Ninotchka (1939)

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Communism: A Load of Bolshevik

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Does communism have a moral equivalency to Nazism? Conservatives have long complained of a double stand for Nazi and communist crimes. Nazism is based on heinous sounding ideas; communism is based on nice sounding ideas. However, that makes communism and left-wing radicalism more appealing to people of good intentions and perhaps that makes communism more dangerous and an evil in disguise. I’m undecided on this question myself but regardless of which ideology is worse, there is one thing I’m certain about: communism sucks and the fact that it has nowhere near the reputation of Nazism is disturbing. This is an ideology which was responsible for the deaths of 100 million in the 20th century yet I am able to buy t-shirts featuring its dictators in pop culture stores.

The 1939 Ernst Lubitish directed and Billy Wilder penned comedy Ninotchka is reflective of this lack of moral equivalency between Nazism and communism despite the film clearly being anti-communist (apparently the film was responsible for communists losing an Italian election in 1947). The scenes in Ninotchka which take place in Russia are grim. The complete censorship of information, the regimented support of the regime, the asphyxiating and claustrophobic living conditions, rationed food, fear of spying neighbours and the overall lack of personal freedoms. Yet despite critique such as this which the film levels against communism, Ninotchka does not present communism as the utterly monstrous belief system that Hollywood suggested Nazism was. When I first watched Ninothcka as a politically lay viewer that’s the impression I got – “communism isn’t great but Nazism is worse”. That’s not to say Ninotchka would be so much better a film if it went the full throttle and showed us the gulags and mass starvation but would a film like Ninotchka transposed to Nazi Germany ever get made with the same comic and tonal approach, one which doesn’t go the full throttle by mentioning concentration camps and persecution of Jews and other minorities. Would it even be morally appropriate to do so? – Food for thought.

One of the ways in which Ninotchka jabs at the Soviets is through the Russian characters skewered thinking. In the opening scene the three comrades on a mission in Paris attempt to justify choosing an expensive hotel over a cheap one because apparently, it’s what Lenin would have wanted and refusing to simply admit they really just want the royal suite (“but who said we had to have an idea”). In another scene in the film, Ninotchka explains why Soviet Russia is “peddling our precious possessions to the world at this time”. She goes onto say, “Our next year’s crop is in danger, and you know it. Unless we can get foreign currency to buy tractors, there’ll not be enough bread for our people and you comrades.” As if tractors could overcome a drought and famine. Likewise, there is Leon’s (Melvyn Douglas) statement in regards to Russia, “I’ve been interested in your five-year plan for the last 15 years”.

I do find much of the Ninotchka’s first 18 minutes prior to the introduction of Garbo to be a bit flat even with some humorous scenes in which the three comrades are being seduced by capitalistic decadence and start fawning over Leon. The setting up of the background behind the jewels as a plot device and the scenes between Melvyn Douglas and Ina Claire are not terribly interesting. Once Garbo appears, however, the film is on fire.

Greta Garbo is not one of my favourite actresses but I totally understand the appeal. Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova Envoy Extraordinaire is one badass. She claims to have been a sergeant in Third Cavalry Brigade and she is certainly one with the ability to convince the uninitiated to communist ideals. Lines such as “I have heard of the arrogant male in capitalistic society” and “That’s no business, that’s social injustice” don’t sound too different from talking points by modern lefties. Ninotchka is driven by facts and statistics in comparison to Leon who is more driven by emotion (although I guess the fact of communism’s failure is one for her to ignore). The Soviet State as represented by the figure of Ninotchka is genuinely concerned with the great mass of its people but it is so interested in their statistical well being that is has forgotten their emotional needs and has become cold, oppressive and inhuman. Garbo’s cold emotionless voice and her stone face are fully utilised in a faultless deadpan, comic performance. However, when she finally laughs for the first time and unleashes her endearing side, it feels so genuine and uplifting. At the heart of romance in Ninotchka is that of love triumphing over opposing ideologies.

