Wednesday, September 17, 2014


(November 1939, U.S.)

Go ahead - try and say the name of this film correctly the first time without screwing it up...NINOTCHKA! NIN-OTCH-KA! Oh hell, it's a lot easier to watch this great black and white classic film than it is to say the name of the character Greta Garbo plays in this film. As for Garbo herself, this is the only film of her's that I own and I know virtually nothing about the woman except that she infamously "wanted to be alone". I do know that in many of her films, she was portrayed as rather serious and grim. Perhaps this is why MGM pushed the fact that "GARBO LAUGHS" in their marketing campaign for this one. I suppose to her fans at the time, her loosening up and letting her guard down on screen was considered a big deal.

Besides being a delightful comedy to enjoy when you're really in the mood to sit down and smile, NINOTCHKA also offers a look, comical as it may be, into the world and paranoia of the Soviet Union during a time when the newly communist society was still getting off the ground following the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its overthrow of the Czar. In this story, three Russians are in Paris to sell jewelry confiscated from the former aristocracy during the above-mentioned Revolution. Upon arrival, they meet Count Leon d'Algout (played by Melvyn Douglas), on a mission from the Russian Grand Duchess Swana (played by Ina Claire), who desperately wants to retrieve her jewelry before it's sold. Through his own charming corruption, he convinces the three men to stay in Paris. The Soviet Union then sends Nina Ivanovna "Ninotchka" Yakushova (Garbo), a special envoy whose goal is to go through with the jewelry sale and bring back the three men. Totally rigid and stern at first, Ninotchka slowly becomes seduced by Leon and all the pleasures and freedoms the West has to offer. Leon, upon meeting her, is immediately drawn to and seduced by her beauty, though it's difficult to conceive why. She has the charming personality of a wet mop. Perhaps this is is from a life of Soviet suppression or perhaps it's simply her nature. It's finally through a slapstick fall to the floor in a restaurant at Leon's expense that Ninotchka finally comes around and burst into an uncontrolled fit of laughter. For those who knew Garbo best through her films during that era, it's must have been a refreshing sight to see. For myself, I can't help but ask why her laughter simply erupts out of nowhere simply because she watched a man fall from his chair. Did she never witness such an accident in Russia, or is it only in the free city of Paris that she can finally let her guard down and enjoy the gift of laughter? Whatever the answer is, the film makes a real point of reminding its American viewers of the joys of laughter and the freedom of capitalism (the Soviet Union would not know these simple elements of life until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989).

NINOTCHKA is not a film Joseph Stalin would have cared for at the time of its release! Some of its sly political jokes include Greta Garbo saying, "The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians", as well as a well-placed crack mocking the failed Soviet Five-Year-Plan (look that up!). The most noteworthy touch by the director Ernst Lubitsch revolves around a scene featuring a stag feast in a grand luxury hotel ordered by the capitalist Leon for the three grateful comrade emissaries, who can't believe their good fortune of such freedoms and pleasures. If nothing else, watching a film like this, at least during its era, would remind us Americans of just how fortunate we were to live and breathe in a free country such as ours.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Ninotchka: "Why should you carry other people's bags?"
Porter: "Well, that's my business, Madame."
Ninotchka: "That's no business. That's social injustice."
Porter: "That depends on the tip."

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