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An expertly-played and presented comedy that continues to be dogged by detractors for the oddest reasons. Some feel NINOTCHKA suffers compared to Lubitsch's earlier work, finding it formulaic alongside 1933's TROUBLE IN PARADISE. (I hadn't known Lubitsch had been given 'do-what-thou-wilt' privileges from the Hays Office - I'd labored under the delusion he faced the same restrictions in content and tone every other moviemaker did in 1939.) Other nay-sayers decry the film's jabs at Soviet collectivism as 'dated' if not 'unenlightened'. (Huh? You mean show trials and forced starvation of kulaks were GOOD things that a truly witty screenplay would celebrate?) Still other kibitzers squawk over the casting, of all things! (While it IS fun to picture William Powell or Robert Montgomery in the role of Leon, the boulevardier, Melvyn Douglas was never better than he is here. If he has his spotty moments, it's in those scenes where he must swoon with ardor, reciting dialogue that rings a tad purple to the ear; it's quite possible Powell or Montgomery would have fared even worse reading those lines.) Okay, enough defense - now let's go to NINOTCHKA's numerous strengths. Garbo is magnificent; she has a real knack for comedy (her deadpan entrance is hilarious) yet, as always, is able to break your heart with a look, a word, a gesture. Her three 'stooges' (Sig Rumann, Alexander Granach & Felix Bressart) are broadly funny and genuinely endearing. Ina Claire is everything her legend always claimed she was - though her character is icily calculating, you can't hate any woman who can make dialogue bristle like this. Lubitsch is in complete command throughout; his staging and pacing of the proceedings, masterful in its seeming effortlessness. Even the storied Metro glitz shines in NINOTCHKA, right down to the brilliant artifice of Cedric Gibbons' art direction (the Eiffel Tower sets especially). Last but not least is the superb screenplay by (among other hands) the team of Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder. Wisely, their satiric darts are dipped in a curare leavened by wit and sentiment, and while they are thrown with accuracy, their sting is never such that the satire sinks into the mire of political ideology. NINOTCHKA, after all, is about the triumph of love over politics, and to those who feel trapped in the prevailing toilet-ethic of the Farrelly Brothers' blood-poisoning of modern comedy, represents a much-needed antidote. Inoculate yourself at your earliest opportunity.
NINOTCHKA tells the story of a female special envoy from Russia (Greta
Garbo), sent to Paris to investigate the rather unorthodox and generally
inefficient way in which three Russian ambassadors (Iranoff, Buljanoff and
Kopalski--the trio serve as an excuse for much slapstick hilarity in the
film) are carrying out their job. They're supposed to be selling jewels
belonging to the former Grand Duchess, Swana (Ina Claire), but instead get
distracted by the luxuries of capitalist society as gleefully pressed onto
them by the Count d'Algout, Leon (Melvyn Douglas). It doesn't take long for
the dour, humourless Ninotchka to fall hard for the charming Leon, and their
love story begins atop the Eiffel Tower in Paris. We gather, however, that
Leon and the ex-Duchess share a casual on-off relationship and Swana handily
uses Nina's deep love for her mother Russia to blackmail the latter into
returning to Russia without a word to Leon. So what happens when the Russian
customs official refuses to give Leon a visa into Russia? You'll have to
watch for yourself to discover the whimsical, delightful
All in all, NINOTCHKA is a fine, funny film, with romance spilling out of its seams. From the first dry, crisp conversation between Leon and his Ninotchka while they wait for a whistle-break in Parisian traffic, you become involved with the characters and their love as he tries to break down her icy defenses, as he keeps trying in the face of her many rebuffs. One standout scene would be that of the drunken interlude in Nina's Royal Suite, as the couple look quizzically at the necklace that would bring them together and separate them, and Leon crowns his girlfriend before laying her gently on the bed, kissing her goodnight and taking his gentlemanly leave. It's also hard to beat the scene in which, as the tagline proudly declares, 'Garbo Laughs!', as Leon tries to coax a laugh out of Nina, and only succeeds by falling over backwards in his chair. The romantic comedy is certainly strong and sweet, but there's plenty of other comedy available as well, largely thanks to the three Russian sidekick ambassadors charmed by the benefits of capitalism. It's great fun watching them flounder helplessly when they first meet their stern, unforgiving Comrade Yakushova, but warm up to her when they return to Russia and have an omelette dinner together.
