin.  However, Martha is more interested in Henry so they elope.

Ten years later, on the morning of Henry’s 36th birthday, Martha tires of him stepping out on her so she leaves.  With encouragement from his grandfather, Henry patches things up with her and they elope all over again.  Another twenty-five years pass and Henry has settled down, but their son Jack (Tod Andrews) is behaving much like Henry had when he was younger.  On the night of their twenty-fifth anniversary, Henry notices Martha hasn’t been feeling well and she dies a short time later.

Without Martha in his life, 60-year-old Henry is back to staying out late and cavorting with women.  Jack, on the other hand, has settled down and become a responsible business man.  Henry lives to be 70 years old and dies in his bed, under the care of a beautiful nurse.  After hearing Henry’s life story, the devil decides that Henry does not belong in Hell, for he has made many people in his life happy.

Considering its cast and director, I went into Heaven Can Wait with very high expectations.  For me, this was an example of the adage, “Shoot for the moon.  Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”  Heaven Can Wait isn’t one of my favorite Ernst Lubitsch films, but I’m so fond of Lubitsch that even if one of his movies isn’t a favorite of mine, I still enjoy it very much.  Gene Tierney and Don Ameche made a wonderful couple and Charles Coburn was perfectly cast as Henry’s grandfather.  The story is very sweet and has a great deal of warmth to it.  However, I just didn’t feel like it was quite in the same league as some Lubitsch’s other films like Ninotchka, Trouble in Paradise, or The Shop Around the Corner.  But those are some very lofty standards to live up to and even if Heaven can Wait doesn’t quite reach them, it’s still a pleasure to watch.