Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees knows that when you're in the mood for a lighthearted slapstick rom-com, you can always count on Greta Garbo for madcap laughs.
Ninotchka: Must you flirt?
Ninotchka is the Garbo film for people who don't like Garbo films. In fact, it gave me an appreciation for this legendary star that I'd never had before. I first encountered Greta Garbo as a teenager at a screening of Grand Hotel, in which her portrayal of neurotic ballerina Grusinskaya seemed to me the most bizarre, affected, off-putting "star" performance I'd ever seen. Within a year of that first, bad experience, however, I saw Ninotchka—and came away with a whole new feeling toward the actress. She was charming. She was funny. By golly, she really was good.
Since that revelation, I've gone on to enjoy and admire other Garbo films, but Ninotchka holds a special place in my heart. I'm not alone, either: It's widely considered one of the actress's best roles, as well as one of the standout achievements of Hollywood's year of wonders, 1939. Perhaps most important, it stands up on its own merits as a romantic comedy. Whether or not you generally like Garbo—or even if you've never even seen a Garbo film before—you can enjoy Ninotchka. It's simply one of the wittiest, most delightful comedies of Hollywood's golden age.
Facts of the Case
Post-revolutionary Russia is having a rough time making ends meet, so the Communist government sends three ill-equipped emissaries to Paris—Buljanoff, Iranoff, and Kopalski—to sell a collection of jewelry confiscated from former Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire). However, Swana's gentleman friend, dapper Count Leon D'Algout (Melvyn Douglas, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House), protects her interests by gumming up negotiations. ("I'm not a highwayman, just a nuisance," he explains.) He leads the hapless trio astray, and they soon forget their Soviet sobriety in the gaiety of a Parisian springtime.
Displeased, their higher-ups dispatch a senior envoy to get the sale back on track: comrade Nina Ivanova Yakushova (Garbo), whose cuddly nickname "Ninotchka" belies her stern, all-business approach to life. Yet she, too, is susceptible to the charms of Paris—and Leon. In spite of her political convictions, soon she is enjoying champagne, Paris fashions, and romance with a capitalist parasite. But when the jealous Swana notices that Leon and Ninotchka have begun to mix business with pleasure, she forces Ninotchka to choose between her duty to her country and her newfound love for Leon.
According to some accounts, the raison d'être of this film was the marketing gimmick "Garbo laughs!" Yet Ninotchka has plenty more to offer than the novelty of seeing the often tragic actress in a light comedy. The Oscar-nominated screenplay by the stellar team of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder (with Walter Reisch) is endlessly quotable, poking fun at everything from Lenin to lingerie, even parodying Garbo's famous "I want to be alone" line. The director's famed "Lubitsch touch" is evident throughout in the saucy, sophisticated tone and the lushness of the production values. The comic trio of Iranoff (Sig Ruman, Stalag 17), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart, To Be or Not To Be), and Kopalski (Alexander Granach) charms us right away. Long before its star's entrance—twenty minutes in—this movie has tickled us into a high good humor. And it just gets better from there.
Ninotchka has taken some flack for "demystifying" its star, but I see it as simply expanding her range. On paper, it does sound like sacrilege for this screen goddess to wear a silly hat, get drunk, and make a public scene. But as played out on screen, these are some of her most triumphant moments. Not only is her comic timing superb, but these sequences show Garbo at her most radiant. Once she casts off the self-parodying gloom of her early scenes, we see why she is so often called "luminous." It's also worth noting that, as much as the screenplay pokes fun at Ninotchka for her sternness, it respects her for her patriotism and high ideals. The script doesn't single her out for ridicule, either; it also shows how silly Leon is—pitching woo by talking about snails, for heaven's sake, and making an ass of himself in his effort to get her to laugh. The screenplay doesn't discriminate: Star or supporting player, Communist or capitalist, everyone is fair game for gentle mockery.
And Garbo isn't just funny; she is also moving. Even in this comedy we get a glimpse of what made her so effective in her most dramatic roles: We can't help but be moved by her struggle to choose between love and duty. In one silent, unforgettable shot she sits alone in her drab Russian apartment, lit by one harsh overhead bulb as she confronts a solitary future. Her eloquence at conveying heartache makes her comedic scenes all the more effective in contrast; no wonder she was nominated for an Oscar for her performance. (Some English girl named Vivien Leigh actually snagged the statuette.)
