Ninotchka Greta Garbo Melvyn Douglas

Ninotchka (1939)

As a way to raise money, the Russian government sends Iranoff (Sig Rumann), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart), and Kopalski (Alexander Granach) to Paris so they can sell some jewels that had been taken from the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire) during a revolution. Swana now lives in Paris and when she hears about the sale of her jewels, she wants them back and gets her boyfriend Leon (Melvyn Douglas) to put a stop to it. Leon distracts Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski from their mission by giving them a taste of the luxuries life in Paris has to offer (not that it takes much effort to distract them).

Once the Russian government finds out about the sale getting off track, they send special Envoy Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) to make sure the job is completed. While Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski were easily tempted to enjoy a taste of the good life, Ninotchka is a devout Communist, deeply loyal to Russia, and very stern and humorless. The sophisticated, decadent Parisian lifestyle appalls Ninotchka and her only interests lie in selling the jewels and admiring Paris strictly from an architectural standpoint.

While headed toward the Eiffel Tower, Ninotchka meets Leon, who is immediately attracted to her. Neither of them realize who the other is and Leon continues trying to flirt with her. Even when he finds out who she is and why she’s in Paris, he still continues to pursue her. Meanwhile, Ninotchka starts to fall in love with Leon, too, and being in love helps to soften Ninotchka’s stern attitude and even gets her to change her minds about the way of life in Paris.

In my book, Ninotchka is Garbo’s finest talkie. As much as I love movies like Queen ChristinaNinotchka is a perfect cocktail of a film. This was Garbo’s first attempt at comedy and she proved to be an expert at very dry, deadpan comedy. As great as Garbo is when Ninotchka is at her sternest, her finest moments come as Ninotchka softens and starts to let go of herself. These are the moments when Garbo is at her most delightful; they let us see a side of Garbo that we don’t see in any of her other films.

Melvyn Douglas was easily one of Garbo’s best leading men; he’s my second favorite of her co-stars, just behind John Gilbert. (Melvyn Douglas is vastly under-appreciated in general, in my opinion.) His debonair, sophisticated style in this movie is the perfect contrast to the uptight Ninotchka.

And I certainly can’t neglect to mention director Ernst Lubitsch, who is completely in his element with Ninotchka. This is exactly the type of material Lubitsch is best remembered for working with. To make things even better, Billy Wilder had a hand in writing the screenplay. I adore Billy Wilder both as a writer and a director and I have yet to be completely disappointed by a Lubitsch film, so to be able to see those two creative forces come together in one movie is a true delight for me.

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2 comments

  1. It’s more than a love story too. Ninotchka is one the rare films that lets Garbo have some bitchy repartee with another actress, and Ilka Chase is certainly up to the task. Watching Chase’s face drop in the nightclub scene, where she first glimpses her Russian competition exit the lades room is priceless.

    There’s also the bizarre, one-scene specter of Bela Lugosi, already on the decline, acting with Garbo.

    Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo were the two actresses Irving Thalberg was most intent on developing. Author Richard Corliss noted, “If Shearer was in fact Thalberg’s wife, Garbo was, in effect, his European mistress.” His death in September 1936, in retrospect, started a running-down clock on the primacy of both actresses. In the same year as Ninotchka Shearer appeared in her own last unqualified success, The Women, and both stars would be out of movies by 1942.

    Another critic noted that if Camille was Garbo’s greatest film, Ninotchka was undeniably her warmest, the one entry in the Garbo canon, that might have made a successful movie even with another actress. Over 75 years old, and Ninotchka still unfailingly rewards.

  2. Favorite moment in the film: Ninotchka visits Leon’s apartment for the first time, and as he is getting carried away with his own romantic metaphors, with leveled eyes and flat tone, she tells him, “You’re very talkative…” That’s about as politely as any woman told any man, “Put up or shut up, bub.”

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