Melvyn Douglas

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.

What’s on TCM: September 2014

Melvyn Douglas Greta Garbo Ninotchka

Happy September, everyone! Summer Under the Stars is always a tough act to follow, but TCM does an awesome job of doing so. There are two huge things that I am very excited for. The first of which is Melvyn Douglas as Star of the Month. I have always loved Melvyn Douglas and he never seems to quite get as much credit as he deserves. There’s also a ton of his movies I’ve never seen, so I’m really happy to have the chance to see more of his work.

The second thing I am so, so excited to see is that every Friday this month will be a 24-hour marathon of pre-code movies! That’s right, 24 glorious hours of wild, fast-paced, innuendo-laden movies! Friday Night Spotlight isn’t just for prime time this month! With my annual 30 Days of Pre-Codes event, it’s no secret that I adore the pre-code era. If you have yet to explore much of this wild and fascinating era of film making, this is a golden opportunity because you’ll have the chance to see so many of the pre-code essentials (Baby Face, Three on a Match, Red Headed Woman, Design for Living, just to name a few) as well as many other great ones. Don’t miss The Story of Temple Drake on September 12 at 2:30 AM or Call Her Savage September 26 at 2:15 AM. They’re on late at night so it might be easy to overlook those, but they’re a couple of my favorite pre-codes and I don’t see them on TCM very often. If you only know Clara Bow as a silent film star, you’re going to be in for a real treat with Call Her Savage. 

Now, onto the rest of the schedule…

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Too Many Husbands (1940)

Too Many Husbands PosterWhen Bill Cardew (Fred MacMurray) is lost at sea, he is presumed to be dead.  Bill’s wife Vicky (Jean Arthur) takes comfort in the arms of Bill’s friend and business partner Henry Lowndes (Melvyn Douglas) and they get married six months after Bill’s disappearance.  The only problem is that Bill isn’t dead — he’s been living on a deserted island and finally makes it home again about a year later.

Needless to say, Vicky and Henry are stunned to hear the news that Bill is still alive and Bill is equally shocked to hear Vicky and Bill are now married.  Now the big question is, which man does Vicky want to be married to?  Bill and Henry begin to vie for her affections, which Vicky adores.  Not only does she love all the attention she’s getting, she encourages them to keep it up.

One night, Bill and Henry discover that Vicky had told each of them she has decided she wants to be with him.  To teach her a lesson, they decide to go have fun together and leave her at home alone.  Only Vicky gets so worried about where they are, she calls the police and accidentally admits to having more than one husband.  The police show up to arrest Henry and Bill and the matter of whose Vicky’s husband is brought to the courts.

The judge rules Bill is still her husband, but Henry isn’t willing to give up the fight for Vicky’s affections.  After their day in court, Bill and Vicky go out to dinner, where they run into Henry.  Henry tries to dance with Vicky and he and Bill are competitive at first, but the three of them wind up dancing together.

Too Many Husbands starts out promisingly, but it doesn’t take long for the premise to become stale and the characters only become less likeable as the movie progresses.  In the end, Bill was the only character I still liked.  Vicky enjoyed pitting Bill and Henry against each other far too much for me to have any sympathy for her or to find her antics funny. And the fact that Henry still wanted to pursue Vicky after the court ruling just left me saying, “No, really, you need to give it up now.”  With its great cast, I had somewhat high hopes for Too Many Husbands, but it left me unsatisfied.  But at least Jean Arthur got to wear some pretty marvelous costumes in it so those were nice to look at.

What’s on TCM: April 2013

Olivier, Laurence_01Looks like we’re in for another busy month on TCM!  TCM has finally broken their long streak of making actresses the Star of the Month by giving the honor to Laurence Olivier in April.

Starting this month, every Friday night will be dedicated to a new series called Friday Night Spotlight.  Each month, Robert Osborne and a different guest co-host will introduce films dealing with a particular theme.  The first Friday Night Spotlight co-host is Cher, who has selected a number of movies with strong female characters, focusing on themes such as motherhood and women in the workplace each week.

If you’re a fan of TCM Underground, be sure to note that starting this month, it has been moved from Friday to Saturday nights.  The 2:00 AM start time remains the same, though.

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Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

When their local newspaper begins running excerpts from Caroline Adams’ risqué book “The Sinner,” the town of Lynnfield, Connecticut is scandalized.  The paper’s editor gets lots of complaints from the town’s literary circle, particularly Theodora Lynn (Irene Dunn), her spinster aunts Mary and Elsie (Elizabeth Risdon and Margaret McWade, respectively), and Rebecca Perry (Spring Byington),  who get him to stop running the excerpts.  Theodora is an upstanding member of the community, but what nobody else knows is that Theodora is actually Caroline Adams.

