Saturday, 15 September 2012

Ninotchka (1939)

Back when I had to get ”Camille” I found a box set with 6 features and a lot of extra material on Greta Garbo. It was basically the only way I could get Camille if I wanted to actually buy it instead of just download it or stream it. Not unusual really, I have built up quite an extensive collection of box sets. That procedure gives me a lot of extra film not on the list that I pack in in between list movies. I am only now finishing a massive W.C. Fields box set. So, I have been watching some “extra” Garbo movies, like Anna Karenina and Ninotchka. While Anna Karenina did not really work for me (like Camille) Ninotchka was a pleasure to see and I remember wondering why they put Camille on the list and not Ninotchka. Except that they did. I just had not checked far enough ahead. This pleased me immensely and now that it has become time for me to comment on it I have just watched it a second time and that did it no harm. This is a very pleasant movie.

Movie connoisseurs will probably ascribe the feel of the move to the famous, though elusive, Lubitsch tough. Yes this is the guy again with that famous tough. I must admit that I cannot put my finger on what is so special about his movies, but it is a common trait that they work and that they are very pleasing to see, and Ninotchka is no exception.

Greta Garbo is naturally the big star of this film and it was heralded as her first comedy, so “Garbo laughs” was the slogan, in the line of the slogan for her first talkie “Garbo talks”. Well she does not laugh so much in the beginning. In fact she is a caricature of a Russian stone-faced technocrat, sent to Paris to mob up after three screw-ups, Buljanov, Iranov and Kopalsky, who were supposed to sell some jewelry, but had to settle for a split with the former owner Gran-duchess Swana. In this role as Nina Ivanova “Ninotchka” Yakoshova Garbo is a communist Hardliner with capital H. She fires off all the commie lingo, is to the point, effective and obsessed with details, and most of all dedicated to the job, the party and the country. No smiles.

This changes when she meet Count Léon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), a seemingly broke aristocrat who nevertheless gets by in the upper society as an opportunist and with a weakness for Russian women. They meet in a random encounter on the streets of Paris and despite her coldness he is instantly drawn to her and in his smooth ways tries to woo her. It is not working so well, but he is insistent and actually ends up with her in his apartment kissing her when a phone call reveals their true identities, that she is the special envoy from Russia and he is the representative of Grand-duchess Swana, the fellow who caused the 50-50 split.

With her dedication to work, this will not do at all and she breaks it off. Léon however has completely lost interest in Swana and is now obsessing over Ninotchka. This leads to a number of funny situations. Léon’s butler is complaining over this obsession and that lately he even found a copy of Karl Marx of the table. When Léon tries to goad him into some class rebellion and finish by asking him if he would not like to demand that they share everything fair and square, the butler replies that he can live with not having been paid for to month but no way he is going to share his savings with Léon…

Leon follows Ninotcka to a simple restaurant (which actually looks fantastic, I want to eat there!) and desperately tries to make her laugh. All his jokes are wasted on her, but when he gives up and loses his balance on his chair she breaks and laughs hard with everybody else in the restaurant. If there is a single thing I have some difficulty coping with in the film it is this change. It is too massive, too suddenly. From stone-faced patriotic technocrat to sensitive, feminine and love-struck human in a split second. She is able to put on the hard façade again but never in the same cold manner. From now on she breaks out laughing and smile and do silly things like buying a silly (and probably expensive) hat. But she is charming and so are Léon, so it is okay.

We get the biggest laugh of the movie when Léon takes Ninotchka along to an exclusive dance restaurant and drunk on champagne Ninotchka tries to incite a revolution on the women’s bathroom.

Swana has lost Léon and schemes to win him back by offering Ninotchka that she can have the jewelries if she leaves the country immediately, and patriot as she still is, she painfully accept.

Now follow the last act because how will Léon and Ninotchka get each other if he is in France and she in a shared room in Moscow? I will not reveal that here.

The film is not just pleasing and romantic but also funny, not least because of the three clowns Buljanov, Iranov and Kopalsky. As a sidekick they are perfect. Representatives of the proletariat who are easily tempted by the corruptive luxuries of a western life in wealth but also in perpetual fear of what they will do to them back home. The script as well holds a lot of wonderful lines. “How are things back home?” “Excellent, the last mass trial was a great success. There will be fewer but better Russians”. Not funny in itself of course, but in the context it is hilarious.

I am not sure if Garbo was at heart a comedian. She was a megastar in Hollywood for her serious dramatic roles, but she honestly seemed to enjoy doing this film so I guess this was like a holiday for her. For us seeing it we can just enjoy that she finally did a comedy and started laughing.


  1. I love that picture that you chose for this one. Classic! I definitely agree with the three clowns - they really help round out the film.

    Wow, you've really reminded me about what a great script this has. Good call. Now I want to watch it again.

    1. Then you should. I liked it even better second time, it is so very pleasing to watch.
      Yeah, the moment I saw that picture I had no doubt I had to use it. It makes one happy, no?

  2. I liked this one, too, and didn't really expect to. While Garbo is great throughout, she really works for me in the first half when she is so cold and distant. Here lines here always carry a hint of additional humor because of how serious the character is.

    1. I agree completely. She keeps a straight face and yet say these absurd lines. That is woderfully funny.

  3. I actually saw the remake of this - Silk Stockings - before I even knew there was an earlier film. Many years had passed before I finally saw Ninotchka, so I was able to see it as its own movie, and not compare it to the remake. I did enjoy it.

    1. I never saw Silk Stockings, so I did not have that problem. But then, is it not so that it is the other way round that usually is the problem? Watching a a remake later makes you miss the original?