"Garbo Laughs!" the poster declares. The legendary actress had never made a full-fledged comedy before 1939's "Ninotchka," but she was in good hands with director Ernst Lubitsch. Musicals and comedies were his specialty, and in the Hollywood golden age, he was one of the most well regarded studio directors, famous for the "Lubitsch touch." It referred to instances of delightful sophistication, charm and wit in his pictures that were hard to quantify, but unmistakable when you saw them. He got away with implying all sorts of illicit behavior, because it was implied in such elegant terms. "Ninotchka" was a little atypical for Lubitsch, having a good amount of pointedly political commentary aimed at Stalin and the U.S.S.R. Lubitch's romantic comedies up to that point were usually only concerned with lighthearted battles between the sexes, and set in timeless, imaginary European countries like Marshovia and Sylvania.
"Ninotchka," however, still doesn't quite take place in the real world. Most of the story is set in Paris, and the Paris of Ernst Lubitsch films is always a paradise of love and pleasure that even the most unromantic soul would find hard to resist. Three Bolshevik gentlemen, Iranov (Sig Ruman), Buljanov (Felix Bressart), and Kopalsky (Alexander Granach) arrive one day to conduct some business for the Soviets. However, they quickly become corrupted by the lifestyle of the West and defect, with encouragement by the charming playboy Count Leon d'Algout (Melvyn Douglas). The Soviets send in the strict, humorless Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, aka Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) to retrieve the trio and see their mission through. However, Count Leon falls for her and is determined to thaw Comrade Ninotchka's chilly exterior and win her over. He takes her out on the town, intent on showing her how life should really be lived. Ninotchka, however, has other ideas.
I was tempted to write about "Ninotchka" for Billy Wilder's Great Directors entry, but though his fingerprints are all over this, Wilder was only one of four credited screenwriters working alongside heavy hitters like Charles Brackett and Melchior Lengyel. Besides, once you get past the Communists, this is a Lubtisch comedy through and through. All the familiar pieces are here - the lovable, roguish leading man, the stubborn, elegant leading lady who needs to be won over, and the storybook settings of sparkling Paris and a hysterically dour, miserable Russia. Intrigues, innuendoes, and ironies abound. There may have never been better dialogue written for a film, which takes many jabs at the Communists, but also remembers to take time to take a few jabs at the capitalists too. Lubitsch keeps the proceedings from ever getting too cynical though, pairing the dialogue with playful visuals and some priceless sight gags - Count Leon falling over in his chair, the ridiculous hat that Ninotchka considers a symbol of Western decadence, and the final gag with Kopalsky and the protest sign.
Ninotchka is one of Greta Garbo's best remembered roles, and it was perfect for her. Capitalizing on her reputation for playing very serious, melancholy parts, Ninotchka is initially the epitome of the stern, stone-faced Soviet. Watching her slowly give in to romance and fun is an absolute delight. The scene where she finally laughs is well worth the wait, but my favorite part of her performance is her deadpan line delivery as she counters Count Leon's romantic overtures. "Your general appearance is not distasteful," she tells Count Leon when he flirts with her. Melvyn Douglas was very good, but he was playing a familiar variation on the Lubitsch leading man, all charm and impudent one-liners. Garbo's performance, however, was one for the ages. I wish we could have had more comedies with her, but Garbo's next picture was a notorious bust, and it would be her last.
As for Lubitsch, many of his best films like "The Shop Around the Corner" and "To Be or Not to Be" were still to come. Success never slowed him down, and he thrived within the studio system to the end of his days. However, "Ninotchka" was a rare convergence of several great talents who came together perfectly, and created a classic that remains a highlight of all their careers. I still find it hard to stomach that Lubitsch never collaborated with Wilder again, despite the latter considering Lubitsch his idol, and that Garbo never worked with either of them on anything else, despite her screen presence suiting their styles so well. It makes "Ninotchka" feel all the more rare and precious - and the embodiment of the best of its era.
What I've Seen - Ernst Lubitsch
The Doll (1919)
The Oyster Princess (1919)
Love Parade (1929)
One Hour With You (1932)
Trouble in Paradise (1932)
Design for Living (1933)
The Merry Widow (1934)
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
To Be or Not to Be (1942)
Heaven Can Wait (1943)