Monday, November 18, 2013

Sampling Ninotchka

Ninotchka. US © 1939 Loew's, Inc. PC: MGM. P+D: Ernst Lubitsch. SC: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Walter Reisch – based on a story by Melchior Lengyel. DP: William Daniels. AD: Cedric Gibbons. Cost: Adrian. M: Werner R. Heymann. ED: Gene Ruggiero. C: Greta Garbo (Ninotchka), Melvyn Douglas (count Léon), Ina Claire (Grand Duchess Swana), Bela Lugosi (commissar Razinin), Sig Rumann (Iranoff), Felix Bressart (Buljanoff), Alexander Granach (Kopalski). 110 min. 35 mm film print (KAVA, deposited by UIP / MGM: 1981 re-release print) sampled at the Marilyn screening room at Lume, Department of Film, Television and Scenography, Aalto University (School of Arts, Design and Architecture), Helsinki, 18 Nov 2013

We screened Ninotchka in its entirety in our Asta Nielsen - Greta Garbo class. This time I watched just the beginning and the ending. Ninotchka still looks brilliant and, like all comedies, is at its best seen together with a receptive audience such as today.

Greta Garbo almost always played tragic or dramatic characters, but she had a good sense of humour like her good old friend Ernst Lubitsch knew. Too bad that Garbo only got to do two comedies, Ninotchka, and her last movie, Two-Faced Woman, both starring Melvyn Douglas.

Garbo loved to act, and she always came to the stage or to the set fully prepared and ready to go. On the set even her trusted collaborators such as her cinematographer William Daniels were surprised to see nothing remarkable. First from the film image on the screen they realized. Garbo's expression may have remained the same, but when she turned her eyes from one character to another, the attitude changed profoundly. It was something subtle and interior which, however, projected powerfully on the screen.

Garbo had four especially important directors. Mauritz Stiller was her discoverer and mentor. Clarence Brown directed her in seven films, more than any other. Edmund Goulding was able to get deep with Garbo in the two films they did together. George Cukor also directed Garbo twice, in Camille, an essential Garbo vehicle, and in her last film Two-Faced Woman. Not forgetting the masterpieces of G. W. Pabst (Die freudlose Gasse) and Lubitsch. The paths of Asta Nielsen and Greta Garbo crossed in Die freudlose Gasse. Both were also directed separately by Lubitsch: Lubitsch directed an adaptation of Strindberg's Crime for Crime as Rausch, starring Nielsen (the film is unfortunately missing).

For Stiller, it was a big misunderstanding to come to Hollywood where he was prevented from directing. But he influenced Garbo deeply in the interior approach to acting, an approach opposite to the young actor Stiller's own acting style which the Finnish poet Eino Leino commented with a pun in German "Stiller, seien Sie stiller" ("Stiller, please keep more silent").

Stiller also advised Garbo to her refusal of interviews and public appearances, which she followed to the dismay of the MGM publicity department. Garbo's private life did not become public. Amazingly, the reticent policy bolstered Garbo's public image, and Garbo became MGM's biggest superstar.

The refusal of publicity created an air of mystery, yet there was no mystery in Garbo. She was a plain woman who followed a health diet, liked to exercise (especially to swim), understood to rest well, loved her family in Stockholm, yet always knew she shouldn't marry. Maybe her sexuality was not very high, maybe it was. It was none of our business.

In her films she had occasionally worthy and interesting subjects, including As You Desire Me based on Pirandello. Twice she played Anna Karenina although she was not the type (yet able to project her intelligence and maturity in the latter adaptation). But like Asta Nielsen, Garbo also played in many trivial entertainment stories, and somehow there was no difference, because both Nielsen and Garbo transcended the script characters.

There was no mystery in Garbo, but there is a Garbo mystery: how such an actress of solitude became a superstar. Her quality was best defined by Béla Balázs: "Greta Garbo's beauty is the beauty of suffering; she suffers from life and the world around her. And this sadness is something very precise: a sadness of solitude, of an estrangement based on a lack of a common bond with other people. A sadness of withdrawn beauty and inner nobility, an estrangement of a sensitive plant in the nightmare of the harsh touch of the world - this we find in Garbo even when she plays a hardened woman of easy virtue. Even then her dreamy look comes from somewhere far away and looks into an infinite distance. Even then she is a refugee in a distant land, and we can never tell how she arrived into where she is at." This quality had been present in Eleonora Duse as documented in her sole film performance in Febo Mari's Cenere. But more generally this quality precedes the cinema of alienation of the 1960s for instance in the films of Antonioni.

The Greta Garbo book I recommended to the students is the splendid biography by Barry Paris (1995).

There are more than 200 books on Garbo, but none of their writers seem to have noticed the remarks of Abraham Stiller on Garbo. Abraham Stiller was the brother of Mauritz who became a leading figure in the Finnish Jewish community, heroically so during the Second World War. Abraham took care of the funeral of his brother. Greta Garbo was unable to attend, but they met later in Stockholm.

When Abraham Stiller saw Greta Garbo for the first time he recognized his brother in her.

Garbo asked to be buried with Mauritz, but Abraham told it would require her to convert to Judaism. He advised her against it, and mentioned also that she is too young to think of such things.

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