At some point in the last 70 or 80 years, Hollywood fell in love with Paris. “Why Paris?” a bemused outsider might wonder. Why not the equally lovely Venice or Rome? Why not London: haven’t these two so much more in common?
But love falls where it falls and Paris it was – and has been ever since. From The Merry Widow to Julie & Julia no foreign location has attracted more attention from American moviemakers over the years than Paris.
And just like every love story that stretches over such a long period of time, this one, too, has had its ups and downs. They may now be an old couple, perhaps overly familiar with each other, but once they were sweet – and before that, they were complete strangers. Let’s have a look at the way things were when it all started, in the years before, during and shortly after WW II.
Ninotchka was one of MGM’s top projects of 1939. Mainly famous today for its sharp writing (on arrival in Paris, Ninotchka greets the “resident” Russian diplomats with news from Moscow: “The show trials have been a great success, Comrades – there will be fewer but better Russians”), the film enjoyed great publicity, at the time, as the first joint work of two of Hollywood’s greatest stars: the director Ernst Lubitsch and Greta Garbo.
This picture shows the opening shot of the film, Paris’s stage entrance…. It is just one of a long list of missed opportunities.
We are looking at Paris from the northern side of the Place de la Concorde. This, it must be said, is a very odd choice for such an “establishing shot”. Even people who are reasonably familiar with Paris will probably need to look twice before they recognize the location. What is even odder is the fact that you would only have needed to move the camera a little to catch some of the major Parisian landmarks: 45° to the right you would have seen the Eiffel Tower, another 45° the Arc de Triomphe, 90° to the left the Louvre and Notre Dame Cathedral somewhere in the distance.
A caption then appears on the screen, informing us “this picture takes place in Paris”: conveying in words what the establishing shot has failed to deliver. This takes its cue quite obviously from theatrical rather than cinematic convention. (“What wood is this before us?” “The wood of Birnam.”)
After this opening shot, the film cuts straight into the inside of a hotel lobby. It is only then that those people in the audience who know Paris well will remember that there is indeed a luxury hotel at the Northern side of the Place de la Concorde (the Crillon) and that the establishing shot appears to have been taken from one of its balconies. But who in the audience in Dayton, Ohio, or Peru, Indiana, would have known that? The film itself fails to make this clear or to establish any connection between the wider location of the city and the more specific location of the first scene.
Then we see the Russian diplomats enter and leave the hotel, one by one: from inside the lobby. Even with the technical limitations of the time, one could have handled this scene in a somewhat different manner: with a back projection of the Eiffel Tower over the shoulders of the approaching Russians, perhaps.
In Ninotchka, Paris is a city that mainly consists of interiors. We only break out of these once, for fresh air, when we follow Melvyn Douglas and Garbo to their visit of the Eiffel Tower – to be shown another poor shot of Paris where foreground and background appear to have been photographed at different times of day (dusk for one, midnight for the other) and, seemingly, on different continents: what we see behind the Trocadero (down from the Eiffel Tower) looks very much like the superimposed view of a U.S. city skyline.
When Melvyn Douglas shows Garbo the sights of the town from the top of the Eiffel Tower, Montparnasse (in the South), Montmartre (in the North) and the Arc de Triomphe (in the West) are all conveniently lined up in the same direction but we do not get a glimpse of any of them: all we see is Douglas pointing.
Later, Garbo visits Melvyn Douglas in his flat. He is surely the last protagonist in a Hollywood movie from whose drawing room window you cannot see the Eiffel Tower. This is all the more remarkable because, as we have just been told and shown in the previous scene, the Eiffel Tower has a view of his apartment.
Taking freedoms such as these with one’s location has a long tradition. The Mediterranean provides William Shakespeare with the setting for 21 out of his 38 plays, but most of you will be surprised to hear this: we generally do not see Shakespeare as an author who is in any way “connected” to the Mediterranean. This is because he never gives us a feel for the place – or even the impression that he is at all interested in any of his “exotic” locations as such. Neither Othello nor The Merchant of Venice, for example, make any mention of Venice’s most striking feature: that all streets appear to be under water.
Some scholars have used this to show that Shakespeare was not particularly well travelled and, perhaps, not particularly well educated either. I think this misses the point. (The authors of Ninotchka certainly cannot be accused of either one or the other: two of the three screenwriters, Wilder and Walter Reisch, as well as Lubitsch himself had come over from Europe – and surely knew what Paris looked like – while the third writer, Charles Brackett, was a Harvard graduate and had learned his trade as the drama critic of the New Yorker.)
What it shows instead is the level of interest for the properties of faraway places that appears to have prevailed among the theatre audiences in Elizabethan England. England in 1600, after all, was not only a self-sufficient nation, proud in its splendid isolation, but also a nation that saw itself surrounded by continental turmoil and was determined not to get sucked in.
This is also a pretty good description of the United States in the 1930s: what the after-math of the Reformation was for the one, the “rise of the fascist tide” in Europe was for the other. Both Shakespeare and Lubitsch, top-notch professionals in the entertainment businesses of their respective periods, knew what moved and stirred, but also what interested their audiences – and the properties of faraway places were not among them. This explains why Bohemia and the city of Milan have coastlines in Shakespeare’s plays – and why Paris gets such a lackluster treatment in “Ninotchka”.
Four years are not a long time in history, but can be long enough to change the way people look at things. Let’s see how America viewed the world in 1943.