Some viewers have objected to the casting of Melvyn Douglas as Garbo's love interest, but I feel that his comedic talents are exactly right for this material. It's very much a William Powell kind of role—the charming, debonair rascal—but Powell would have been a bit old for the part, whereas Douglas was young enough to play Swana's boy toy without making the arrangement seem too unsavory. Douglas also has a physical solidity that prevents him from being visually overwhelmed by Garbo's magnetic presence. Sure, the two actors create a huge contrast, but that's appropriate for characters from two different worlds. Ultimately, of course, speculations on the wisdom of the casting are moot: Garbo was notoriously insecure, which made her very picky about her costars (she even rejected Laurence Olivier for the male lead in Queen Christina). Since she had worked before with Douglas, she probably felt more comfortable venturing into new film territory with him at her side. Her trust in him is evident in their drunk scene, a highlight of the film, which wouldn't have succeeded if Garbo had not been completely secure with her costar.
I also can't neglect to mention the contributions of costume designer Adrian. During his longtime collaboration with Garbo, he delighted in creating exotic, startling designs for her, especially dramatic headgear that drew attention to her famous face. Here he uses fashion to show Ninotchka's surrender to the seduction of Paris and romance. At first she is dressed with drab functionality, so we recognize her purchase of the famously ridiculous hat (actually based on a sketch by Garbo herself) as a significant emotional milepost. Her complete capitulation comes with an ethereal evening dress of white tulle, highlighted with sequins, in which she looks almost angelic—the "divine" Garbo of popular parlance, yet softer and more approachable than before. In the same scene, Adrian puts Ina Claire in a low-cut sheath encrusted from head to toe with black sequins; she's more conventionally fashionable, and also more sophisticated, but she doesn't radiate the warmth that Garbo does. If we hadn't already known which woman was the film's heroine, we would know from seeing the confrontation between these two dresses. Some of Adrian's designs may look bizarre to the modern eye, but even at his most outré he gives us valuable insight into character through costume.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As happy as I am to have this classic on DVD at last, the transfer Warner Bros. has provided doesn't do it justice. Although the picture is sharper and shows less speckling than the VHS release, throughout its running time it is plagued with smeary streaks; it actually looks as if it's being run through a projector. The severity of this problem varies, and it's usually most obvious in scenes where the camera and characters are more or less stationary. The picture also has some jitter, but I was so distracted by the streaking that I didn't notice whether it persisted through the entire run time. The audio is a standard mono, with no hiss except at high volumes, and does its job satisfactorily.
The visual transfer isn't the end of the disappointments, though. For a classic film that was nominated for four Oscars and is preeminent in the career of one of the most legendary stars of the silver screen, guess what we get for extras?
Shame on you, Warner Bros. Even if for some reason a new featurette or commentary was out of the question, it would have been great to see some vintage trimmings—a cartoon, a newsreel, a comedy short, the kinds of things that have been included on other classic Warner DVDs. Even a trailer for the musical remake, Silk Stockings, would have been better than nothing, or a clip from the 1960 TV version of Ninotchka (which starred Maria Schell, Gig Young, and Zsa Zsa Gabor). Does this dismal treatment mean that a special edition double-dip is lurking just over the horizon? I can't decide if the prospect would be a relief or an outrage.
Ninotchka proves that Garbo was not just a star; she was an actress too. It's also unique in being the star's only successful comedy. Its follow-up, Two-Faced Woman, is simply unwatchable: It was a bad idea to start with (Garbo as all-American health nut?) and just kept getting worse as the studio messed with it. No wonder Garbo retired from films afterward. That makes Ninotchka all the more rare and wonderful a legacy. If you haven't yet acquired a taste for Garbo's tragic roles, or even if you just want to discover a delicious classic comedy, check out this comic gem. It's the next best thing to visiting Paris in the spring.
Comrade Yakushova is guilty only of an excessive sense of duty and is free to go. Warner Brothers, on the other hand, is hereby banished to Siberia for its lackluster treatment of an otherwise sparkling film.
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