Sunday, July 15, 2018

Don't Make a Scene: Ninotchka

Just in time for the Russian Summit...

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

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Sherlock Holmes (1916)

Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Berthelet, 1916) There have been lots of actors playing Arthur Conan Doyle's enduring creation, the world's greatest consulting detective Sherlock Holmes—the most prominent being John Barrymore, Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett, Christopher Plummer, Frank Langella (on Broadway), Nicol Williamson, Robert Stephens, Robert Downey, Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch (to name the good ones who've made lasting impressions).

But, there's one actor who left perhaps the most indelible mark on the character, becoming the image of what we think of when we think of Sherlock Holmes is an actor whose interpretation was lost to history other than descriptions in reviews, and that is William Gillette

Gillette was an actor, playwright, director, inventor and all-around renaissance man, who, after being asked to appear in a play about Holmes written by Conan Doyle, had the temerity to suggest that he write his own version, to which the author (who needed money) agreed, and, after a full review of it, heartily endorsed it. Gillette's version "Sherlock Holmes" freely took elements from Doyle's stories "A Scandal in Bohemia," "The Final Problem," and "A Study in Scarlet," constructing a four act play out of the elements. Gillette wore the deerstalker hat from the Sidney Paget illustrations accompanying Doyle's original stories, but changed Holmes straight pipe for the now-familiar meerschaum variety that the detective is identified with. It was also Gillette who came up with the phrase "Elementary, my dear Watson," which Doyle had never used. Gillette played the role in the play for over 1300 performances, and in 1916 starred in a film record of the play for Chicago's Essenay Studios (John Barrymore played the role in an adaptation of Gillette's play in a 1922 film). The film made on the customary nitrate stock was considered lost. We would never see a version of Gillette's legendary performance that influenced so many others.
That is, until 2014, when a print was discovered in France. It wasn't the original cut of the film, but a tinted version that reduced the film to four serial episodes with French intertitles. A rigorous restoration and translation was done and now, we can actually see the performance by Gillette (at the age of 63, mind you) that was so well thought of.
The plot follows Gillette's play (as one would deduce): young Alice Faulkner (Carol Dempster) is in mourning; her sister has died, distraught over her failed affair with a prince destined to become king of a European country. On her death-bed, she entrusted Alice with the love-letters written by the unfaithful prince and now, with his ascendancy to the throne a certainty, two parties are in pursuit of those letters, neither of them with the best of intentions. The first are operatives for the prince, the Baron von Stahlberg (Ludwig Kreiss) and British official Sir Edward Leighton (Hugh Thompson), who go to Miss Faulkner to try to obtain the letters. She refuses, not sure yet of what her intentions for them are.
The other party has lower intentions: tipped off by Sid the cracksman (William Postance), the criminal Larrabees, James and Madge (Mario Majeroni, Grace Reals) want the papers, too, but to blackmail the prince. They feign sympathy for Alice's plight to house her in a secure location, so that they might be able to coerce her into telling them the location of the letters. The Baron and Leighton have the same goal, but they go to Mr. Sherlock Holmes (Gillette), who decides to take on the case for the good of the government.
Using his operatives, Holmes discovers the Larrabee's location where they're keeping Alice and pays a call. James Larrabee tells him that the Faulkner woman will not see anyone, but Holmes proves annoyingly persistent, and so they seek to satisfy him by having Madge impersonate her. Holmes sees through their deception immediately and, by subterfuge, not only has an audience with Miss Faulkner, but also gets her to reveal where she has hidden the letters. But, he stops short of taking them from her, saying that he will only take possession of them if she hands them over of her own will.
Holmes returns to his lodgings at Baker Street to contemplate why he would not fulfill his mission, while Alice, after finding a new location for the letters, contemplates the man who would not betray her. 

The Larrabee's, however, realize they have met their match in Holmes and seek advice and help from the criminal mastermind, Professor Moriarty (Ernest Maupin), who wants the letters for his own ends, but also for the opportunity to kill Holmes.
His first attempt is a straight-on assault. He makes sure that Holmes' friend and partner Dr. Watson (Edward Fielding) is distracted and, convinced that Holmes is alone, goes to 221B Baker Street with the intent of killing Holmes with a concealed hand-gun. But, Holmes gets the upper hand and manages to not exactly disarm Moriarty, but to deprive him of any bullets to kill him.
Moriarty then plans a subterfuge to lure Holmes to a remote location where he can gas him and dump his body in the river—it's not exactly Reichenbach Falls, but it suits the purpose. But, Moriarty doesn't count on Holmes' allies to come to his rescue and foil the plot.
So, now that we get to see him, how is Gillette? Very good, actually, certainly in comparison to the histrionics of the villains...and, frankly, everybody else acting in silent-picture-mime. His Holmes is still, centered, except with the occasional busy hand gesture that manages to attract the audience's eye away from everything else in the picture. His Holmes is so above-it-all that he can actually take a less prominent position in the frame and attention still gravitates to him. Economy of gesture and movement is his greatest strength and never betrays any idea that Holmes is never, for a moment, not thinking or focused.
The film itself is essentially a filmed stage play, with few location scenes, and with the mere intention of keeping everybody in focus in a theatrical format. One oddity in the editing is present which modern audiences may find curious: whenever a transition is made from wide shot to close-up it's done in a fading cross-over, rather than a straight edit, elongating the time it takes to make the adjustment, creating an inauthentic pause in the action. This film was released at the same time as Birth of a Nation, and doesn't employ the narrative tricks that D.W. Griffith was still in the process of inventing. A simple cut might have been too jarring for an audience used to watching a theater-piece, even on film. By the time Barrymore was starring in another version of the same play, straight scissor cuts had become the norm. By that time, film audiences could "handle" it.
Sherlock Holmes is such a powerful presence he doesn't need to stand in a crowd.
It's fascinating to watch a Victorian era presentation of the Victorian detective in action. Gillette left an indelible stamp on Holmes and one can see how his work was so influential in subsequent portrayals, which even eclipsed Conan Doyle's work until he was returned to more faithful depictions of time and place that replaced the Rathbone adventures set during World War II as the public perception.

Pity about him falling in love, though. I doubt Irene Adler would approve.*

* When Gillette was writing his play, he would frequently wire Conan Doyle for advice. When he asked the author if he thought it was a good idea for Holmes to have a love interest and even marry, Doyle's reply was "You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him." Rather generous, actually.