It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that Billy Wilder worshipped Ernst Lubitsch. On the wall in Wilder’s office years after Lubitsch’s death hung a sign that read, “What would Lubitsch do?” Wilder’s best work as a comedy director is indebted to Lubitsch’s visual inventiveness and lightness of touch. The verbal fireworks, however, were Wilder’s own.
Strictly speaking, they were actually shared with his frequent writing partners, first Charles Brackett, later I. A. L. Diamond. It was with Brackett that Wilder co-wrote his first Hollywood success, Lubitsch’s “Ninotchka,” which is having a weeklong run here starting Friday, Dec. 28. The duo had the misfortune to be nominated for their first Oscar in the year of “Gone with the Wind.” Inevitably, Sidney Howard’s screenplay for the Selznick blockbuster won the statuette.
The only other film that Wilder and Brackett wrote for Lubitsch, “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife” (1938) is a minor effort for all concerned. “Ninotchka,” on the other hand, was a great success for both director and writers, and it was one of Garbo’s last hits. As such it’s an interesting study in what the two premier Jewish comedy directors of their respective generations owed one another.
The most celebrated moment in the film, the one that gave it one of the most famous ad lines in Hollywood history — “Garbo Laughs” — is indicative of the subtlety of Lubitsch’s directorial style. Garbo is playing a commissar dispatched from Moscow to Paris with the goal of reclaiming a set of fabulous jewels that a grand duchess (theater legend Ina Claire) took out of the Soviet Union. Her immediate predecessors, Iranov (Sig Ruman), Buljanov (Felix Bressart) and Kopalsky (Alexander Granach), were supposed to sell the jewelry to alleviate the shortage of hard currency facing the Soviets, but they have been seduced and corrupted by the ever-so-charming Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas, born Melvyn Hesselberg). Ninotchka’s job is to sell the jewels and drag the three comrades back to face the music, undoubtedly a funeral march. Of course, Leon’s best bet is to do an even better job on Ninotchka, but she is a rigidly doctrinaire, humorless zealot.
What finally breaks the ice and triggers Garbo’s legendary guffaws is the simplest of sight gags, Leon taking a pratfall. But Lubitsch doesn’t show us her reaction until she is in the midst of a gale of laughter, with the result that it seems an explosion, a completely unexpected chemical reaction. By choosing not to show the audience her immediate reaction, but to catch her in its midst, Lubitsch simultaneously underlines its spontaneity and also makes it funny in its own right.
Wilder and Brackett bring an acerbic quality to Lubitsch that is less evident in his films with the great Samson Raphaelson, whose temperament was a bit mellower. Their acid take on the Soviet state probably owes a lot to Brackett’s bibulous Republicanism. However, Wilder had been a journalist in Berlin for many years and had left that city in a mad dash to avoid the Nazis, whose menace he well understood. So the sardonic and cynical political vision of the film may have come equally from him.
In contrast, Lubitsch grew up middle-class in Berlin, became a successful stage actor and comedy film star before directing and coming to the U.S. in the early 1920s as an acclaimed filmmaker. His understanding of the world was rooted in the conflicts of gender and romance more than politics, and his sensibility was warmer and perhaps more generous than the younger, crisis-hardened Wilder.
Of course, it is impossible to know for sure, but one suspects that being exposed to Wilder’s brand of humor may have made it possible for Lubitsch to take on a later, riskier project, his anti-Nazi comedy “To Be or Not to Be” in 1942. Perhaps not. Lubitsch had been a Berliner, he certainly was aware of what was being done to the Jews by his former neighbors.
Wilder was probably even more acutely aware. Wilder’s mother was murdered in Plaszow, his stepfather in Belzec and his grandmother in the ghetto of Nowy Targ. That’s a lot of justifiable anger to carry around inside; the corrosiveness of Wilder’s non-comedies like “Double Indemnity” and “Sunset Boulevard” probably derived in some small part from that reality. On the other hand, one would like to think that the sprightliness of even his most cynical comedies was the answer to that question on the wall of Wilder’s office.
“Ninotchka” will be shown in a new 35mm print at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.), Friday, Dec. 28-Thursday, Jan. 3. For information, call (212) 727-8110 or go to www.filmforum.org.