[Film Review] Ninotchka (1939)

Ninotchka poster

Title: Ninotchka
Year: 1939
Country: USA
Language: English, Russian
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Writers:
Charles Brackett
Billy Wilder
Walter Reisch
Melchior Lengyel
Music: Werner R. Heymann
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Cast:
Greta Garbo
Melvyn Douglas
Ina Claire
Sig Ruman
Felix Bressart
Alexander Granach
Bela Lugosi
Richard Carle
Gregory Gaye
Edwin Maxwell
Tamara Shayne
George Tobias
Rating: 7.3/10

Ninotchka 1

My introduction piece to the screen goddess Greta Garbo actually is her penultimate film, under Lubitsch’s guidance and paired with a rakish but urbane Melvyn Douglas, Garbo is Ninotchka, a Russian envoy sent to Paris to deal with a jewellery trade, which is involved into a lawsuit thanks to her inadequate comrades.

Though one has to wait for a good 20 minutes before Garbo’s first appearance in the movie, the foreplay is jocund and pitches the overall comedic atmosphere in the sheer disparity between capitalism and communism. The opening gambit of three communists Iranoff (Ruman), Buljanoff (Bressart) and Kopalski (Granach), from heatedly conversing about whether or not stay in a luxurious hotel for the sake of the priceless jewellery they are taking with, until they unanimously decide to takes the royal suite since it has a big enough safe to contain the whole set, is the quintessential Lubitsch’s touch, liberating lighthearted humour but with grace and sophistication, pinpointing the foibles of human nature with inviting proprieties, where in contemporary comedies, we have almost lost it all.

When Garbo arrives (perfectly in her European accented English), she immediately dampens the farcical atmosphere with her icy sternness, but when she meets Leon (Douglas), the debonair Count who instantly falls for her in the very first glance, her communist root is going to be shaken in a romantic swooning which sounds a little impetuous to our narrow-minded fiction if one hold a conservative view on communist disciplines, she doesn’t refuse Leon’s kiss and even kisses him back in their first night. Then comes the tagline “Garbo laughs” in the working-class eatery, Leon’s jokes are practically duds, only slapstick is without any cultural boundaries.

After a must-see wardrobe transformation to give Garbo the essential film star allure in a fancy restaurant and a tête-à-tête for their future plan, the two lovebirds are routinely to face some challenge, Garbo is at the most poignant in the scenes of the farewell phone call in the morning, while she utters her final goodbye, as for him, it just a casual “see you later”.

Then the film diverges to Moscow, introduces the austere life of Ninotchka under a radically different belief and social system, the non-hierarchic camaraderie and the yearning for western commodities co-exist under the same roof. After a cameo from Lugosi, the film satisfactory brings up the happy ending under a harmless plot device, it is a well-balanced comedy doesn’t ruffle the feathers of politics.

The film alters Garbo’s usual screen persona and comedy is something very rare in her filmography, but it is a successful gamble, she has all the flair and charisma to make audience fall head over heels for her. A big plus is the chemistry between Garbo and Douglas, the latter is a smooth talker and a devout doer, that kind of prince charming in every girl’s dream, devilishly likeable.

The film is a four-Oscar nominee (BEST PICTURE, LEADING ACTRESS included) and generically, a notch below Lubitsch’s finest work (e.g. THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER 1940) as the peerless conjuror of romance in comedy.

three comrades kiss the Count

three comrades kiss the Count

Garbo arrives

Garbo arrives

Garbo is being courted

Garbo is being courted

Under the Eiffel Tower

Under the Eiffel Tower

Garbo smiles

Garbo smiles

Garbo being "executed" for treason

Garbo being “executed” for treason

Ina Claire is brilliant

Ina Claire is brilliant

life in Moscow

life in Moscow

Lugosi's cameo

Lugosi’s cameo

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2 thoughts on “[Film Review] Ninotchka (1939)

  1. Dear Isaac, I really enjoyed the comment and the professional approach to it. I also liked the photos. Your comments are entertaining, are a professional guidance and the most gracious vademecum I could have used in these years spent to establish a minimum knowledge about movies. Thank you! And keep up the good work!

  2. Pingback: [Film Review] Queen Christina (1933) – Cinema Omnivore

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