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

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

Ernst Lubitsch

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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Actress beauty tip #29: 1930s eyebrows

This is the twenty-ninth installment of the monthly classic actress beauty tips that I have read about and tested…except for this one.

Jean Harlow with her signature, exaggerated eyebrows.

Jean Harlow with her signature, exaggerated eyebrows.

Eyebrows are the frame work of the face.

Overtime that framework has been defined differently.

The 1940s were more natural and of medium thickness.

In the 1960s were heavy, emphasized with an eyebrow pencil.

But the most dramatic eyebrow look was in the 1930s. Brows were thin with exaggerated height.  Several actresses shaved their eyebrows and drew on their eyebrows. Petroleum jelly or oils were used to give a shiny look on the brow, according to Return to Style.

Jean Harlow’s high arched, drawn on eyebrows became part of her signature style. Greta Garbo plucked her eyebrows thin to follow the arch of her eye socket. Marlene Dietrich shaved off all of the hair and penciled on her brow higher than her natural hairline, according to the Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History.

Some actresses shaved their eyebrow for role and they never grew back:

Lucille Ball dressed as a blond slave in "Roman Scandals" (1933)

Lucille Ball dressed as a blond slave in “Roman Scandals” (1933)

-In her first film appearance “Roman Scandals” (1933), Lucille Ball was asked to shave off her eyebrows. She was playing a slave girl with a long blond wig. Her brows never grew back and she had to pencil them on the rest of her life, according to the Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History.

Lana Turner in "The Adventures of Marco Polo" (1938)

Lana Turner in “The Adventures of Marco Polo” (1938)

-Lana Turner was asked to shave her eyebrows for “The Adventures of Marco Polo” (1938) and had slanted brows were drawn on to give an “Asian look.” Her eyebrows never grew back. She later had false, stick on eyebrows made that she wore for the rest of her life. Her daughter Cheryl Crane said she only saw her mother without her false eyebrows twice, according to the book LANA: The Memories, the Myths, the Movies.

Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth I in "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex" (1939)

Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth I in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” (1939)

-For her role as Queen Elizabeth I in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” (1939), Bette Davis shaved two inches off her hairline at the forehead and her eyebrows off. She said they never grew back properly and had to use an eyebrow pencil, according to IMDB.

To review: Though I have testedmany of all of my beauty tips but I have not shaved off my eyebrows and drawn them back on for this one. However, I think several of us have had that panicked moment of over plucking and fearing they won’t grow back properly. It’s amazing how many actresses had to deal with eyebrow issues for the remainder of their lives due to shaving them off for roles.

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“Don’t make me go all Bette Davis on you”: Actress moods

We all have bad days sometimes. (Bette Davis in “The Letter”)

We all go through a series of moods or feelings. Each mood I have, I relate it to an actress. For example, I may think, “I am in a very Greta Garbo mood right now.”  Below you will see my different mood names and their descriptions. I tried to post a photo of the actress that would correspond with the mood.

Garbo in “As You Desire Me” (1932)

Greta Garbo mood:  Sometimes I get down,  sad and just want to be alone. This is what I call my “Greta Garbo mood.”  Garbo’s character Grusinskaya in “Grand Hotel” (1932) says, “I want to be left alone. I think I have never felt so tired in my life.”  I sometimes get in this same mood the reclusive ballerina  in the movie does .  I want to just run away lock myself in my room and be alone.  Garbo has this same attitude in her personal life. Not many people were able to get close to the very private Garbo, and those who did had to tread lightly.

Doris Day


Doris Day mood:  Don’t think that I am always angry or down in the dumps. Sometimes I feel very sunny and happy, so much that I sing while I clean my room or shower. This is what I call my sunny, girl next door “Doris Day mood.” Sometimes if I am a particularly good mood, I wish I had a ukulele and could skip around campus like Doris Day does in “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies.” Doris Day almost personified happiness and joy just with her stage name,  roles and bright, cheery songs.  Though her personal life may not have been so happy, her films put a smile on movie-goers faces.

Bette Davis/Joan Crawford mood: We can all get in vindictive, revenge seeking moods. This is what I call the “Bette Davis or Joan Crawford mood.”  Both of these ladies have bad off-screen reputations (which I think is poppy cock, but I’ll discuss that in another post). I’m referring to the on- screen personas of Crawford and Davis. Who can forget Bette Davis walking down the stairs and shooting her lover at the beginning of “The Letter“?  Remember when Joan Crawford as Crystal Allen gets the last juicy word in “The Women“?  When I’m angry about something, I just imagine what Bette or Joan would do to someone and take on their same attitude.

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