Ninotchka’s communist ideology does rub off on Leon as he becomes somewhat of a campaign socialist and humorously turns to violence in order to track down Ninotchka later in the film. As good as Melvyn Douglas is in the role of Leon, I can’t help but wish William Powell could have performed the role as no one does suave cynicism like Powell. Regardless Douglas does deliver one of my all-time favourite set of movie lines in which he tells Ninotchka to just smile “At the whole ridiculous spectacle of life, at people being so serious”; I like to remind myself of this whenever I feel frustrated at the state of the world we live in.

One of the most interesting scenes in the film involves Leon’s butler Gaston (Richard Carle) telling his master about his concern regarding Ninotchka’s (or simply the Bolshevik Lady) influence over him;  Gaston as much as refuses to dust Leon’s copy of Karl Marx’s Capital as it is a socialistic volume. Gaston also mentions how Leon has not paid him two months in the movie suggesting that capitalism isn’t perfect; however, Gaston finds the prospect of sharing belongings with Leon and being on an equal footing as him to be terrifying. By the end of the film, neither Ninotchka nor Leon directly renounces communism but I doubt they will be returning to Russia any time soon.

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Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977)

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Not The Final Installment In That Teen Vampire Series

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

1977 was a year of some high profile bombs which later achieved some cult status such as Cross of Iron, Sorcerer and Twilight’s Last Gleaming. This partially came about from the competition from a certain film called Star Wars which offered a more optimistic and hopeful cinematic experience. As someone who has mixed feeling on New Hollywood, these movies don’t deserve to be ignored the way they are and are some of the best hidden gems of the 1970’s. Likewise, the trashy, conspiracy theory concept of Twilight’s Last Gleaming would be the ire of many high brow critics but it’s the high concept which makes Twilight’s Last Gleaming irresistible and helps the viewer to look past the implausibility of the premise. This is a film which trades it’s logic for emotion and is aware of its own implausibility (“How in the hell does some joker walk into a top-secret installation and get control of the most sophisticated weapons system in the world?”). As a layman, it feels believable within the context of the movie but it’s always fun to ask, could it happen in real life?

Twilight’s Last Gleaming features an ironic use of ‘My Country Tis of Thee’ during the opening and closing credits; it’s not exactly a happy movie. Oddly, however, Jerry Goldsmith’s score sounds like something from an action/adventure blockbuster and is even John Williams like at times. The action takes place over a single day in what can be described as Dog Day Afternoon like scenario in a missile silo for a film which you could mistaken as being based on a stage play with its handful of sets and lengthy scenes. On my first viewing I wasn’t convinced the running time was justified but watching it again I was hooked. Twilight’s Last Gleaming takes is set in the future year of November 16th, 1981 although it’s not stated why it’s set on this particular date.

Burt Lancaster was still getting some great roles into the 1970’s. He still had his mojo and now with a beat-up face to boot. As one of the characters in the film puts it, “with that rhetoric he could be elected governor in ten states”. Lancaster’s role of General Lawrence Dell draws parallels to his role of General Scott in the political thriller Seven Days In May; a megalomaniac going to extremes in order to fulfill his agenda despite the risks to the United States and the world as a whole. He may be trying to provide a catharsis to the pain and anger of Vietnam veterans but at what cost? Lancaster and co-star Paul Winfred have an enjoyable chemistry between them and provide comic relief with their back and forth. It’s interesting seeing Lancaster sparring off with actors much younger than him as well as dropping some F-bombs. On top of that, there is something surreal about watching Burt Lancaster drinking a can of Coca-Cola. Product placements for Coca-Cola appear at several points throughout the film with Coke vending machines in clear sight; I guess they have to answer to The Coca-Cola Company.

