1939 / 1946 / Best Actor / Best Actress / Best Director / Best Picture

Film #112: Ninotchka (1939) & Film #113: The Yearling (1946)

Yet another double bill now finds an odd double bill that couples up an iconic screen diva and a young deer.

The aforementioned screen icon is Greta Garbo who features in only one of the two films she starred in to be nominated for an Oscar, that being Ninotchka. As the majority of my knowledge of classic film stars is via this journey I’m not really aware of Garbo’s back catalogue although she did have an incredibly powerful aura in Grand Hotel. Ninotchka was Garbo’s penultimate film and was the first broad comedy film in which she starred hence the tagline ‘Garbo Laughs.’ I was particularly surprised how much the film made me laugh as well as it mocked the Soviet Union’s rigid society and the way in which four of its patrons are corrupted when they arrive in Paris. Ninotchka’s plot is wafer-thin as it involves the sale of jewellery which had been confiscated during the Russian Revolution and whose owner now wanted it back. Representing the Grand Duchess Swana is Melvin Douglas’ Count Leon; a dashing cad who is able to corrupt the three Soviets who arrive in Paris to complete the sale. Garbo’s Ninotchka then arrives on the scene; a beret-clad Soviet agent whose job is to complete the sale. I found Garbo to be utterly hilarious in her role as the strait-laced Soviet who is gradually won over by the smooth-talking count. Ernst Lubitsch’s direction perfectly anchors the humour whilst the script is packed full of laugh-out-loud one-liners. At just under two hours, Ninotchka is perfectly paced as our two characters come together before being torn apart due to blackmail. The final scene is beautifully played and one more gag is included in the closing shot which I for one appreciated. But ultimately the success of Ninotchka comes down to the brilliant chemistry between Garbo and Douglas both of whom contribute to making this a thoroughly enjoyable satirical screwball comedy.

Next up we have The Yearling which I believe is one of the most inconsequential pieces of cinema I think I’ve ever seen. Set in 1878, The Yearling follows the adventures of the Baxter family – former Civil War soldier Penny, his withdrawn wife Ora and their son Jody. Throughout the film Ora’s emotional state is explained away by the fact that she’d lost all of her other children and only Jody remained. I have to say if I was in Ora’s position I’d be a little annoyed to as Jody is especially annoying. Films like The Yearling only work if the cute child star isn’t annoying and unfortunately in this movie that isn’t the case. It’s particularly annoying as the majority of the film deals with Jody’s relationship with a young fawn named Flag who he tries to raise. But, when the time comes to set him free, Jody doesn’t take it and instead experiences proper loss for the first time. Whilst I can see what director Clarence Brown was trying to achieve with The Yearling the results are incredibly mediocre. Aside from Claude Jarman Jr’s cloying performance as Jody, the cast are uniformly forgettable. Most surprising was the fact that Jane Wyman, who was so superb in Johnny Belinda, made little impression in her role as Ora. To be fair to Wyman the role didn’t require much of her apart from sitting sour-faced whilst performing some menial task. Though Gregory Peck tried his best to make us warm to Penny, I found him a little too squeaky clean and didn’t think he came down hard enough on his son. Surprisingly The Yearling was nominated for seven Oscars including for the performances given by Peck and Wyman. The fact it won in the colour cinematography and art direction categories leads me to believe that its main appeal to the Academy was its bright colours. Indeed, when films were primarily still shot in black and white, I’d feel that The Yearling would definitely stand out in the crowd. But it’s a film that hasn’t aged well and at the end of the day I don’t think it would’ve been nominated at all were it not for the fact that it had been filmed in colour.


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