Grand Hotel

Garbo got me into the building, but she’s not the reasongarbo I stayed. Her tired Russian ballerina falls for the same kind of man she would fall for as a humorless Russian revolutionary in Ninotchka. Can I help it if I found the revolutionary more enchanting?

Fortunately, the ballerina’s story is just one of many that weave through this picture. That man she falls for, a dissolute aristocrat (John Barrymore), also flirts with the stenographer (Joan Crawford) who was hired by the swindling businessman (Wallace Beery) to take dictation and possibly provide other services . . .  There’s also a wounded veteran of World War I (Lewis Stone) and a little bookkeeper (Lionel Barrymore), who recently received a terminal diagnosis and has determined to spend his final days in style. John Barrymore may have had the looks in the family, but Lionel’s quiet charm won me over.

Such goings on, before the Hayes Code went into effect! The ballerina and the aristocrat spend the night together. The stenographer contemplates selling her body to the businessman for the price of a few nice outfits and a junket to London. The bookkeeper wins big at poker, helped along by the aristocrat, and goes off to Paris with the stenographer in the hope of finding a cure.

Did Grand Hotel deserve to beat out Shanghai Express for Best Picture in 1932? I wouldn’t say so, but it’s an enjoyable enough romp through Berlin in its heyday.

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Happy Holidays

How many times can you watch Miracle on 34th Street? Settle down with one of these classics instead. (Click on the titles to read the full review)

NINOTCHKA

 

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French champagne. One sip and you’ll become a convert to capitalism. Trust me, it works.

There’s Greta Garbo’s humorless Soviet envoy, a model revolutionary if ever there was one. She believes in the righteousness of the cause and has nothing but contempt for the west. “The last mass trials were a great success,” she assures her three comrades.“There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”

Ah, but she is in Paris. Who can resist the charms of the city of light? Pour yourself a glass of bubbly and savor this delightful film.

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT

 

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I read somewhere that Clark Gable’s talent was in playing himself. Fans lined up to see him, whatever the role, and they were never disappointed. Could he act? Ask me if I care. The version of himself he played in “It Happened One Night” was genuine, charming, and way too handsome for that control freak, Claudette Colbert.

“Cheerfully insolent” is the way a friend of mine describes Gable’s performance. Him I could imagine traveling with across the country or around the world. We’d probably end up going standby, and no doubt there’d be any number of mishaps along the way, but that would be part of the adventure. One thing for sure: we’d never be bored.

DOCTOR ZHIVAGO

 

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The soulful Egyptian heartthrob Omar Sharif plays a Russian and Doctor Zhivago was shot mostly in Spain by a British director, produced by an Italian. “Lara’s Theme,” the schmaltzy leitmotif that evokes the Julie Christie character, can still be heard in elevators today. But there’s lots of snow and that makes this a perfect Christmas epic in my book.

Ninotchka

French champagne.  One sip and you’ll become a convert to capitalism.  Trust me, it works.

melvyn-doulgas-greta-garbo-ninotchkaThere’s Greta Garbo’s humorless Soviet envoy, a model revolutionary if ever there was one.  She believes in the righteousness of the cause and has nothing but contempt for the west.  “The last mass trials were a great success,” she assures her three comrades. “There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”

Ah, but she is in Paris. Who can resist the charms of the city of light?  Here she is, meeting the dissolute Count Leon d’Algout—the man to whom she’ll owe that first taste of champagne. He’s already corrupted her comrades, and it isn’t long before Garbo succumbs to capitalist culture.  First she buys a silly hat, next a gown, and when she goes back to Moscow, she can’t resist bringing along a bit of silky French lingerie.

The stunning dialogue was written by the Hungarian author and screenwriter Melchior Lengyel, with help from the Austro-Hungarian-born filmmaker Billy Wilder.  Melchior also wrote “To Be or Not to Be,” and both films were directed by German expatriate Ernst Lubitsch.  You can see the European sensibility at work; both films have the same bite, and yet there’s nothing heavy-handed in “Ninotchka.”  As the count knows, the best way of subverting the enemy is to make ’em laugh.