Garbo laughs with her pals in Stalinist Russia.
A few weeks back, I made a list of movies which I hadn't seen, but probably should have by now. At the top of this list was Ninotchka, starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Though I had high expectations for this film, Ninotchka managed to surpass them. This is a very funny movie ranging from long passages of simmering witty dialog to boil over onto the stove hilarity.
More amazing to me is the way that this comedy is still at heart a Greta Garbo movie. Love is still king and Garbo's suffering at the potential loss of love is every bit as palpable as it is Camille. After learning to embrace some of the trappings of capitalism, Ninotchka and her comrades are sent back to the Soviet Union, where crowded conditions, lack of food and material goods and the ever-present threat of the secret police put a damper on the fun. As Ninotchka reads a censored letter from her sweetheart, the camera goes in for a typical Garbo closeup. The look on her face is devastating. When her roommate starts to snore in the midst of this take it is at once funny and heart-breaking.
If any one ever was going to make a comedy about Stalinist Russia, it would be Lubitsch who tread a similar minefield in the original To Be Or Not To Be. While the film does not let Stalinism off the hook it doesn't entirely embrace Western Capitalism either. When Nincotchka gets drunk at a Paris nightclub her first action is to organize the ladies restroom attendants to go on strike. Her character never gives up on Communism and she is ruthlessly smart in fulfilling her duty to her country, though she does wear a hat that she sees as emblamatic of imminent collapse of Western Civilization. It's so refreshing to see a movie where a woman is 10 times as smart and capable as most of the men and her looks are merely an afterthought. In one scene the three comrades Ironoff (Sig Ruman), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart) and Kopalski (Alexander Grenach) meet Ninotchka at the the train station. They apologize for not bringing flowers because they assumed the government would be sending a man. "Please don't make an issue of my womanhood" she says in a dead-pan monotone that would be offensively one-dimensional if it were said by any other actress.
Garbo has great chemistry with Melvyn Douglas who plays a European playboy, the sort of character that Ninotchka views as an endangered species. It is this chemistry which makes Ninotchka a very romantic movie as well as a funny one. The writers make a point to emphasize the number of steps going to the top of the Eiffel tower and the fact that an elevator ride is included in the price of admission. It is significant that Ninotchka takes the stairs. She's not one to do anything, even love, the easy way. It turns out that he represents a White Russian countess whose jewels Ninotchka and her comrades have come to Paris to hawk. This revelation happens early in the film and surprisingly the pair deal with it in a way that is unheard of in romantic comedy. Instead of having a big blowout fight, Ninotchka simply departs, obviously saddened that she and her new friend can no longer see one another. Over and over throughout the movie, I had one set of expecations from watching romantic comedies of this period and was surprised to see plot elements from a romantic melodrama from earlier in the decade.
Ninotchka is a unique and wonderful film. It plays remarkably well alongside To Be or Not To Be, but it is more romantic, and more directly sensual, probably owing to Garbo's presence. It is more worldy and less naive than Frank Capra romantic comedies though it shares with those films a simple belief that love conquers all.
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