COMEDY GOLD #19: Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939)

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Earlier this year, I had an idea for a Top 10 article and, as a result, I’ve been watching and re-watching films in order to prepare myself for it – it’s going to be quite an undertaking and I’m super excited about it! Anyway, one of those films was Ninotchka (1939, dir. Ernst Lubitsch), which I hadn’t seen in about eight years.

With Lubitsch at the helm, and Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch penning it, Ninotchka could only have been the success that it was anyway, but it is undenieable that Greta Garbo elevated it to a whole new level. Widely known for her aloof and standoffish persona and performances (a reputation that may be deserved if slightly unfair), her performance in Ninotchka proves that she was just as good at comedy as she was in dramatic roles. As the Russian envoy sent from Moscow to Paris to carry out the job of the inefficient agents sent there before her, Ninotchka is a no-nonsense character, professional, firm and methodic, and with little to no time for shenanigans. That is, until she meets Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas)… After that, her vulnerability comes through and we believe her just the same. With her stern expression and deadpan delivery, Garbo shows off her surprisingly natural comedic skills, and the film’s tagline ‘Garbo Laughs!’ is a highly anticipated moment that doesn’t disappoint. It’s an all-around performance, multi-layered yet carefully understated, and one suspects that, had 1939 not been the year of Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind (1939, dir. Victor Fleming), Greta Garbo would have taken home the Oscar.

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SCREENPLAY BY: Ernest Lehman

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One of the most prolific and respected screenwriters in Hollywood history, Ernest Lehman was described by Dictionary of Literary Biography’s Nick Roddick as a ‘champion of the well-crafted, what-happens-next screenplay’. One look at his career, and we can certainly see why.

Ernest Lehman was born in New York City in 1915. After graduating from the City College of New York, he started working as a freelance writer and copywriter for a Broadway publicist. He also wrote short stories and novellas for a number of magazines, which garnered him considerable attention. In the 1950s, Paramount hired him as a screenwriter and in 1954, he wrote his first screenplay, Executive Suite (dir. Robert Wise), an adaptation of the Cameron Hawley book. That same year, he co-wrote Sabrina (dir. Billy Wilder), with Wilder and Samuel A. Taylor, which was nominated for Best Screenplay. In 1956, he had hits with Somebody Up There Likes Me (dir. Robert Wise) and The King and I (dir. Walter Lang), and in 1957 he co-wrote what is perhaps his greatest screenplay, Sweet Smell of Success (dir. Alexander Mackendrick), with Clifford Odets, having based much of it on his own personal experiences as a writer in New York. Inexplicably, he did not receive a nomination for it. Two years later, he wrote his very first original screenplay, North By Northwest (dir. Alfred Hitchcock), which got him his second Oscar nomination and an Edgar Award – the first of two; the other one was for Family Plot (1976, dir. Alfred Hitchcock). In 1961, he received yet another nomination for West Side Story (dir. Robert Wise), and in 1965, he collaborated with Wise again in The Sound of Music. His last Oscar nod came in 1966, for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (dir. Mike Nichols), which he adapted from the Edward Albee play. Though he never won a competitive Oscar, he became the first screenwriter to receive an Honorary one in 2001, before passing away in 2005 at the age of 89.