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.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

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Flying Down To Rio

Only Angels Have Wings is the culmination of the 1930’s aviation pictures (and boy there were a lot of them), helmed by director Howard Hawks who previously directed The Dawn Patrol and Ceiling Zero and even features the casting of Richard Barthelmess, star of such flying pictures The Dawn Patrol, The Last Flight and Central Airport. With World War II on the horizon this genre would never be the same again. Like in The Dawn Patrol, the pilots in Only Angels Have Wings have methods of dealing with reality as the film really examines the psychology of early aviators and the danger they went through to get the job done; Hawks called Only Angels Have Wings the truest film he ever made. Why do flyers do what they do? As Kid (Thomas Mitchell) puts it, “I couldn’t give you an answer that’d make sense”.

The first 30 minutes of the movie takes place in real time in what is my favourite section of the film in which a whole host of emotions are presented with a short period of time; a real piece of film magic. As we are introduced to the cast and become attached to pilot Joe Souther (Noah Beery Jr.) as he and his buddy become friends with an American tourist Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) only for him to be killed in a flying accidents moments later when he’s called on short notice to deliver mail. Death is such a normal occurrence that the squadron leader Geoff (Cary Grant) has no problem eating the steak ordered by Joe prior to his death only moments ago while the pilots even sarcastically ask each other “who’s Joe?” when Bonnie questions them on their ability to carry on like nothing happened; a denial of reality in order to deal with reality. Just how healthy is that? Well as Bonnie puts it, “All my life I’ve hated funerals, the fuss and bother never brings anyone back, just spoils remembering them as they really are”. This 30-minute section of the film successfully goes from one emotion to the polar opposite from joy to tragedy and back to joy again. I still, however, can’t find myself fully engaging in the joy of Jean Arthur and Cary Grant playing the piano knowing one of their flying comrades just died a horrible death. Likewise, at the beginning of the film, we also see an interesting method of getting free drinks from a bar if you’re friendly with the owner; I must try that one out sometime.

Jean Arthur’s role of Bonnie Lee, a lone adventuress from Brooklyn is a change of pace for the actress as she leaves her usual urban dwellings. Arthur differs from other Hawksain women due to her absence of sex appeal, she’s simply not that kind of an actress but rather more inherently innocent and sweet hearted. Hawks wanted Arthur to play Bonnie subtly sexy way with Arthur stating, “I can’t do that kind of stuff”. The scene in which she invades Geoff’s room in order to take a bath was never going to be Clark Gable or Jean Harlow in Red Dust with Arthur playing the role, resulting in a scene which is playful without being flirty of sexual. Just listen to her as speaks of how “It’s so cold and rainy outside and nice and warm and cosy in here” – it couldn’t be delivered in a more innocent manner. I feel Jean Arthur represents the way young boys will innocently feel about women before hitting puberty.

I feel the rest of the film doesn’t reach the emotional heights which the first forty minutes accomplished partially due to the lack of the Jean Arthur touch with her being absent for lengthy portions of the film but it is still blessed with a great cast of players. Cary Grant plays a Clark Gable type role, a no-nonsense leader under extraneous pressure in the part of Geoff Carter while silent era star Richard Barthelmess uses his greatly expressive face which carries the baggage of his character. Plus what’s a Hollywood movie from the 30’s without a central to east European comic relief character in the form of Sig Ruman. The one cast member who doesn’t do anything for me is Rita Hayworth whom I’ve never particularly been a big fan off but there is still the bizarre amusement of Grant pouring water over her hair.

Only Angels Have Wings even opens up the potential to be The Wages of Fear of the air when Barthelmess is required to transport nitroglycerine by plane but the movie doesn’t take this far creating a missed opportunity. Regardless the aerial footage of the plans is an impressive sight with long uncut shots as the camera moves along with the aircraft. The film doesn’t identify what country the story takes place, however, I like when classic films leave details like that ambiguous; let your imagination fill in the blanks.