Only the royal suite at the grandest hotel in Paris has a safe large enough for the jewels of the Grand Duchess Swana. So the three Russians who have come to sell the jewels settle into the suite until a higher ranking official is dispatched to find out what is delaying the sale. She is Ninotchka, a no nonsense woman who fascinates Count Leon who had been the faithful retainer of the Grand Duchess. The Grand Duchess will give up all claim to the jewels if Ninotchka will fly away from the count. But can one count on a count?
Greta Garbo ... Nina Yakushova 'Ninotchka' Ivanoff
Melvyn Douglas ... Léon - Comte d'Agoult
Ina Claire ... Grand Duchess Swana
Bela Lugosi ... Kommissar Razinin
Sig Ruman ... Iranoff (as Sig Rumann)
Felix Bressart ... Buljanoff
Alexander Granach ... Kopalski
Gregory Gaye ... Rakonin
Rolfe Sedan ... Hotel Manager
Edwin Maxwell ... Mercier
Richard Carle ... Gaston
All in all, NINOTCHKA is a fine, funny film, with romance spilling out of its seams. From the first dry, crisp conversation between Leon and his Ninotchka while they wait for a whistle-break in Parisian traffic, you become involved with the characters and their love as he tries to break down her icy defenses, as he keeps trying in the face of her many rebuffs. One standout scene would be that of the drunken interlude in Nina's Royal Suite, as the couple look quizzically at the necklace that would bring them together and separate them, and Leon crowns his girlfriend before laying her gently on the bed, kissing her goodnight and taking his gentlemanly leave. It's also hard to beat the scene in which, as the tagline proudly declares, 'Garbo Laughs!', as Leon tries to coax a laugh out of Nina, and only succeeds by falling over backwards in his chair. The romantic comedy is certainly strong and sweet, but there's plenty of other comedy available as well, largely thanks to the three Russian sidekick ambassadors charmed by the benefits of capitalism. It's great fun watching them flounder helplessly when they first meet their stern, unforgiving Comrade Yakushova, but warm up to her when they return to Russia and have an omelette dinner together.
There is no doubt that Greta Garbo turns in a great performance as the title character. She plays the ice queen very convincingly, with the appropriate suggestion that her lips haven't seen a smile in a decade or so. (If you're worried, her Russian accent is also perfectly credible, though at times she lapses into something somewhat less than Russian.) When she finally breaks into laughter, the transition is believable, as is the sunny change that thereafter infuses Nina as she becomes Leon's Ninotchka. It's an especially nice touch to have her unable to suppress a wave of laughter in the first official meeting--it's also hilarious when she suddenly generously gives her three colleagues fifty francs because they're out of money... only to qualify that by asking them to bring her back 45 francs! I think it is to Garbo's credit that she can pull off both the dour, passionless Comrade Yakushova and the almost shy, giggling Ninotchka with equal aplomb. (Her frequent question, "Can I make a speech?", when drunk on champagne is--I think the only word for it is--adorable.) That face of hers, so famous around the world, really *is* made for the cameras, and I think Lubitsch captured it beautifully. (Lubitsch also directs with the lightest of touches, allowing his cast full rein.) Melvyn Douglas looks absolutely no different from his role a decade later in MR BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE, but there is no doubting that this is Garbo's film.
This is a sweet, happy film about love overcoming ideology, nationality, and geography, and one that doesn't feel the need to beat us over the head with it. The relationship is well-developed, the characters interesting, and the execution top-notch. For me personally, the film lacks something that would render it a 10/10 classic, but that certainly isn't indicative of its quality as a romantic comedy. A great way to spend an evening. 8/10.
For having a rather odd combination of elements, "Ninotchka" works better than you would expect. It would be well worth seeing solely for the chance to see Greta Garbo in a comedy, and she herself comes off very well. The story is light but entertaining, and it is mostly enjoyable in itself, while also providing an interesting look at contemporary attitudes towards the USSR.
Garbo shows that she can handle the light comedy well, and although her character's transformation is somewhat stylized, this seems to be deliberate, rendering moot the otherwise obvious questions of believability. Melvyn Douglas makes an unusual pairing for Garbo, and he only partially works. His style can often become overly ingratiating, and while there are movies where that style fits in well, it is less than ideal here. A different choice for the role might have changed the feel of the movie for the better.
Garbo's three Soviet comrades are possibly the best part of the picture. Felix Bressart and Sig Rumann, in particular, are impossible to forget. The roles are well-written and are used well in the story. Bela Lugosi is also in the supporting cast, but unfortunately he does not get a lot to do. The implied commentary on the nature of the (then) fairly young USSR is of some interest in itself, in comparison with the later attitudes of the post-war era.
Overall, while "Ninotchka" has some uneven stretches, it is quite an enjoyable and interesting film that generally succeeds with its offbeat mix of cast and material.
The only word to describe this Ernst Lubitsch comedy is: sparkling.
