I’m surprised I don’t see more Lubitsch films. Like the last Lubitsch film I reviewed, To Be or Not to Be (all the back in July of 2014!), I immensely enjoyed the socially-conscious humor of Ninotchka. Instead of the Nazis, Ninotchka takes a humorous and lighthearted look at the austerity of Soviet Russia in the lead-up to WWII (according to Wikipedia the film was actually banned in the USSR and later in the US during WWII when the USSR were our allies). In the film, a Parisian Count and an emissary from Russia fall in love despite, or perhaps because of, their cultural differences.
The film opens on three Russians in Paris on a mission to sell a Duchess’ repossessed jewels to keep cash flowing into Russia. Iranoff (Sig Ruman) , Buljanoff (Felix Bressart), and Kopalski (Alexander Granach) are delighted to discover themselves free to spend the state’s money on luxurious hotel rooms and giant banquets. However, that gets in the way of their mission and Moscow sends a special emissary Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova (Greta Garbo) to see that the job gets done. Meanwhile, the Duchess Swana (Ina Claire) is now also in Paris and wants her jewels back, and Count Léon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglass) is there to help her. When Ninotchka accidentally bumps into Leon on the street he becomes smitten with her without knowing exactly who she is, and by the time he finds out he doesn’t much care.
When Ninotchka and Leon meet I was a bit worried by the danger of the movie’s premise. I really am never in the mood for a movie where one person falls in love with another, only to use their affection to change everything about the person that they presumably fell in love with in the first place. I was really worried that this would happen with Leon and Ninotchka in the beginning, and for a while I think you can argue that it does. But then we get a scene of Leon falling over in a cafe and him pondering the merits of communism with his manservant and the movie basically won me over. It shows that even though Western capitalist ideals win out in the end, love makes Leon consider an alternative way of thinking instead of giving himself over to a campaign to make Ninotchka change her ways.
Obviously the humor simplifies the differences between these two ideologies, but it still ends up being terrifically funny. The USSR is mostly characterized as robotic and unfeeling, but that’s really only one side of the story. We see in Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski frivolous but essentially kind and fun-loving people. However, when Ninotchka arrives on the scene she is very severe but also actually has the skills and work ethic necessary to do the job the three men were originally sent to do.
The film’s strengths lie mainly in the script, which is nearly flawless, and Garbo’s performance. This was famously her first pure comedy and having only seen her in one film before (Grand Hotel) this performance is a breath of fresh air. It’s wonderful to see how she opens up the character, making in-love Ninotchka seem like a natural extension of not-in-love Ninotchka. The script by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and Walter Reisch is filled with great jokes, wonderfully drawn characters and ingenious plotting. It really is a gem.
I absolutely adored Ninotchka. It’s one of those movies that seems to bring pure happiness, and though I won’t argue that is or should be the aim of cinema, it’s nice when a movie like that comes along. It became an instant favorite of mine, one to revisit over and over, and makes me wonder why I don’t watch more Lubitsch films. I hope to remedy that pretty soon.
“I should hate to see our country endangered by my underwear.”
Long story short: 4/4 stars
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