Greta Garbo's Ninotchka shows her romantic spirit


October 26, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The Muse in Exile: Emigres and Divas series continues Thursday with Ninotchka, a 1939 romance named for a lovely Bolshevik in Paris played by Greta Garbo. The picture weds the understated virtuosity of Ernst Lubitsch's direction to the unabashed wisecracking of a script by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch. The movie is full of cynical jokes in what became the established Wilder manner: Ninotchka defends Stalin's purges with the declaration, "There are going to be fewer but better Russians!"

At the start, a trio of Soviet functionaries assigned to sell off Russian jewels succumb to the glamour and high life of Paris. They imagine Lenin rationalizing their newfound taste for luxury by saying they have to live in a deluxe hotel: "Doesn't the prestige of the Bolsheviks mean anything to you?" Sig Rumann, Felix Bressart and Alexander Granach play them as the Three Soviet Stooges, celebrating the Russia of "borscht and beef Stroganoff, of blinis and sour cream."

The Kremlin orders Garbo's Ninotchka, a dedicated envoy extraordinaire, to oversee this unholy trio after they botch things up. But she, too, succumbs to Western freedoms - especially the freedom to love whomever she wants, in this case a dapper count (Melvyn Douglas).

Lubitsch balanced the film's playful attacks on communism simply by casting the soulful Garbo as an alternately tough and tender comrade. When she barks out her belief that everything in life must be efficient and useful, she still has an aura of Russian spirituality - the Russia not of "borscht and beef Stroganoff," but of Tolstoy and Dostoyevski.

This is the movie in which, as the ads proclaimed, "Garbo laughs!" Suddenly she'll raise her brow, her eyes will brighten, and she'll look miraculously silly. Lubitsch and his collaborators don't treat Garbo with kid gloves. They even mock her hands-off image. When her colleagues ask her if she "vants to be alone," she replies, brusquely, "No!" In the final shots, the tortured gloom fades from her face, and with an amorous smile, Ninotchka seeks the only asylum she craves - the tender embrace of her lover. This picture is, above all, a comic love letter to Garbo's romantic spirit. It screens Thursday night at 7:15 at the Johns Hopkins Preclinical Teaching Building (725 N. Wolfe St.), with coffee and cookies beforehand.

`Rodan' makes appearance

In a free pre-Halloween attraction at the Senator Theatre at noon tomorrow, Rodan the Flying Monster, Japan's first color monster smash (Godzilla was black and white), soars onto the big screen, preceded by a costume parade on stage. Rediscover the perilous charm of this 1956 pterodactyl as it hatches in a coal mine, dines on gargantuan dragonflies, and quickly grows big and strong enough to break the sound barrier and send out cataclysmic shock waves. The Belvedere Improvement Association co-sponsors the event. Doors open at 11:15 a.m.

It's a horror fest

The Fanex Spooktacular, Nov. 3 at the Days Hotel, Timonium, is a 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. affair featuring classic horror movies and memorabilia, as well as appearances by historians of movie horror and Jack the Ripper, and cult film-magazine editors. A silent auction will benefit the Salvation Army Disaster Relief Fund, with items ranging from old star photographs to a Stephen King-autographed poster for The Shining.

`Execution' screening

Made for television in 1974, The Execution of Private Slovik, starring Martin Sheen as the only American soldier given the death penalty for desertion since the Civil War, is one of the most potent critiques ever filmed of capital punishment and the rigid excesses of the military mentality. It also features Sheen's best performance, under the direction of Lamont Johnson. It screens tonight on video at 7:30 at the American Friends Service Committee.

Jews on television analyzed

Monday at 7 p.m., at the Weinberg Park Heights Jewish Community Center, Sun TV critic David Zurawik will discuss "The Jews of Prime Time," roaming through the history of Jewish characters on network TV, from The Goldbergs in 1949 to Seinfeld and beyond, while analyzing why Jewish founders of major networks constantly weighed whether shows and performers were "too Jewish." Zurawik will augment his talk with clips from TV's last five decades, as well as readings from his forthcoming book on the subject.

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