“Prologue: This picture takes place in Paris in those wonderful days when a siren was a brunette and not an alarm – and if a Frenchman turned out the light it was not on account of an air raid!”
“Garbo Talks!” hailed ads when popular silent film star, Greta Garbo made her debut in talking pictures in Clarence Brown’s, Anna Christie in 1930. Nine years later ads and taglines proclaimed, “Garbo Laughs!” as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) took advantage of the mega-popular Garbo when she starred in her first American comedy, Ninotchka. By that year all the major studios were facing dwindling revenues in foreign markets and Garbo was a bigger draw in Europe than she was in the U.S. Audiences were used to Garbo in dramatic roles and the prospect of seeing her laugh and making them laugh caused a sensation. Take a look at the film’s theatrical trailer here. But it wasn’t only in marketing that MGM put their energies, they all but guaranteed the film’s success by getting a master of comedy to direct, Ernst Lubitsch.
“Selection of Ernst Lubitsch to pilot Garbo in her first light performance in pictures proves a bull’s-eye.” – Variety staff, December 1938
As Ninotchka opens we see three Russian envoys who have arrived in Paris to sell a fortune in jewelry, imperial jewelry, the money of which is to go to the Russian government, which is in need of cash. The three, Iranoff, Buljanoff and Kopalski (played hilariously by Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart and Alexander Granach, respectively) who are supposed to be doing work for the Russian government, immediately get caught up in the excesses of capitalism and fail to sell the jewelry. Moscow then sends a special envoy to Paris to investigate what’s going on with the trio and the jewelry. The envoy is the rigid and humorless, Comrade Yakushova – Ninotchka.
“Don’t make an issue of my womanhood.”
It’s inevitable that even the stern envoy, who is completely devoted to Lenin’s cause, should casually bump into the man of her dreams, even if she’d never dreamed those dreams as her ideology dictates. I mean, she’s in the City of Love, after all. As Ninotchka goes out into Paris for the sole purpose of learning the technicalities and policies that make such a city function, she happens across Leon. Unbeknownst to her, Leon is the boyfriend (I guess) of the Duchess who owned the jewels that were confiscated and are to be sold for the benefit of the Russian people, the jewels Ninotchka was sent to Paris for. This complicates things substantially. Not to mention, Leon is a Count, an aristocrat and stands for everything she’s against. The two spend the day together regardless, which culminates in one of my favorite scenes in the film, where ideologies clash with romance…he throws his best lines at her, declares his undying love and…
Ninotchka: Must you flirt?
Count Leon d’Algout: Well, I don’t have to, but I find it natural.
Ninotchka: Suppress it.
Count Leon D’Algout: Do you like me just a little bit?
Ninotchka: Your general appearance is not distasteful.
Count Leon D’Algout: Thank you.
Ninotchka: The whites of your eyes are clear. Your cornea is excellent.
Then, Ninotchka finds out who Leon is and walks out but Leon will have none of it. He follows her, infatuated and intrigued by the Russian. He pursues her and she resists. Until…
Now, all bets are off and soon Ninotchka is overtaken by love and the excesses of Paris. I’ll leave it at that so as not to divulge the entire plot. Suffice it to say that we too cannot help but be enchanted with Ninotchka.
I hadn’t seen this film in many years and taped it last month during Turner Classic Movies‘ (TCM) month-long salute to director, Ernst Lubitsch. Upon seeing it this week I was quickly reminded of what a great film it is, a standout even among the many gems made in Hollywood’s golden year, 1939. It had to compete with giants that year, giants that have stood the test of time but know, if you’ve yet to see Ninotchka, that this one stands should to shoulder with the others – a wonderful film and one of the best romantic comedies ever made. It still feels fresh, by the way.
Greta Garbo is both funny and touching as the stern Russian envoy. And as Ninotchka softens, she lights up the screen. She looks gorgeous, even in the scenes where she is dressed plainly upon arriving in Paris. According to trivia noted on IMDB she wore no makeup in those scenes, which is unbelievable. As is the fact this is her next-to-last film. And, not so surprisingly, her favorite.
As great as Garbo is in Ninotchka, she’s not the only one. The entire cast is memorable.
In the TCM introduction to the film, Ben Mankiewicz mentioned that Leon, the part played by Melvyn Douglas, was originally written for Cary Grant. I have no trouble imagining Grant in the film and role and have no doubt he would have been wonderful because, as we all know, Mr. Grant could do anything. I also read in an old newspaper article that William Powell was also considered for the role – another fantastic choice. But there are no complaints about Melvyn Douglas who had what both Grant and Powell had in the debonair and charm departments and could do comedy with the best of ’em. Not only is he wonderful as Leon and enjoys great chemistry with Garbo, but the whites of his eyes are clear and his cornea is excellent!
Also worthy of note are Ina Claire who plays the Duchess Swana and Bela Lugosi in a small role as Razinin, in a rare non-horror role, which is always great to see. Finally, I must mention (again) the three gentlemen who play the Russian envoys I mentioned above because they are wonderful – whenever Ruman, Bressart and Granach are on-screen I laugh! Perhaps not as charmingly as Garbo and not as big a deal, but I laugh. And am touched because there is also a lot of warmth between those three and Garbo as Ninotchka develops a soft spot for them like we do.
Needless to say, the entire film is seamless – a compelling story from the very first scene guided by Lubitsch’s expert hand. The script is clever and very funny with many memorable one-liners and quotes to remember. In case you were wondering, I really love this movie!
Ninotchka received some recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with four nominations – Garbo for Best Actress in a Leading Role, Melchior Lengyel for Best Writing, Original Story, a Best Writing, Screenplay nod for Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch and Billy Wilder (his first Oscar nomination) and finally, recognition in the Best Picture category for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Conspicuously missing is recognition for the film’s director, something I will never understand as films do not direct themselves and Lubitsch certainly deserved it for this picture, regardless of what other films were nominated. Personally, I would have easily chosen Lubitsch for Ninotchka over William Wyler for Wuthering Heights, but I bet I’m in the minority there. Let me know if you’d like to debate this.
Ninotchka was chosen for entry in the Library of Congress’, National Film Preservation Board in 1990 as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Today I post this not only because I so enjoy Ninotchka and want to pay it tribute, but also in honor of its great director – arguably the best director of romantic comedies who ever lived if only because he influenced so many other greats. Like, Billy Wilder, for instance, whose work I adore. Wilder said on many occasions that when trying to write screenplays or direct his films he’d often ask, “what would Lubitsch do?” as guidance. What he called, “the Lubitsch touch” was his standard. Lubitsch would have celebrated his 121st birthday today and of the many memorable films he made, Ninotchka is my favorite. So to him and to it I raise a glass.