Twilight’s Last Gleaming consists of veteran actors talking some serious stuff. The discussions in the Oval Office scene are a lot to take in on one viewing (“Ralph! Are you comparing Vietnam to Hitler?!” – It always goes back to Hitler). The movie is full of entertaining one-liners – “It’s like Star Trek all over again”, “Come on this isn’t Disneyland” and my favourite, “There are no midgets in the United States Air Force”.  The oldest among this cast is Melvyn Douglas, the prime example of an actor who got better with age as clearly evident here; full of powerful subdue comments and monologues (“The beginning of the end of mankind, in graphic black and white”).

The film’s extensive use of split screen works remarkably well and does not feel like a gimmick creating a unique viewing experience; the split screen here is clearly not an afterthought. The entire sequence in which missiles are about to be launched is presented entirely in split screen with events being monitored in three different locations in order to heighten the tension. The scene itself is one scary sequence with the pandemonium and the sight of the missiles rising (the model of the silo exterior is shown on screen just briefly enough not to notice they are models). The President himself describes it best – “The opening of the doors of hell”.

The President in Twilight’s Last Gleaming played by Charles Durning is not an idealistic representation of a president nor is he massively charming and ultimately a bit drab. However, we do get to see his human side during a scene in which he talks to his General alone and admits to being scared out of his mind. At the beginning of the film, there is a scene in which the President has a conversation with a character played by Roscoe Lee Brown. It doesn’t have a purpose in the plot but does set the tone of the White House scenes and foreshadows the rest of the movie (“If I grant Zabat sanctuary, I give approval to every dissident with a cause and a gun”).

The ending of Twilight’s Last Gleaming all comes down to the question of whether or not society can deal with the truth? With widespread distrust in the government starting with the assassination of JFK and not getting any better with the Watergate scandal, would the President’s cabinet reveal the movie’s purported truth on the Vietnam War to the American public like he ordered before being shot down in an attempt to take down the two men holding him hostage. However was his death even an accident or did they intend to let him be shot down in order to keep the truth hidden; it does seem odd that no medical aid is given to him after being shot. The ending is left ambiguous and the viewer is left to think about it.

A Woman’s Face (1941)

Two-Faced Woman

A Woman’s Face is a trashy, pseudo-horror movie like film but one presented as an A-picture melodrama. I’ve watched A Woman’s Face five times as of writing this review and gets better every time I watch it. Within the last year, I’ve felt the motivation to watch the film three times, something which is almost unheard of for me; this movie is that good. I’ve now decided, screw it, this is my favourite Joan Crawford film and considering there’s tough competition from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Mildred Pierce and The Women, that’s saying a lot.

Every major cast member in A Woman’s Face is superb. I know that sounds like a generalization but it’s true. Firstly there’s Conrad Veidt as Torsten Barring. I adore every second this man is on screen; he’s just so delightfully sinister but in the most absorbingly charming manner – I’m swept off my feet by his presence. I can completely buy into the romance he shares with Anna Holm (Crawford) because he looks past her facial disfigurement and is unbothered by it. Melvyn Douglas is the other great charmer of the cast, whom I’ve yet to see paired with an actress who he didn’t share great chemistry. Ossa Massen, Reginald Owen, Albert Bassermann, Marjorie Main (unrecognisable here) and Donald Meek are also all equally memorable and stand in the strong characterisations of their roles. Likewise on re-watching look out for the moments of foreshadowing (“You love children? I loathe them”).

Then there’s Crawford herself in a once in a lifetime role as a facially disfigured woman, a part few actresses would be prepared to play. Her character of Anna Holm only engages in deceitful acts because of society’s mistreatment of her since childhood but is otherwise good at heart. Anna tries to make the best for herself and doesn’t dwell into a victimhood complex (“I don’t care for pity ether”); she runs her own tavern, pursues different talents and less virtuously is involved in criminality. Regardless throughout the film my heart pours out for the poor woman and yet even with the disfigurement I still find Crawford to be incredibly beautiful in this film, nor does the disfigurement ever take away from the asset that is her stunning body. If anything the moment in which Anna returns from a shopping trip and is wearing a very excessive blouse to take attention away from her face is the one moment in the film in which her character comes off to me as pathetic sight.

