Ninotchka was Greta Garbo’s second-last film, and her first real comedy. It was a hit and could have launched her into a new phase of her career but sadly that was not to be. Her final film, the very underrated Two-Faced Woman, unfortunately failed to repeat the commercial success of Ninotchka and she decided to call it a day. She presumably felt it was better to remain a legend than to risk seeing a career slowly peter out, and perhaps she was right.
I saw Ninotchka many years ago but when I was young I was as serious and humourless as Ninotchka herself is in the early part of the film so I wasn’t able to appreciate it. I’ve put off seeing it again because of Billy Wilder’s involvement in it as co-writer - I don’t care for Wilder’s brand of comedy in general. But since it was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, whom I admire, and starred Garbo, whom I adore, I felt it was time to take another look at this one.
The Soviet government needs money badly so they decide to sell some of the jewels that they had stolen from aristocrats after the Revolution. In this case the jewels had belonged to a certain grand duchess (played by Ina Claire) who happens to be very much alive and living in Paris. When three Soviet apparatchiks arrive in Paris to sell her jewels she gets wind of it and launches a court case to block the sale, arguing (correctly of course) that the jewels are stolen. Her boyfriend, a shiftless and penniless but charming French count named Leon (Melvyn Douglas), offers a deal to the three hapless Soviets. Negotiations drag on and a special envoy is dispatched from Moscow to expedite matters. The envoy is Ninotchka (Greta Garbo).
Ninotchka takes life very seriously indeed. She is a dedicated communist with no time for frivolities but Leon figures that although she might be a Bolshevik she’s still a woman and his charm has never failed him yet.
Both Leon and Ninotchka find themselves in unfamiliar territory. Leon finds that what started out as his usual style of self-serving flirtation is starting to turn into love. And Ninotchka discovers there’s more to life than Five Year Plans and compiling statistics on tractor production. She discovers champagne, and evening dresses, and dancing, and having fun. And she discovers that she is not immune to decadent western weaknesses like falling madly in love with feckless but handsome and charming Frenchmen.
Her three Soviet comrades have discovered the joys of Paris as well. They’ve installed themselves in the Royal Suite in a fashionable hotel and are enjoying the capitalist high life. Instead of negotiating for the sale of the jewels they’re getting drunk and chasing pretty Parisian girls.
The grand duchess not only wants her jewels back, she also wants her French toyboy back. She wants to see Ninotchka back in Moscow, as soon as possible. Especially since Leon seems intent on marrying his beautiful Bolshevik sweetheart.
The humour is perhaps not as subtle as you might expect from Lubitsch, but this is a very funny film. Much of the humour comes from the antics of the three hapless but good-natured comrades who are finding that capitalism is much more fun than communism, and that being able to say what you like without the fear of being shipped off to a labour camp in Siberia is rather appealling as well.
Melvyn Douglas is very good but the success of the movie depends on Garbo and she proves to be a gifted comedienne (as she demonstrated again in Two-Faced Woman). It’s a slyly self-mocking performance and it’s a delight. I’d venture to say that this movie is much funnier if you’re familiar with her earlier movies and with her established image as the perennially tragic doomed woman who sacrifices everything for love. Garbo was cast very much against type in this movie and she has a great time making fun of her very serious image.
Look out for Bela Lugosi’s cameo as a particularly dour commissar.
This movie makes an interesting contrast with the screwball comedies that were so popular at the time. The Lubitsch approach to comedy was far more sophisticated and this is definitely not screwball comedy (in contrast to Two-Faced Woman which is pure screwball comedy).
Ninotchka is also a biting satire on communism, and it finds its target with unerring accuracy. The humour is at times quite black, such as Ninotchka’s remark that the show trials are going very well in Moscow and there will soon be fewer but better Russians. The humourlessness of Marxism is mocked but the movie also very effectively pinpoints the dehumanising effects of political terror. It is a plea for humanity and for love and for fun as being far more important than blind adherence to ideology. As a political satire it is infinitely superior to Charlie Chaplin’s grossly overrated The Great Dictator made a year later. It’s also far more courageous, given the appeal of leftist ideologies in Hollywood. It was banned in Russia, which simply serves to demonstrate that the comrades really were as humourless as the movie shows them to be.
Ninotchka is highly recommended and the Warner Home Video DVD looks terrific.