02 November 2014

A Note About Ninotchka



Ninotchka at the restaurant --- before she laughs

 There's a most unfamiliar name on my great performances list (it will get longer, don't worry!). Who, you may ask, is Charles Judels, cited for Ernst Lubitsch's great comedy Ninotchka?

Well, Charles Judels was a character actor who utters what is perhaps my favorite line in any movie, it is so perfect.

The story of Ninotchka is well-known; a serious-minded Russian Communist official comes to gay pre-war Paris on a diplomatic mission, and her single-minded devotion to duty is shattered by love and romance. Nina Yakushova, known as Ninotchka, is of course played by Greta Garbo, and she is superb, not just lovely but perfectly capable of handling a sparkling script by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and Billy Wilder.

One early scene tells the whole story. Ninotchka goes for a walking tour of the city. Full of conscious righteousness, she shuns expensive, luxurious restaurants and chooses a workingman's cafe for lunch. When Pere Mathieu, the proprietor (Judels) asks for her order, she says brusquely, "Just bring me some raw beets and carrots."

Pere Mathieu can hardly believe this. He draws himself up and says, exuding French-ness with every word, "Madame, this is a restaurant, not a meadow."  

I will just bet that Billy Wilder wrote that. It concisely illustrates the clash of world-views that is to come; to Ninotchka, the utilitarian, food is a practical necessity, nothing more. To the Parisians it is an art and a pleasure, what life is all about. It's good writing, good drama, and extremely funny.

So that's who Charles Judels is -- the voice of civilization, where mere survival is not enough without beauty and joy.
Greta Garbo as Ninotchka and Melvyn Douglas as Leon