Ninotchka (1939) Review

Ninotchka (1939) Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Ninotchka is one of Greta Garbo’s seminal roles. It is her first full, proper comedy film, and it is also her penultimate film (she retired from the spotlight after the failure of Two-Faced Woman in 1941. She was age 35). Garbo was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in this film. The charming screenplay was written by Billy Wilder before he became a director.

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Ninotchka is the simple and charming story of the clash of two worlds,  as exemplified in the relationship between the romantic and optimistic Leon d’Algout, and the cold and intellectual Ninotchka. It is a beautiful satire of the loveless and austere communism system. Ninotchka is Garbo’s last great film before her controversial early retirement, and appropriately the “Lubitsch Touch” is present in several scenes throughout the film, especially in the drunken scene with the three Russians. Garbo delivers an incredible performance as the stern and unemotional bureaucrats-turned romantic and drunken lover.

The film brilliantly portrays two worlds: the warm, free, lavish and colorful society of Paris, in contrast to the cold, restricted, robotic, and gray society of Soviet Russia. In addition, the film was released in the shadow of the second world war (it was released one month after Hitler invdaded Poland), and the portrayal of Paris as an optimistic utopia was, no doubt, attractive to audiences in the 1930s. The drama unfolds as three Russian bureaucrats arrive at a hotel in Paris to confiscate jewelry from the former Grand Duchess of Russia. Her lover, Count Leon d’Algout played by Melvyn Douglas, offers to help retrieve her jewelry from the Russians. He threatens the Russians with legal action, and he also gets them drunk over lunch (revealing that they are actually buffoons) and he sends a telegram to Moscow in their name. In anger, the Soviets send back-up help: Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova (Garbo). She is cold and calculating. However, soon Ninotchka and d’Algout fall in love, much to the dismay of the Duchess. A comedy unfolds between d’Algout’s unbridled optimism and capitalistic hopes, while Ninotchka proceeds like a scientist and concerns herself only with the jewelry to provide bread for her comrades back in Soviet Russia. They both represent the divide between East and West that would come to dominate the cold war. At any rate, the two have dinner and Ninotchka becomes drunk after drinking champagne for the first time. When she awakens hungover the next morning, Ninotchka realizes that the Duchess has stolen back the jewels and will give them to the Russians only if Ninotchka leaves France immediately. She reluctantly does so. The Duchess inform d’Algout that Ninotchka has left so he immediately goes to the Soviet Russia consulate for papers to travel to Moscow, but he is denied, so he punches the consulate in the nose.

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Sometime later, Ninotchka is back in her shared apartment in Moscow. Women and men pass through since there is no privacy allowed. The three Russian bureaucrats from Paris appear and they reminisce about their time in Paris. Ninotchka’s shared apartment is contrasted with the luxury of the Parisian hotel room they stayed in. Ninotchka receives an almost entirely censored letter from Leon d’Algout. The Soviets then order Ninotchka to travel to Constantinople where the same three bureaucrats have failed again at their mission to sell furs. But when she arrives the three announce how much more preferable the west is. They decide to open a business. When she asks where they got this idea, they point to Leon d’Algout standing on the balcony. The two embrace as Leon confesses this whole plot was his idea since he was barred from entering Russia. In a final jab at communism, the closing scene of the film as the three Russians have opened a restaurant, but one of them is protesting their unfairness as his name is not lit up on the business sign.

Appropriate to its comedic themes, the film was banned in Soviet Russia. In a play on the famous “Garbo Talks!” ad campaign used for her “talkie” debut in Anna Christie (1930), Ninotchka was marketed with the catchphrase “Garbo Laughs!” Ninotchka led to a series of future Soviet satire films in Hollywood. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture, but of course 1939 was the year of Gone with the Wind.

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