The commissar and the cutup: Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas overcome politics in Ernst Lubitsch's 'Ninotchka.'
A retrospective at PFA shows off the Lubitsch touch
By Richard von Busack
IN THE NEW movie The Holiday, Eli Wallach recounts to Kate Winslet the details of something called a "meet cute." The example he recalls is a boy and a girl meeting at a department store. Each is trying to purchase one half of a pair of pajamas, which the store refuses to sell separately. Director Nancy Meyers credits neither the minor movie (1938's Bluebeard's Eighth Wife) nor the director of the scene in question: Ernst Lubitsch. But the craft and humor of Lubitsch is now being remembered at a 21-film retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. A number of the offerings are obscure silent films. They're historical fancy-dress efforts, starring Pola Negri. In 1919's Madame DuBarry (Jan. 19), the court of Louis XV is revisited by Lubitsch and Negri. On Jan. 21, Lubitsch's last German film, Die Flamme (1922), is introduced by Stefan Drössler of the Munich Filmmuseum. Negri plays a haunter of Montmartre taverns who falls for a fancy conductor. The Wildcat, from 1921 (Jan. 26), has the simmering Negri, a chorus line of people in snowman costumes and enough antiwar sentiment that H.L. Mencken praised the film.
But it's Hollywood-era Lubitsch that most fans will recognize: comedies with Maurice Chevalier and/or Jeanette MacDonald (The Merry Widow, One Hour With You, The Love Parade, The Smiling Lieutenant) and, most famous of all his works, Ninotchka (Jan. 14 and 27), with Greta Garbo as a commissar melted by the candle power of the city of lights. Wearing what look like waterproof stockings and speaking as tonelessly as a Martian, Garbo is the immovable object of totalitarianism, undone by the irresistible force of romance. Talk of "the Lubitsch touch" has to be countered by the clumsy moments throughout his work: the note of capitulation in Garbo's laugh and the poorly directed drunk scene by Jennifer Jones in his final film, Cluny Brown (Feb. 16). Even the peerless The Shop Around the Corner (Jan. 12) has a run in its stocking, in the moment where a go-getter office boy humiliates an adulteress over the phone with a bray of sneering laughter. Still, 60 years after his early death, Lubitsch's methods are as sound as they are irreplaceable. If he'd lived, he would have seen his specialty dismissively called a chick flick. It was Nora Ephron who added this insult (in When Harry Met Sally) to the injury of You've Got Mail, her tone-deaf remake of The Shop Around the Corner.
Watching a post-Ephron chick flick clunk along, you can understand the helpless recollection of Lubitsch's method in The Holiday, where the idea of a meet-cute consisted of the leading men turning up at the front door of the lady's house looking for someone else. Modern movies like Notes on a Scandal and Little Children demonstrate the anxieties in marriages. So our movies need to reflect the comic side of deception that keeps them going. When Lubitsch regular Chevalier, caught in a compromising situation, addresses the camera and asks, "What would you do?" the phrase is almost as humanizing as Montaigne's essential question, "What do I know?" Lubitsch's equilibrium and wit was such that he even portrayed the devil himself (in the must-see Heaven Can Wait, Feb. 16) as a dashing gent who proposes that a life of helpless misdemeanors doesn't add up to one damnation-worthy sin.
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