Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Running time: 110 minutes
You may not know The Song of the Volga Boatmen by name, but you’ll probably recognize its theme. Of its melodic lines, there is one five note sequence traditionally used to signify portent and certain doom. Ba dum dum dumm dummm. “Yo heave-ho! As the barges float along,” its lyrics lament. It wasn’t until 1941, two years after NINOTCHKA was released, that the tune really took off in the States. Under Glenn Miller’s baton, the song acquired the now- slack-now-taut-ness of a ‘40s swing ballad. The new chart-topper kept its Slavic melody, but the thrum and bounce of the rhythm section are Western as a Reveille.
For each historian, a different refrain. Was it the dab-hand with which Ernst Lubitsch recontextualized European politesse for laugh-hungry American audiences? Was it his signature use of the “superjoke,” in which the punchline is delivered just after you think you just heard the punchline? Was it the way he brought out the charm in duplicitous ne’er-do-wells? Or could it have been the integral way music wove itself into the fabric of his films? These semblances, and many more, had already come to be known as “The Lubitsch Touch” – an appropriative gesture to rival that of Glenn Miller’s baton in scope and singularity.
Melvyn Douglas plays the cocksure Count D’Algout, who fled to Paris after the Soviets tore the imperial state asunder. He lives a modest life of leisure in the employ of Duchess Swana, who calls him her, “little Volga boatman.” When three graceless envoys come to Paris from Red Russia in order to sell a collection of imperial jewels, D’Algout is dispatched to intercept them for his employer. They were hers once, before the revolution, when Russia was White. When the envoys bungle the negotiations, unmoored in a sea of capitalistic methods, their stern superior (played by a stoic Bela Lugosi), sends an exceptional comrade: the monochromatic Ninotchka (Garbo).
If the Lubitsch touch had come to stand for an ever-widening circle of traits, then Greta Garbo’s reputation was a more constrictive figure. The silent film starlet made her first talkie, ANNA CHRISTIE (Brown), in 1930. “Garbo talks!” was the headline. Her role in the 1932 film, GRAND HOTEL (Goulding), ushered in the tabloid nickname, “the solitary swede,” and that unforgettable line, “I want to be [let] alone.” The trade mags might suggest that any break from her reputation was worth advertising. So when pic was promoted, the press announced, “Garbo laughs!” It worked; audiences flocked to the picture. MGM implored Radio City Music Hall: “Don’t pronounce it – hold it over!” In 1941, when Garbo reunited with Melvyn Douglas in TWO-FACED WOMAN (Cukor), it was “Garbo at her gayest!”
Interestingly, NINOTCHKA only partly keeps its promise – when Garbo first cuts up, we can’t hear her laughter at all (the whole room is laughing with her). From then on, all we get is a few snickers. Perhaps MGM didn’t offer a high enough price to afford a full-on belly laugh. It would only be fitting if this had something to do with Garbo’s estimation of her own prestige, which coincidentally belonged to the people.
14 November 2013