Now this film right here is why I like to do this kind of thing*. I would never ordinarily have watched Ninotchka, last week’s movie. I’ve never seen a Greta Garbo film, despite having known her name (and her “I vant to be alone” catchphrase) for as long as I can remember. I watched the trailer and expected it to be terrible, but I actually really enjoyed it.
It’s not a romantic comedy though. It’s not particularly romantic, nor is it particularly funny. In fact, it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. If you listen to the podcast for this film (you can download it here), you’ll hear authors Jennifer Cruise and Lucy March (Lani Diane Rich) explain why the structure of the film just doesn’t work. Why the pacing is off. Why the romance doesn’t work. If you write – or are trying to write – romantic comedy I really recommend you listen.
For me, the romance didn’t work because the hero just isn’t that interesting or charming. He was played by Melvyn Douglas, who I’ve never heard of, and he was just meh. He also, like Susan in Bringing Up Baby, declared his love for Ninotchka after about an hour. I didn’t believe him. (He does have one great line right at the end, but I’m afraid I didn’t entirely believe that either.)
As a comedy… it’s just not that funny. There are funny moments – the three Russians who bookend the film are sweet and charming – and Ninotchka herself is incredibly dry (she reminded me at times of Glee‘s Sue Sylvester, although she’s much sweeter), but the film was actually written especially for Garbo as a comedy. The tagline was “Garbo laughs”. And she does, but not convincingly. I recently watched It’s Complicated for the second time and mentioned to David that Meryl Streep is brilliant at laughing on screen – I’m totally convinced that she’s genuinely amused. Garbo, no.
But apart from the fake-laughing, Garbo was the best thing about this film. She’s funny, sweet, charming, interesting, complicated, powerful. I can totally see why she was such a star. The other thing I loved was that the movie never belittles her for being a woman. The three Russians are waiting for an envoy, not knowing it’s a woman, but when she turns up they’re respectful and in no doubt that she’s capable. Can you imagine that in a movie now? I think I might have mentioned this before, but I’ve been quite shocked (and depressed) to find that the women’s roles were much stronger in movies from the 1930s and ’40s than they are now.
I’m giving Ninotchka three pops *** It wasn’t a great film, but it was a surprisingly enjoyable one.
Next week: His Girl Friday (if you haven’t seen it, you really should)
* ‘This kind of thing’ being watching a series of classic romantic comedies along with a bunch of women – many of them writers – over on The Popcorn Dialogues blog.