Ina Claire

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.

The Greeks Had a Word for Them (1932)

The Greeks Had a Word For Them 1932

The Greeks Had a Word for Them has a pretty straightforward story:  Three former showgirl friends, Schatzi (Joan Blondell), Polaire (Madge Evans), and Jean (Ina Claire), are all determined to land themselves some rich men.  They all live together and share pretty much everything: jewelery, clothes, and even men.  Well, they don’t exactly share the men as much as they steal them.  Jean is particularly unscrupulous about making a move for her friends’ men.  She even goes as far as to plant one of her necklaces on Polaire just as she’s about to meet her rich fiance’s father to make her look like a thief.  Jean does manage to snag Justin, Polaire’s fiance’s father, and is all set to marry him, but backs out at the last-minute because she doesn’t want to give up her fun, single life and heads to Paris with Polaire and Schatzi.

If a movie about three gold digging friends, one of whom is named Schatzi, sounds familiar, that’s because you probably best remember it as How to Marry a Millionaire starring Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and Betty Grable.  But much like The Letter and Waterloo Bridge, the pre-code version is quite significantly different from the production code era version.  In fact, I’d say the only real similarities between the two movies are the fact that they’re both about three gold digging friends, some of the names are similar, one person backs out of a wedding, and only one of them ends up with a rich man in the end.  In the 1953 version, all the women set out to land rich men on their own, but in the 1932 version, the three friends are constantly stealing each others’ men.  There was so much backstabbing and man stealing going on between them, it’s beyond me why these three ladies stayed friends.  Well, at least I don’t get why they stayed friends with Jean anyway.  If they were really serious about trying to land rich men, considering how incredibly ruthless Jean was, I’d think they’d want to keep her far, far away from their men.  The pre-code version is also much boozier and full of scenes where the ladies are seen wearing their slips for absolutely no real reason.

Even though I thought it was pretty fun and entertaining, I wouldn’t call it one of my favorites.  I actually preferred How to Marry a Millionaire to this version.  I mostly just found the character of Jean so very unlikable.  I know she was supposed to be a very over the top character, but yikes!  Like I said, the fact that these two women wanted to be friends with such an awful woman is totally baffling to me.  Maybe if they had been able to go with their original choice of Jean Harlow for that part, she might have been able to give the character some more charm.  On the whole, the movie wasn’t bad.  I’d watch it again if nothing else was on, but I don’t know if I’d go out of my way to watch it again.  But if you do watch it, be sure to keep an eye out for Betty Grable’s bit part as a hat check girl!