Tremendously sweet and funny in that gentle way that was unique to Ernst Lubitsch comedies, "Ninotchka" features a winning Greta Garbo as a Soviet envoy dispatched to Paris to check up on the work of her comrades. They have been sent to sell the confiscated jewels of a Russian countess, played haughtily by Ina Claire. She refuses to let them go without a fight, and enlists the help of her attorney and playboy (Melvyn Douglas) to win them back. Unfortunately for her, he falls under the charms of Ninotchka, as do we.
I have never been a fan of Garbo or the moody brooding she was always asked to do in her films. Lubitsch completely understood the image she had in the public's collective mind, and so for the first half of this movie, Garbo presents a parody of herself, refusing to crack a smile despite Douglas's herculean efforts to make her. But then Ninotchka gradually begins to fall under the spell of Paris, its good food and fashionable hats, a pratfall involving Douglas is finally enough to make her laugh, and from that moment on, she's a delight. For an example of just how good a comedienne Garbo could be, watch Ninotchka's face as Douglas's character tells her corny joke after corny joke in an attempt to win a smile from her; or the scene set in a nightclub when Ninotchka discovers the capitalist wonders of champagne.
While it's a given that Greta Garbo was the most enigmatic of film stars during Hollywood's golden age, it's also fair to state that she may be the least relevant today for her austere beauty and cool, sometimes unapproachable demeanor. Yet, all that is erased with this 1939 comedy masterwork which brilliantly teams her with the master of innuendo-filled scintillation, Ernst Lubitsch. With a laser-sharp, witty script by Walter Reisch, Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder (before he became a master director himself), this classic is one part political comedy, one part screwball farce and one part romantic whimsy, all blended impeccably with the famous Lubitsch touch.
The plot involves Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, a Soviet envoy sent to Paris to ensure that the government receives the proceeds from the sale of jewels once owned and still coveted by the Grand Duchess Swana, now an expatriate. The cold, emotionless envoy goes about superseding the three lesser envoys who have been assimilating themselves into the frivolous, capitalistic world of Paris thanks to Count Leon, a tuxedoed dandy and the duchess's constant escort. It is Leon who dubs the envoy Ninotchka, and after initial resistance, the two find themselves falling in love but not at the expense of her convictions about the omnipotence of Communist values. The jewels become a negotiation ploy that complicates their affair as does the Grand Duchess herself. The plot develops in unexpected ways and through such clever observational humor that the ending comes all too soon.
While she is deified by many for the operatic tragedy of "Camille" and the mannered mystique of "Mata Hari", Garbo seems at first to be a parody of her sullen screen image with witty one-liners delivered in hilarious deadpan, but she, like her character, blossoms into a warm, comically romantic presence as the film progresses. It's a wondrous transformation and the one performance that assures Garbo her lasting stature more than any other. As Leon, Melvyn Douglas specialized in William Powell-knockoff roles like this one and while he does get a bit excessive in his 1930's-style romantic gestures, he is sophisticated and genial enough to have us believe Ninotchka may give up Mother Russia for him.
At first, stage legend Ina Claire seems like she will play the Grand Duchess Swana as a dotty ninny, but when her talons show, she is an excellent match for Garbo in their scenes together. As the trio of envoys ensconced in the good life, Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart and Alexander Granach make a merry chorus to the proceedings. I particularly like the scenes back in Russia when they share an omelet dinner with Ninotchka in her Soviet-sanctioned, multiple-occupant room. The print transfer on the 2005 DVD is pristine and brings out William Daniels' sparkling, black-and-white cinematography, though the only extra is the film's original trailer. This is truly a must-see.
* This film was selected to the National Film Registry, Library of Congress, in 1990.
* The tagline "Garbo laughs!" came before the screenplay was written; the film was built around that single, now legendary, slogan.
* Greta Garbo did not wear any makeup for her scenes where she is the stern envoy.
* According to published newspaper reports in the spring of 1939, Spencer Tracy was a leading contender for the role of Leon. William Powell, Robert Montgomery and Cary Grant were also considered for the part.
* Garbo had her misgivings about appearing in a comedy and was particularly nervous about the drunk scene, which she considered to be highly vulgar.
* The movie was banned in the Soviet Union and its satellite states.
* Curiously enough, this was the very movie Arnold Schwarzenegger studied when he was trying to find his character for Red Heat (1988). The exercise - emulate Garbo - was recommended to him by his director Walter Hill.
* Ernst Lubitsch only signed on as director after George Cukor decamped for Gone with the Wind (1939). As part of his deal for directing, MGM agreed to make The Shop Around the Corner (1940) for Lubitsch afterwards.
* Lubitsch disliked Gottfried Reinhardt (I)' and S.N. Behrman's original screenplay, so he commissioned a rewrite from Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch. Lubitsch himself made some significant uncredited contributions to the screenplay.
* Although Garbo's famous hat in the film was made by her regular costumier Adrian, it was actually based on a sketch by Garbo herself.