Ninotchka - 1939

Lubitsch Laughs

Ninotchka - released October 6, 1939 - Directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

"Garbo Laughs" was the marketing slogan across the posters on this Lubitsch film, revising and broadening Garbo's image (or perhaps more directly, turning Garbo's image upside down). She was the grand doyenne of film stars who had crossed over from the silent era into the 'talkies' with her silent era "mystique" (and its marketing) still intact, but by 1939 the glamour of foreign female fatales was growing very thin as war in Europe was adding too much grim reality to American interactions with the outside world.

Part of what is so impressive about Ninotchka is how director Lubitsch (and writers Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Walter Reisch and Lubitsch) steer into the skid and use Garbo's Swedish foreignness and the turmoil of warring ideologies as the basis for a funny movie about the romance between a jocular pro-West Russian expatriate bachelor (Melvyn Douglas) and Garbo's taciturn, grumpy Russian communist.

Although the center of the movie is the romance between Douglas and Garbo, Lubitsch hedges his bet on the unusual components of his film by putting together a trio of funny Russians (Sig Ruman as Iranoff, Felix Bressart as Buljanoff, and Alexander Granach as Kopalski), packaging this troupe as a kind of gentle version of the Marx Brothers. Ninotchka's comedy bonafides are certified immediately from the beginning with these three on the loose in Paris, convincing themselves they have the duty to uphold the honor and prestige of Russia by checking into the "Royal Suite" at a very expensive hotel.

As part of the same strategy to back up the main players, Lubitsch also equips Douglas' character with a droll English butler (though I think we're supposed to believe this free-enterprise butler is actually French. But then, Douglas hardly seems Russian/French, either).

Then Lubitsch introduces Garbo into the mess the Russian trio have made by interacting with Leon (Douglas) - he has corrupted them from their purpose and they've been spending money wildly. Ninotchka is a negotiator sent by the Communist party to handle the sale of Tsar-era jewelry, but the proceedings have been gummed up because Leon has a sometimes-girlfriend who is a Russian aristocrat (in exile in Paris) who has a claim on the jewelry, too. The confusing tangle gets thrown into the Paris courts.

Ninotchka is a stranger in a strange land and is unassuming, serious, sincere, and literal to the point of turning some of Douglas' dialogue into unintended puns (well, unintended by the character, certainly intended by Lubitsch.)

Well, that's the plot of the story. But what Lubitsch really portrays is how ideologies get in the way of friendship and love, and freedom forces people to make choices they might otherwise rather avoid.

When Ninotchka has been forced back to Moscow and then required to proceed onto a new mission across the borders of Russia, she pleads with Communist commissioner Razinin to not make her go, the Western world causes confusion and discomfort for a dedicated communist. The cold Razinin isn't interested in her personal feelings, he just wants results. It's no accident that Lubitsch casts Bela Lugosi in the roll of the highest ranking communist official that we see in this film. (On the other hand, Lubitsch lets us hear about the self-entitled cruelty of the Tsarian Russian aristocrats, too.)

It's all going to work out, of course. Leon is smitten (but forbidden to enter Russia) and Ninotchka is dedicated to doing what is right. And old friends Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski are in Instanbul, botching another trade deal....

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Original page December 2015