NINOTCHKA (1939) 

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Greta Garbo
Melvyn Douglas
Ina Claire
Bela Lugosi
Sig Ruman
Felix Bressart
Alexander Granach

Ernst Lubitsch



About Garbo

Time: 110 mins.
Rating: Not Rated
Genre: Romance/Drama

Academy Award nominations for Best Actress, Best Screenplay and Best Picture.

Though I love watching old movies, there are many super stars who's work is unknown to me. Garbo is one of them. I'm fairly familiar with her legend, but up until I saw NINOTCHKA, I had never seen any of her films. Apparently she was a fairly serious person and from what I know, most of her performances followed suit. This was her first comedy, which was a very big deal and used throughout the marketing campaign, as you can see on the poster image. Garbo laughing was clearly something unseen by movie audiences of that time. Now, don't get all excited. This may be a comedy by Garbo standards, but the Marx Brothers it's not. If this is as loose as Garbo gets, I'm somewhat scared to see her dramas.

More a romance than anything else, NINOTCHKA does have it's lighter moments, especially the scene where Garbo ties one on, however, it's not as fun as I expected. She begins the film as a dour Russian envoy and ends it slightly more effervescent, but still along that same unhappy line. I guess it would be a surprise to people to see her laugh, since that's the only time her face shows any emotion. I have to say she's not at all what I thought she would be. The film opens with three Russian men – Iranoff, Buljanoff and Kopalski – arriving in Paris to sell some jewelry for the good of their nation. The money gained from the sale will keep their comrades from starving the next year. Of course, it doesn't take long for the lavishness of Paris to make an impression.

All seems to be going well until the Grand Duchess Swana (Claire), the owner of the jewels and an escapee from the Revolution, discovers their intent to sell her old baubles. She threatens to take them to court, forcing the gentlemen into a stalemate. Enter the envoy extraordinaire – Ninotchka. Sent to clean up their mess, she decides to settle the matter her way by researching the law. She is disgusted by the lavish suite her comrades have booked for her, a room that will cost the Russian people money they can ill afford. If only they had paid attention to their work instead of their surroundings she would not have been sent here. She puts them to work and then sets out to see the Eiffel Tower, to revel in its technical genius. On the street, she meets up with Count Leon d'Algout (Douglas), a real charmer and the Grand Duchess's lover, who unabashedly flirts with her. He's never met someone so direct and humorless before.

Ninotchka: "What have you done for mankind?"
Leon: "Not so much for mankind... for womankind, my record isn't quite so bleak."

Despite her protests, he follows her to the Tower where they continue their conversation about the frivolousness of Paris and its' inhabitants. She is intrigued by Leon and agrees to accompany him back to his apartment, if only to continue her research about capitalist people and how they live. Once there, they fall under each other's spell. Her stately beauty, dry humor, inner strength and devotion to her country captivates Leon, inducing him to steal a kiss to try to awaken her hidden passion. Ninotchka feels the connection as well, silencing him with a kiss of her own. A phone call brings their burgeoning love to a quick halt as they each discover the true identity of the other. Leon, as the envoy of the Duchess, is her enemy and despite what passed between them, she is loyal only to her country. They must never meet again. Of course, Leon refuses to go quietly, following her around, attempting to break down her icy facade and convince her to continue their affair. His charm proves too much for her and she soon opens herself up to the joy of Paris and its style. Armed with new clothes and a silly hat she initially disproved of, Ninotchka revels in her newfound love. She still plans to settle the lawsuit, but she lets her hair down, enjoying dressing up, dancing and drinking champagne.

Unfortunately, the Grand Duchess isn't one to lose her property or her men and she makes sure Ninotchka is aware of that fact. What began as an evening of champagne and sweet nothings, brings a mid-morning of headaches and blackmail. It seems the Grand Duchess has friends in all sorts of places. One in particular reacquires the jewels while Ninotchka sleeps off her first night of decadence. In the harsh light of the morning, Ninotchka has no choice but to give in to the Duchess's demands. It means losing her love, but returning triumphant to her homeland. Leon is devastated by the news of her departure, but refuses to give up on their future together. Life returns to normal for Ninotchka and her Parisian comrades. It's nothing compared to their heyday in the city of lights, but their friendship makes up for their lack of finery. Ninotchka misses Leon horribly, but is resigned to her life in Russia. It doesn't take long for Iranoff, Buljanoff and Kopalski to get up to their old tricks on their new assignment. Their lack of success soon has her abroad again. Only this time the outcome is much happier.

What keeps this from being a somewhat mediocre affair is the clever dialogue and intriguing script. Garbo and Douglas have good chemistry, but it's hard to see why he would be interested in such a stiff. Sure, she's smart and attractive, but the ice princess glare would be enough to send most men into hiding. I guess Frenchmen aren't fooled by such tactics and treat them as a challenge. Of course, being a card-carrying Communist gives her reasons for being so glum and forbidding and adds a bit of depth to an otherwise silly romantic tale. I wish Garbo did more comedies because she's quite lovely and vivacious when she cracks a smile. Her transformation from Russian comrade to Paris fashionista isn't outrageous – a silly hat and a new suit – but it's written all over her face. Maybe the West isn't evil after all. They have love and fashion and champagne. She revels in being able to indulge in emotion and individuality. However, she stays loyal to her ideals and homeland, which keeps the film balanced and her character believable. The ending wasn't exactly a surprise, but it was more unusual than most.

As for the rest of the cast, Douglas was charming, but really didn't do much for me. I wouldn't cross the street to meet him. I guess he was a big star at the time and he holds his own against the formidable talent of Garbo. The gentlemen who play Ninotchka's Russian comrades, Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart and Alexander Granach, are quite amusing and give the film some of its best laughs. Though much older than Garbo, she treats them like naughty schoolboys, which they so rightly deserve. They love their homeland, but a nice bed to sleep in and a hot shower are definitely comforts they could get used to. If it weren't for their capitalist leanings, Ninotchka would never have gained true happiness. The script is quite well-written with wonderful one-liners and double entendres. It's no surprise to me that it came partially from the pen of Billy Wilder. I love his films because they are confections for adults. Though they couldn't openly talk about or show sex, you know from the way he creates a scene and coins a phrase that his characters are indulging between the sheets.

When I watch films like this, I almost wish there was a production code again, so writers had to be clever to get their point across instead of just showing someone's naked ass. Since I haven't seen any other Garbo pics, I can't say whether this one is better than the others. I can say that it's an enjoyable romance with some unusual moments and a good story. Even though this is a well-made film, I don't think I'll be racing to the video store for more Garbo. I'm not going to avoid her, but there are plenty of other actresses I enjoy more.

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