Oops! I almost left out Ninotchka. Somehow, this 1939 masterpiece slipped through the cracks. I apologize for whatever inconvenience this violation of my self-imposed chronology may cause, although I don’t think the Prime Directive has been threatened. There is a sense, however, in which the 1930s do culminate in Ninotchka, and by 1943 Ernst Lubitsch’s film world would seem surprisingly remote.
The American film industry in its first two decades had grown out of a nativist culture with various Victorian melodramatic flourishes. This was the WASP preserve of D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, and Thomas Ince, though it eventually allowed a certain level of Irish intrusion (Raoul Walsh, Marshall Neilan, Francis and John Ford.) With the coming of World War I, the European continent and its values began to intrude deeply into American consciousness. Erich von Stroheim, the all-purpose Hun, became a regular on-screen presence, and less than one year after the armistice, he had become a prominent director with Blind Husbands. Through Stroheim’s films, most notably Foolish Wives (1922), European decadence began to ooze into our movies. In one sense he thrived on perversity, but Stroheim’s perversity was increasingly dominated by a self-destructive element that eventually snuffed out his career as a director.
The antithesis to all this was Ernst Lubitsch (1892–1947), who had established himself as a major director in Germany before coming to America. Although Lubitsch’s films were no less “European” than Stroheim’s, they substituted sophistication for decadence, wit for turgid melodrama, and a smiling face for one that leered. Although other European directors would be imported in Lubitsch’s wake (Sjöström, Stiller, Christensen, and Murnau, among others), none achieved his long-standing success. And none had so much influence on American-born directors like Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey, Preston Sturges, George Cukor, and Blake Edwards.
So there was an era in American film where works of grace, opulence, and continental elegance shared the podium with more homely movies: fiefdom royalty amongst cowboys; Parisian jewel thieves amidst Chicago gangsters; operetta meets Depression. Europe, in Lubitsch, was palaces, spectacular apartments, magnificent banquets—the best furnishings M-G-M and Paramount could buy—Hans Dreier and Cedric Gibbons in a stylistic shootout at the O.K. Corral. This was not the end for Lubitsch, who managed a few more masterpieces, but this was the end of his era of European grandeur, as the darkness of the war began to close in on the back lots of Hollywood. The whole point of Ninotchka, after all, is that although Lubitschean civilization may in fact be doomed, it still sparkles and scintillates in William Daniels’s imagery. Daniels, who was Stroheim’s favorite photographer, also served in that capacity for Greta Garbo.
The film was intended to lend Garbo the human touch, but this was ultimately futile in the face of her irredeemable regality. It is fitting that the Queen of M-G-M should reign over the closing chapter of a Europe that existed in Lubitsch’s mind but not on any map. She was no longer popular at the American box office, and now the European market was disappearing under Nazi boots. The Sweden to which she had often threatened to return when Louis B. Mayer didn’t pay her enough was now precariously poised as a neutral in the war that had broken out six weeks after Ninotchka’s release. Lubitsch had, over the years, engaged in his own personal tour of European actresses, from Henny Porten through Pola Negri and Marlene Dietrich; it was inevitable that he would direct Garbo, and it was one of her best performances—meaning it was one of the most luminous performances ever committed to celluloid.
I scoff at those who cite 1939 as significant because of Gone with the Wind or The Wizard of Oz. There were many great films that year both here and abroad, but two stand out as augurs, lamenting the passage of worlds that will never return: Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game and Ninotchka.