Watching 1939: What a Life (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

Betty Field and Jackie Cooper in “What a Life” (1939)

1939 film:  What a Life (1939)

Release date:  Oct. 6, 1939

Cast:  Jackie Cooper, Betty Field, James Corner, John Howard, Janice Logan, Hedda Hopper, Sidney Miller, Vaughan Glaser, Lionel Stander, Dorothy Stickney, Kathleen Lockhart, Sheila Ryan, Janet Waldo, Marge Champion (uncredited)

Studio:  Paramount Pictures

Director:  Jay Theodore Reed

Plot:
Henry Aldrich (Cooper) is a flustered teenager who always gets blamed for what other people do and is considered the worst student at school. He also gets accused for stealing musical instruments. Barbara Peterson (Field) likes Henry, though he is oblivious. Barbara isn’t popular or considered pretty because of her braces and flat hair. When she gets a permanent and her braces off, Henry’s enemy George (Corner) asks Barbara to the school dance first.

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Watching 1939: Ninotchka

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  Ninotchka (1939)

Release date: Nov. 29, 1939

Cast: 
Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire, Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, Bela Lugosi, Alexander Granach, Gregory Gaye, Dorothy Adams (uncredited), George Tobias (uncredited)

Studio:  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director: 
Ernst Lubitsch

Plot:
Three Russians, Comrade Iranoff (Ruman), Comrade Iranoff (Bressart) and Comrade Kopalski (Granach) travel to Paris, France, from Russia on official business – to sell the jewels of Grand Duchess Swana (Claire) that the Soviets confiscated. When Swana gets wind of this, she sends her boyfriend Count Leon d’Algout (Douglas) to intervene so she can reclaim her jewelry. To trick the comrades out of the jewelry, Leon changes the point of view of the three comrades, showing them what life is like in Paris. When the Soviet government hears that the sale is not moving forward, they send Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, or Ninotchka, (Garbo) to Paris to clean up the mess. Rigid and serious when she arrives, Ninotchka soon is also warmed and changed by Paris and falls in love.

1939 Notes:
• Ernst Lubitsch’s only film in 1939
• Greta Garbo’s only film of 1939 and her first comedy. This was her second to last film.
• Melvyn Douglas made four films in 1939.
• Ernst Lubitsch’s first assignment as a producer for M-G-M

Garbo (and Melvyn Douglas) laugh in Ninotchka (1939)

Other trivia: 
• Remade as the musical “Silk Stockings” (1957) starring Cyd Charisse, Fred Astaire and Janis Paige. The 1957 film version was an adaptation of a 1954 stage musical with music by Cole Porter.
• Screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder
• Greta Garbo wanted Cary Grant to play the lead, according to a Sheilah Graham column published on Jan. 3, 1939.
• For Greta Garbo’s first talking film, “Anna Christie” the slogan “Garbo talks!” was used in advertisements. Mimicking that advertising, this movie used the slogan “Garbo Laughs!”
• Adapted in 1950 as a stage play.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
“Ninotchka” is a glittering example of the perfect 1939 film:
1. It was Greta Garbo’s first comedy and her only film of 1939.
2. Was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, so it has that “Lubitsch touch.” (Also his only 1939 film)
3. Includes a script written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder

All of these factors add up to create a charming film.

The satirical comedy was written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder and is chockful of hilarious one-liners and back-and-forths.

This was Greta Garbo’s first film since 1937’s Conquest. Newspapers in 1938 announced her return to film with two films to be released in 1939: Ninotchka and Madame Curie. The latter wasn’t released until 1943 and starred Greer Garson. After Ninotchka, Garbo didn’t make another film until 1941, “Two-Faced Woman,” which was her last film.

Greta Garbo is a performer revered as one of the best actors of all time. Garbo’s film career began in 1920 and spanned 21 years with 32 films. This is my favorite Greta Garbo film. For much of her career, we saw Garbo brood, suffer or fall in love. But in Ninotchka, we get to see how funny she could be, even when she’s playing the very dry and mechanical Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, before she loosens up to be Ninotchka.

In her first talking film, Anna Christie (1930), the advertising slogan was “Garbo talks!” Playing off of that, MGM advertised the comedy with “Garbo laughs!” Her performance here is just as joyous as that advertising line captures. It’s amazing that Ninotchka was her second to last film. With the right comedic material, you can’t help but wonder what other films Garbo could have made had she stayed in Hollywood.

As production was beginning, Sheilah Graham reported that Garbo had picked Cary Grant “to make love to her” in her new film, Ninotchka. And as wonderful as Cary Grant is, I’m glad Melvyn Douglas was the final selection as the male lead in this film. Douglas brings his understated charm and also his sense of humor to the movie.

Outside of our leads, the supporting cast practically steals the show. Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart and Alexander Granach as the three comrades who blunder the business deal are hilarious and adorable as they explore the joys of life outside of Soviet Russia.

Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart and Alexander Granach

Set in France, “Ninotchka” was released on Nov. 29, 1939, as the landscape of Europe was rapidly changing. On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. The film begins with a bittersweet intro:

“This picture takes place in Paris in those wonderful days when a siren was a brunette and not an alarm…and if a Frenchman turned out the light it was not on account of an air raid!”

Though our allies at this time, this film was banned in Soviet Russia because of the way Soviets were portrayed.

It’s difficult not to gush over this film (as I already have). Watching it is such a cheerful experience. It is a great example of the sparkling 1939, and it may be a perfect film (if not pretty darn close).

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