Thursday, April 4, 2013

Ninotchka (1939)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from Hollywood Express in Cambridge.

So you may or may not recall that I watched my first Greta Garbo film recently, and have been recommended several others since. I chose to hurry up with Ninotchka since I sadly missed a screening of it at a recent Ernst Lubitsch retrospective, and also because Corey was pretty adamant about it. Set in Paris before World War II fucked everything up, the film opens on a trio of bumbling Soviet diplomats who are easily swept up in the glamor and wealth of the French city. There to sell off confiscated royal jewels as a means of earning money to offset their country's food shortage, the guys fall prey to conniving playboy Leon (Melvyn Douglas), a count in league with the exiled Grand Duchess (Ina Claire) who owned the jewels originally and seeks to legally reclaim them. The USSR sends Ninotchka (Greta Garbo), a no-nonsense official, to investigate the sale's delay, but she eventually finds her cool single-minded heart melting for the smooth Leon.

So I've been thinking a lot about Communism lately because I'm taking a class on 20th century Chinese art and naturally Mao and other leaders have played a major role in the culture of the country. I think the overly stern, unfeeling stereotype of Soviets is kind of ridiculous but I guess it has its origins in the way the USSR presented itself. Besides, Garbo's Ninotchka is a goddamn badass and I loved her intense, logical demeanor. She just wanted to talk about architecture and logistics and show off her battle scars because she totally rules. At first I was bummed knowing she'd get all lovey-dovey with Melvyn Douglas, but then I realized that she's kind of the perfect woman so it made sense he'd want to be with her, and he's kind of a babe and she wants to get some, so that made sense too. Plus they're pretty funny together, as she tries to preach the end of capitalist civilization and he tries to sweep her off her feet. The dialogue is quippy and fun, featuring that clever bite I would expect from co-writer Billy Wilder. My favorite characters were the incompetent male envoys, though, who are constantly talking themselves into things they know are wrong- staying in a fancy hotel, entertaining sexy French maids, etc.

I had expected Ninotchka to be a bit more propaganda-y, but surprisingly it was fairly even-handed. Sure, the Soviet characters are exaggerated, but so are the frivolous French characters. It is when Ninotchka and Leon combine that they become more like real people, their over-the-top personalities and ideologies merging to create a well-rounded couple who can get drunk together. I also liked how she didn't want to sacrifice the well-being of her country, and her honest (but sadly naive) faith in its system, for her love. The film isn't really about showing a Soviet woman tempted away by capitalist luxuries (though that kind of happens, because hey, she's in Paris), it's more about a love that rises above national or political obligations. It is ultimately a very sweet romantic comedy, with a memorable performance from Greta Garbo and some snide satirical commentary on clashing political systems and universal human nature.


Pair This Movie With: I feel like there are a few ways you could go. For more Lubitsch romantic comedy you can't go wrong with The Shop Around the Corner. For another version of this story there's the Astaire/Charisse musical version Silk Stockings. For a more action-y tale of strong Soviets turning traitor abroad there's Red Scorpion. Or apparently Schwarzenegger studied Garbo in this for his role in Red Heat, which I haven't seen yet.


  1. Great picture! Lubitsch is hard to beat for smart comedy, and Garbo's laugh (much publicized as a highlight of the film) is worth waiting for. The supporting players really bring a lot of heart and humor to their characters, too.

    I think I'd also pair this one with Lubitsch's TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) because of the way he uses serious political subjects as a foundation for comedy.

    Enjoyed your post about the film!

  2. Even bad-ass chicks need love too!

    This is one of my all-time favorite movies. I'm so glad to know you liked it too. I also second the TO BE OR NOT TO BE recommendation.

  3. It's so hard for me to find Garbo's films. I've only seen Queen Christina thus far and part of Camille (the screening was cut short due to a fire in the building, ugh). I need to see Ninotchka and your review shoos away all the resistance I had in seeing it (the propaganda thing for example). Great review.

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