Ninotchka

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1939 (Ernst Lubitsch) , 100 minutes

Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Bela Lugosi

Over the course of the evening, we will watch two films scripted by Billy Wilder: Ninotchka, a film he wrote but did not direct; and a later remake, One, Two, Three, which he did direct.


 There are three screenwriters credited on Ninotchka, Ernst Lubitsch’s sparkling, sophisticated comedy about the clash between capitalist and communist values, but it clearly shows Billy Wilder’s individual development as arguably Hollywood’s sharpest, funniest storyteller. Before he was a director, Wilder honed his craft by writing almost 30 German features, mostly musicals and comedies. After fleeing Germany for Hollywood, he and his first writing partner Charles Brackett were given the bizarre challenge of writing a comedy starring Greta Garbo.

 

 Famous for the tragic intensity of her performances, she was nobody’s first thought for a comedienne – in fact, the trailer’s big splash title was “Garbo Laughs!”: that’s how rare it was. In a stroke of genius, they pulled it off by poking fun at her image, making her character a humourless Soviet bureaucrat who meets and falls in love with a charming Count played by Melvyn Douglas. Garbo gets to use all her tools, but in the context provided by the script, they all play as hilarious. All the hallmarks of what would become Wilder’s style – the hilarious wordplay, the witty romantic repartee, the sardonic humour, and crucially, the moral compass and humanity of a Jew who fled the Nazis – are all richly on display in Ninotchka.

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