There is no doubt that Greta Garbo turns in a great performance as the title character. She plays the ice queen very convincingly, with the appropriate suggestion that her lips haven't seen a smile in a decade or so. (If you're worried, her Russian accent is also perfectly credible, though at times she lapses into something somewhat less than Russian.) When she finally breaks into laughter, the transition is believable, as is the sunny change that thereafter infuses Nina as she becomes Leon's Ninotchka. It's an especially nice touch to have her unable to suppress a wave of laughter in the first official meeting--it's also hilarious when she suddenly generously gives her three colleagues fifty francs because they're out of money... only to qualify that by asking them to bring her back 45 francs! I think it is to Garbo's credit that she can pull off both the dour, passionless Comrade Yakushova and the almost shy, giggling Ninotchka with equal aplomb. (Her frequent question, "Can I make a speech?", when drunk on champagne is--I think the only word for it is--adorable.) That face of hers, so famous around the world, really *is* made for the cameras, and I think Lubitsch captured it beautifully. (Lubitsch also directs with the lightest of touches, allowing his cast full rein.) Melvyn Douglas looks absolutely no different from his role a decade later in MR BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE, but there is no doubting that this is Garbo's film.
This is a sweet, happy film about love overcoming ideology, nationality, and geography, and one that doesn't feel the need to beat us over the head with it. The relationship is well-developed, the characters interesting, and the execution top-notch. For me personally, the film lacks something that would render it a 10/10 classic, but that certainly isn't indicative of its quality as a romantic comedy. A great way to spend an evening. 8/10.
I see that Billy Wilder collaborated on this. Was it a studio decision
that Garbo wasn't cast as a comedienne? From the evidence in this film,
she should have been. Her timing is excellent, her delivery very
special. This is a gem I'd never seen that deserves its National
Registry status. In 1939 the Soviet Union had sympathizers in the US,
and during the coming World War it was an ally. This gentle spoof of
Soviet seriousness and self-conscious worker ethics foreshadows the
arguments that were later trotted out after the War to begin the Cold
War, but here the humor and satire are soft, more Noel Coward than
My lament is not seeing more comedy from Garbo. She made such serious and tragic films, when she could have been making us laugh. The film is dated, yes, but Garbo herself shines through along with her three Russian accomplices. I think that Billy Wilder and Garbo would have been a great team
This is a fantastic movie. I can't understand why some people have problems with it. Makes me wonder if we don't have some people recoiling at some innocent cracks made at the Soviet Union's expense. As a romantic comedy it has very few peers and is a great introduction to black and white films for those used only to color. There are a plethora of interesting secondary characters. Garbo is wonderful, of course, and Dougless is as good as I've seen him any film. Lubitsch's direction is masterly, but not 'ground-breaking', a fault for which some are willing to run him under the harrow -- a case of holding someone to impossible standards. Nobody can break new ground in every film -- sometimes we have to settle for mere masterly competence. See this film! Unless you happen to romanticize the former Soviet Union, you will enjoy it.
Ninotchka has been making a hit with audiences since she hit the screen in 1939. A fascinating, yet little known, "second life" of the film was played out during the Italian Elections of 1947-48. The U.S. was most anxious that the Communists not be elected and pulled out all the stops to prevent it. One was to approach MGM and request prints of Ninotchka - to be shown widely to working class audiences in Italy. Since no 16mm prints of the film yet existed, MGM Labs did "print downs" from the original nitrate negative. The resulting prints are astonishingly beautiful (I have one) and they estimate five million Italians viewed it and other propaganda films each week before the elections - in spite of the efforts of the Communists to prevent its showing. One pro-Communist worker said afterward "What licked us was Ninotchka!" (See "Killing Hope" by William Blum). To paraphrase Carl Denham in King Kong, once again "Beauty Killed The Beast!"
My all-time favorite comedy! All right, I am a Garbo fan regardless of the role, and I happen to think that Melvyn Douglas was perfectly cast here. In fact, the entire cast excels, without exception, in one of Lubitsch's finest and most elegant films. Those who think that lines like "The show trials were a great success...there are now fewer, but better, Russians" are dated, or that making fun of totalitarianism is tasteless and politically incorrect need to lighten up. Garbo is not only very funny in this classic, she is inexpressibly lovely (as always). A must-see for any lover of beautifully crafted and entertaining film comedies.
Garbo essayed the first of her two comedy roles here and proved herself as adept at comic timing as she was in drama. Her performance earned her fourth and final Oscar nom (the film received additional noms for Best Picture, Story and Screenplay). Here she plays a dour and serious Russian Soviet sent to Paris to bring back three comrades who seem to be succumbing to the Western World's delights. She is pursued by leading man, Melvyn Douglas, who appeared opposite her in three talkies, making him her only repeated co-star in talkies (John Gilbert was to achieve the same distinction in silents and with his one talkie excursion with the Divine One, brought their co-starring occasions up to four). His attempts at love making eventually wear her down, but the efforts are hilarious. Her monotone voice and completly expression-less affect in the first half are marvelous as she reduces every piece of sensuality to uselessness in its impracticality. Finally a pratfall reduces Garbo to helpless laughter and the ice is broken. The Lubitsch touch is marvelous here - surprising he did not receive an Oscar nom for that. This is one of Garbo's best performances and one of her best films - one to see at all costs. Recently selected by AFI as one of their top 100 comedies of all time.
The only word to describe this Ernst Lubitsch comedy is: sparkling.