A Woman’s Face is one of the few thrillers George Cukor directed with echoes of Hitchcock throughout, such as the shots of the smelter plant and a waterfall in the background (similar to the scenery in films such as Foreign Correspondent), to the film’s suspenseful scenes such as that atop the cable car. This sequence itself is absent of any music, simply allowing the sound of the nearby waterfall and the smelter plant increase the tension while the film’s climax, on the other hand, offers a sort of Ben-Hur on sleds finale. Since I consider this film far superior to Hitchcock’s thriller offering that year of Suspicion, Cukor out Hitchcocked Hitchcock. With Cukor being one of the great masters of his trade, the cinematography of A Woman’s Face is a feast for the eyes. Technically speaking, the scenes at the hospital and Anna’s subsequent unbandaging are my favourite part of the film. Along with A Woman’s Face and the 1934 medical drama Men In White, it makes me wonder if it’s just me or do medical interiors and apparatuses make for some of the best subjects to capture on film.

Being a remake of a Swedish film, there’s something somewhat unconventional about A Woman’s Face for a Hollywood film. The movie does manage to capture the essence of its Northern European setting (despite much of the cast supporting American accents) and offers a slice of Swedish culture with its dancing sequence.

I consider 1941 to be the greatest year in the history of cinema. The output of this single year is the jealous vain of entire decades and A Woman’s Face just adds to this. Melodrama seems to have a bad reputation for no good reason. Like many things, it can be done well and done poorly. A Woman’s Face represents the old Hollywood melodrama tailored to perfection.

Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

Fifty Shades Of Screwball

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Theodora Goes Wild was released two years into Hollywood’s production code and yet the entire premise of the movie is one huge “how did they get away with that?!”. Only The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire and The Moon Is Blue perhaps out do it in terms of most pre-code post-code films. A film with a heroine who writes risqué novels and rebels against her ultraconservative, God-fearing, Helen Lovejoy type aunts who deem it their obligation to keep the fictional town of Lynnfield, Connecticut (yet another screwball comedy set in the state) the one last pure, God-fearing town in America. Moral puritans who try to ruin everyone else’s fun and claim to speak for a larger group- every generation has them. Theodora Goes Wild proceeds with an ending in which the once silent majority Lynnfield show their true colours. – This movie hasn’t lost an ounce of relevance for today’s world.

The scene at the beginning of Theodora Goes Wild in which the local literary group read passages from the latest “scandalous” novel from author Caroline Adams really is jaw-dropping. However, the local newspaper run by Thomas Mitchell starts printing a serialization of the scandalous bestseller in an effort to show the town how people live, love and learn in the real world. Little do they know Caroline Adams is their own Theodora Lynn, a Sunday school teacher who’s been playing the church organ since she was 15. Under the rules of the Production Code, a character must receive a punishment for their so-called “immoral” actions. Not here though! Despite Theodora rebelling against her God-fearing upbringing, she receives no punishment. Whoever said old movies are stuffy and the dreaded “O” word, outdated?

Despite writing highly successful adult novels, Theodora’s conscious still objects to it and thus requires a bit of Melvyn Douglas as Michael Grant to ignite Theodora’s sexual awakening after he seduces her while wearing a vest as his only piece of torso. Despite neither of these two performers being sex symbols, it’s surprising how steamy this scene comes off. Melvyn Douglas plays a potentially creepy stalker but is charming enough and carefree to a comic degree that he gets away with it. The man has adapt comedic timing (I never tire of that whistling of his) and it’s easy to see why Douglas was one of the most reliable male co-stars of the time. However what succeeds in making him a more interesting character is the discovery that Michael is actually just as repressed as Theodora due to being enslaved in a hateful marriage on behalf of his father’s political livelihood. Once Michael liberates Theodora from her small town way of life she returns the favour and liberates him from his New York, bourgeois decorum.