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Had he not also plumbed the Third Reich for laughs, in To Be or Not to Be, one would be inclined to say that Ernst Lubitsch's take on the USSR is too light-hearted here. But since he's an equal opportunity belittler, we'll cut him some slack. Greta Garbo plays Ninotchka, a dour and committed Soviet aparatchik, who comes to Paris to check up on three zany fellow comrades [Buljanoff (Felix Bressart); Iranoff (Sig Rumann); and Kopalski (Alexander Granach)], whose mission to sell a famous collection of jewels, which once belonged to the Grand Duchess Swana, has turned into a slightly debauched frolic through a grand hotel and a bevy of cigarette girls. Though initially interested only in unloading the jewels--which are going to help pay for food, the Soviet harvest having failed--Ninotchka is gradually wooed and won by a dapper and somewhat dissipated Count Leon D'Algout (Melvyn Douglas), who is ostensibly representing the interests of the Grand Duchess.
While Ninotchka succumbs to the Count and the City of Lights, the Grand Duchess schemes to win back her boy toy Leon. She agrees to give up her claim to the jewels if Ninotchka will return to Russia immediately, assuming that once safely out of the way she'll be forgotten. But Leon is not so easily sidetracked and, with the aid of Buljanoff, Iranoff, and Kopalski, the lovers are reunited.
It is one of the perverse results of the quite thorough penetration of Hollywood by the Communist Party that this rather fluffy comedy is about as critical a look at the Soviet Union as filmgoers got, especially in the 30s and 40s. The script is considerably less acidic than we might expect from the writing tandem of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder (with Walter Reisch), but it does have its share of laughs, and they mostly come at the expense of communism. In particular, the scenes that are set back in Russia, in Ninotchka's small shared apartment, portray a communist experiment that obviously isn't working. There are also several jokes about murder being the price of disappointing the commissars. It's all somewhat mild, but reasonably amusing.
Of course, the real point of the picture isn't to serve as a political commentary but to serve as a vehicle for Garbo, who was a big time movie star back before celebrity came cheap. The plot pokes fun at her established silent-movie era image by having the ice queen melt. In the keynote scene the mere fact that she guffaws became the basis for the film's advertising campaign : "Garbo Laughs!" read the posters. This was actually her next to last role, before she became a recluse, and cemented that reputation for reserve permanently. But for us folk of later generations, for whom she is obviously not really an icon, this kind of playing against type just doesn't resonate much. Another generational problem arises because Melvyn Douglas, who you may remember as Shirley MacLaine's aged husband in Being There, strikes a modern viewer as more smarmy than charming. So, even if you are captivated by Garbo, you can't help feeling that she could do better than settle for him. The most likable characters are Buljanoff, Iranoff, and Kopalski, who if the film had been made today would be the ones who got a TV series of their own.
Personally, I found myself rooting for the admittedly buzzardly Grand
Duchess to get her jewels back and lose the Count, but then I'm an unreconstructed
-INFO : Ninotchka (Rotten Tomatoes)
-BUY IT : Ninotchka (1939) VHS (Amazon.com)
-FILMOGRAPHY : Ernst Lubitsch
-The Cinema of Ernst Lubitsch
-REVIEW : of Ninotchka (Tim Dirks, Filmsite)
-REVIEW : of Ninotchka (TV Guide Online)
-REVIEW : of Ninotchka (Box Office Online)
-REVIEW : of Ninotchka (Christopher Null, filmcritic.com)
-National Board of Review Winners 1939 : Ninotchka
-AFI : 100 Best Comedies : #52 Ninotchka