Tremendously sweet and funny in that gentle way that was unique to Ernst Lubitsch comedies, "Ninotchka" features a winning Greta Garbo as a Soviet envoy dispatched to Paris to check up on the work of her comrades. They have been sent to sell the confiscated jewels of a Russian countess, played haughtily by Ina Claire. She refuses to let them go without a fight, and enlists the help of her attorney and playboy (Melvyn Douglas) to win them back. Unfortunately for her, he falls under the charms of Ninotchka, as do we.
I have never been a fan of Garbo or the moody brooding she was always asked to do in her films. Lubitsch completely understood the image she had in the public's collective mind, and so for the first half of this movie, Garbo presents a parody of herself, refusing to crack a smile despite Douglas's herculean efforts to make her. But then Ninotchka gradually begins to fall under the spell of Paris, its good food and fashionable hats, a pratfall involving Douglas is finally enough to make her laugh, and from that moment on, she's a delight. For an example of just how good a comedienne Garbo could be, watch Ninotchka's face as Douglas's character tells her corny joke after corny joke in an attempt to win a smile from her; or the scene set in a nightclub when Ninotchka discovers the capitalist wonders of champagne.
Ninotchka is a great film classic with great acting by Melvyn Douglas, who
really supports Greta Garbo. Garbo is an actress with class and great
abilities not found in movie stars today, she was ahead of her times, deep
and spiritual. Her supporting actors, Sig Ruman used every expression he
could to portray a fumbling Russian and Bela Lugosi showed the movie
industry that he had great acting abilities he was never given a chance show
to his many fans.
This film shows aspiring actors just how to perform to the highest level of their art.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
If any film is chosen by most people as the typical Ernst Lubtisch
comedy, it is NINOTCHKA. TROUBLE IN PARADISE is usually pointed at as
his best comedy, and his best musical comedy is THE MERRY WIDOW with
Chevalier and MacDonald, but NINOTCHKA is the elegant comedy of some
point that people recall. I think the real reason is that it is, for
most people, the best known of Greta Garbo's movies (after all, she
laughed in it), and it does dismiss Communism with such sweet aplomb.
Actually it does not do so that well. It shows that given an opportunity to relax and speak one's mind, and not worry about informers and gulags, people will be happier. That is true, but one could also say (as Lubitsch would show in TO BE OR NOT TO BE, that a form of extreme capitalism mixed with racist ideals called Nazism could be just as deadly. Moreover, Leon (Melvin Douglas) does read up a bit on Marx and his theories, and has an interesting conversation with his elderly valet (Richard Carle). Douglas feels that Carle has been oppressed over the years as a servant. Carle, though, reminds him that while he does not mind that Douglas has not paid him in quite a while, the thought that in a Communist world he (Carle) would have to share his money with Douglas, frightens the hell out of him.
Douglas is the lover of Grand Duchess Swanna (Ina Claire) whose property was appropriated by the Soviet Government in the Revolution. Her jewelry is now in Paris, in the hands of a trade mission led by Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, and Alexander Granach. They plan to use it to get needed farm equipment for the Soviet Union. Douglas goes to work to corrupt the three men, which is not too difficult, so he can try to get his hands on the jewels for Swanna. But the Russians send an additional member to head the mission: Garbo as Ninotchka. She is quite hard nosed and business like. Ruman and company try to get her to understand what is going on is a good thing, but she keeps reminding what they are there for. She is not impressed that she is in the "City of Lights". Instead, on her first afternoon in Paris, she is determined to see the city's power plant! Douglas sees her and is instantly charmed, but she keeps resisting his efforts. Her background is quite different from what he is used to - we learn, for instance, that she actually distinguished herself in the Russo - Polish war of 1920 - 21, getting wounded, but killing the Polish soldier who wounded her (and comforting him as he died). She is not without a heart, but she is determined to do her duty. What finally breaks her down is not Douglas' attempts at romance, but his making a fool of himself trying to tell her a joke.
She does break down, but she never loses sight of the reason for her mission. And she and Swanna finally reveal their willingness to sacrifice in a showdown scene, where the Grand Duchess gives up the jewels for Leon, while Ninotchka gives up Leon for the needs of her country.
Leon too grows, determined to try to bring her back. The scene between Douglas and George Tobias is one of the funniest in the movie, as Douglas desperately offers to return to Soviet Russia, and Tobias (knowing what people like Douglas think of the Soviet regime) refuses to give him a visa (he might try to blow up a dam!).
How he succeeds in the end I will leave to the viewer to find out. My only other comment is that this film is also recalled as the only time Greta Garbo shared a scene with Bela Lugosi, as her supervisor Commissar Razinin. It is only a three minute scene, and has only one funny line for Bela (describing the antics of Ninotchka's old mission buddies). He seemed stern and properly in control of his job, but he was far more funny in INTERNATIONAL HOUSE.
Please also note Sig Ruman's comment to Garbo, asking her if she wanted to be alone. It is an interesting little reference to her most famous line of dialog from GRAND HOTEL, six years before.
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