Upset that her hometown paper was allowed to run those excerpts, Theodora takes a trip to New York to visit her publisher Arthur Stevenson (Thurston Hall).  Arthur really wants Theodora to do some publicity for her wildly successful book, but she doesn’t want to shame her family.  While in New York, Theodora is introduced to illustrator Michael Grant (Melvyn Douglas), who designed the cover of her book.  Michael is immediately suspects Theodora isn’t the worldly woman you’d expect the author of “The Sinner” to be.  He calls her out on it and, determined to prove him wrong, she gets drunk with him that night.  But when he tries to seduce her, she ends up running from his apartment.

When Theodora heads back to Lynnfield, Michael follows her to see just how tame her life really is.  When her aunts ask who he is, he poses as an out-of-work gardener named Dubarry.  Theodora hires him to take care of their yard, despite her aunts’ objections, and Michael/Dubarry becomes the talk of the town. He and Theodora fall in love with each other, but Michael really believes in her and wants to help her break free of her repressed environment so she can reach her full potential.  Even though their relationship is completely innocent, it still shocks the entire town.  After a while, Michael returns to New York and Theodora follows him.  She finds out that Michael is also stuck in an unhappy situation and the best way she can think of to get him out of it is to let her hair down the way Michael has encouraged her to.

Even though I don’t think Melvyn Douglas was Irene Dunne’s best leading man, Theodora Goes Wild is a lot of fun.  The script is very witty and Dunne is a riot.  Melvyn is great in it, too, but it’s awfully hard to top Cary Grant as my favorite Irene Dunne co-star. I wouldn’t call it one of the all-time great screwball comedies, but it is very enjoyable nonetheless.

Recasting “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” (2008)

After being fired from her job as a governess, a very straight-laced Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) finds herself deemed unemployable by her employment agency.  But when she hears about a job for a woman named Delysia LaFosse (Amy Adams), she jumps at the chance to get it.  When she arrives at Delysia’s apartment, she expects she will be taking care of children.  Instead, she finds herself taking care of an aspiring actress tangled up in a love triangle.  First there’s the young theater producer, Phil Goldman (Tom Payne), who is putting on a play that Delysia desperately wants the lead in.  She’s trying to keep him interested in her and not her rival Charlotte Warren.  Then there’s Nick Calderelli (Mark Strong), who owns the nightclub Delysia sings at.  He’s the one footing the bill for her lavish apartment and expensive clothes.  And last but not least, there’s Michael (Lee Pace), the piano player who just got out of jail.  He isn’t rich and doesn’t have the influence Nick and Phil do, but he does genuinely love her.

Over the course of one day, Guinevere helps Delysia get out of various messes and Delysia, in turn, helps Guinevere learn to embrace life.  Delysia takes Guinevere to her friend Edythe’s (Shirley Henderson) salon and gives her a makeover.  It turns out that Edythe and Guinevere have a little dirt on each other.  They had bumped into each other on the street the night before Guinevere came to Delysia’s, so Edythe knows Guinevere isn’t really the social secretary Delysia thinks she is.  But Guinevere saw Edythe out with a man who isn’t her lingerie designer boyfriend Joe Blomfield (Ciarán Hinds).  When Delysia takes Guinevere with her to a lingerie show, Guinevere meets Joe for herself and the two of them are instantly attracted to each other.

Although released in 2008, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was actually intended to be made as a movie in 1941.  Originally, it was a novel by Winifred Watson released in 1937, and she later sold the film rights to Universal Studios in 1939.  Universal held on to it for a little while and by 1941, had plans to turn it into a musical starring Billie Burke as Miss Pettigrew.  Watson was very eager to see “Miss Pettigrew…” turned into a movie, but unfortunately, the project was shelved after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  In 1954, Universal renewed the rights to the story, but again, nothing ever became of it.  Watson died in 2002 believing her story would never make it to the silver screen.

The novel was released in 1937, but I wish it had been released just a few years earlier because I think “Miss Pettigrew” would have made a great pre-code had it been around in 1934.  Delysia’s bed-hopping to further her career is hardly a secret, there’s lots of lingerie, and the book contains drug references.  I’m very curious about how Universal planned to get around some of these issues in 1941.  The drug references were gone in the 2008 movie, so those could easily been cut out in 1941, but whitewashing Delysia’s bed-hopping would have definitely been a challenge.  I also would have pegged this for an MGM movie rather than a Universal.

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