(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by the end of today!!!!! Will she make it? Keep following the site to find out!)
Oh my God, I love this movie!
First released in 1939, Ninotchka is many things. It’s a love story. It’s a comedy. It’s a story of international intrigue. It’s a political satire. It’s a celebration of freedom. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s a showcase for one of the greatest actresses of all time, the one and only Greta Garbo!
But you know what? As great as Garbo is, she’s not the only worthy performer in this film. Melvyn Douglas plays Garbo’s love interest and his performance is full of charm and class. And guess who plays the main villain? BELA LUGOSI! That’s right — this was one of Lugosi’s few roles that did not require him to play a variation on his famous Dracula. And, even if he doesn’t have a lot of scenes, Lugosi does a pretty good job in Ninotchka. It’s interesting to see Lugosi playing an all-too real monster for once.
Ninotchka opens in Paris. Three Russians are in town and they’re trying to sell some jewelry that was confiscated by the government during the revolution of 1917. That’s right — they’re communists! When they first show up in Paris, they make a big deal about hating the decadence of capitalism. But then they meet Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), who proceeds to introduce them to the wonders of the free market. Soon, the three of them are holed up in their luxurious hotel, ordering room service and having a nonstop party.
(Leon, incidentally, is working for the original owner of the jewelry. The jewelry, as you’ve probably guessed, is what Hitchock would have called a macguffin.)
Once it becomes obvious that the first three Russians have been corrupted by western society, Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) is sent to bring them back to Moscow. Ninotchka is a “special envoy” and, from the minute that she meets Leon, it’s obvious that she’s going to be a lot more difficult to corrupt. For all of Leon’s charm, he cannot get Ninotchka to smile or drop her “all Marxist business” attitude.
Of course. from the minute that she first appears, we all know that Ninotchka is eventually going to loosen up and come to love both the west and Melvyn Douglas. But what makes Garbo’s performance truly special is that we like and sympathize with Ninotchka even before she embraces decadence. Even when Ninotchka is reciting Marxist-Leninist dogma, there’s a playfulness to the way Garbo delivers the lines.
That’s one reason why it’s so much fun to watch as Ninotchka (and Garbo) starts to actually relax and enjoy both Paris and life. Wisely, the film doesn’t suggest that Paris has changed Ninotchka. Instead, it merely shows that being in Paris and getting to know Leon has finally allowed her to act like the person that she was all along.
(Before her appearance in Ninotchka, Garbo was known for playing very dramatic roles. Not only is this film about Ninotchka learning to enjoy herself. It’s also about Garbo proving that she could play comedy just as well as she could play melodrama.)
Of course, eventually, Ninotchka and the three Russians are forced to return to Moscow and director Ernst Lubitsch does a wonderful job contrasting the glamour of freedom-loving Paris with the drabness of life under communism. Just when it looks like Ninotchka is going to be forced to spend the rest of her life in her depressing apartment and missing the luxury of being able to wear silk stockings, her boss (Lugosi) tells her that she is being assigned somewhere else. Ninotchka doesn’t want the assignment but, as Lugosi explains, the revolution doesn’t care what the individual wants.
Will Ninotchka and her friends ever find their way back to freedom and Leon? Or will she remain trapped in the bureaucracy? You’ll have to watch the film to find out!
I really liked Ninotchka. Even 77 years after it was first released, it remains a wonderfully romantic and sweet-natured little comedy. If you haven’t seen it, you definitely should!
Ninotchka was one of the many great films to be nominated for best picture of 1939. However, the Oscar went to another famously romantic film, Gone With The Wind.