Sunday, June 13, 2010

Don't Make a Scene: Ninotchka

The Set-up: If making a great movie was easy, there would be no bad movies.  Your home-movies would make millions.

But the facts are that for a movie to "work" it takes some ephemeral, ineffable magic that has nothing to do with facts, but everything to do with artistry, talent, charm...and something else. Without it, movies can be as dull as...

...well, as dull as "Ninotchka" getting off a train.

But, even that...even that...sparkles under the direction and styling of director Ernst Lubitsch, so adept at turning scripts written on sows' ears into beautifully shimmering cinematic silk purses. Unique and utterly elusive, it generated its own term, one that seeped into the consciousness of the ticket-buying public.

"The Lubitsch Touch."

So adept in direction and presentation, it could take the horrors of human travails and turn it into...comedy. And get away with it.

As with this scene, where Nazism and The Great Purge are fodder for laugh-lines. How does one do that?  If we knew, we'd all be in Hollywood making next Summer's blockbusters.  And even if we knew, there's no guarantee we could capture such lightning in a bottle.  But Lubitsch knew how to hold that bottle, time the strike and slap the lid on to capture every mega-watt of star-power.

You can see aspects of it: how the camera follows the three oafish Russian officials in their search—the camera limits the scope, so we're co-conspirators in scanning the platform, until it edges over to the single solitary figure who we're simultaneously expecting and not expecting; the comic timing of...everything; the contrast between the behaviors of the officials, the porter and the Vulcan zen of Ninotchka.  It was only a few minutes before publishing, that I found this scene on You Tube; it's one thing to tell you "it's" there, but quite another to experience it for yourself.  To just present the script and images would be like trying to explain a joke—you might as well not even try.

"Ninotchka" writer Billy Wilder would pursue the will o' the wisp "Touch" throughout his own directorial career, giving it a sharp's street-wise spin.

The Story: Things are deteriorating in the efforts of the three hesitates to call them "dignitaries"—Iranoff (Sig Ruman), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart), and Kopalski (Alexander Granach)—in selling jewelry confiscated during the Revolution, so a "special envoy" is sent from the USSR to expedite matters: what the men don't know is that the envoy is in the form of Nina Ivanovna Yakushova (Greta Garbo).  Do not make an issue of her womanhood.

Action, comrade!



The train has already arrived as the Three Russians hurry down the platform. Neither do they know the name of the Envoy Extraordinary, nor his appearance, and they are searching the crowd for some clue.

IRANOFF This is a fine thing. Maybe we've missed him already.
KOPALSKI How can you find somebody without knowing what he looks like?

Iranoff points to a bearded man with a knapsack.

IRANOFF That must be the one!
BULJANOFF Yes, he looks like a comrade!

They follow the man, but just as they are ready to approach him he is greeted by a German Girl. Both raise their hands in the Nazi salute.


As the two embrace, the Three Russians stop in their tracks.

KOPALSKI No, that's not him...
BULJANOFF Positively not!

IRANOFF What are we..
BULJANOFF Do you think w...

IRANOFF We must have missed him!

By now the platform is almost empty. As the Russians in the foreground look around helplessly, we see in the background a woman who obviously is also looking for someone.

It is Ninotchka Yakushova, the Envoy Extraordinary.

The Russians exchange troubled looks and go toward her. Ninotchka comes forward. As they meet she speaks.

NINOTCHKA (to Iranoff) I am looking for Michael Simonovitch Iranoff.
IRANOFF I am Michael Simonovitch Iranoff.
NINOTCHKA I am Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, Envoy Extraordinary, acting under direct orders of Comrade Commissar Razinin. Present me to your colleagues.

They shake hands. Ninotchka's grip is strong as a man's.

IRANOFF Comrade Buljanoff...

IRANOFF Comrade Kopalski...

IRANOFF What a charming idea for Moscow to surprise us with a lady comrade.
KOPALSKI If we had known we would have greeted you with flowers.
NINOTCHKA (sternly) Don't make an issue of my womanhood.

NINOTCHKA We are here for work... all of us.

NINOTCHKA Let's not waste time. Shall we go?

The Russians are taken aback. As Ninotchka bends down to lift her two suitcases, Iranoff calls:


A Porter steps up to them.

PORTER Here, please...
NINOTCHKA What do you want?
PORTER May I have your bags, madame?

KOPALSKI He is a porter. He wants to carry them.
NINOTCHKA (to Porter) Why?...

NINOTCHKA Why should you carry other people's bags?
PORTER Well... that's my business, madame.

NINOTCHKA That's no business... that's a social injustice.

PORTER That depends on the tip.

KOPALSKI (trying to take Ninotchka's bags) Allow me, Comrade.
NINOTCHKA No, thank you.

Ninotchka takes both suitcases and walks away with the Three Russians, whose nervousness has increased with every word from the Envoy Extraordinary.

BULJANOFF How are things in Moscow?

NINOTCHKA Very good. The last mass trials were a great success.

NINOTCHKA There are going to be fewer but better Russians.

The hearts of the Three Russians drop to their boots, as we


Words by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder & Walter Reisch (Based on a story by Melchior Lengyel)

Pictures by William H. Daniels and Ernst Lubitsch

"Ninotchka" is available on DVD from Warner Home Video

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