Friday Film Review: Ninotchka
I’ve now seen 4 Ernst Lubitsch films. I know there are plenty more I need to try but for now, I’m batting average with him. I did not care, at all, for “The Shop Around the Corner” while Ninotchka earns a somewhat lukewarm B-grade.
It’s 1939 and the Soviet Union’s glorious new people’s republic needs cold, hard cash. To that end, delegates are traveling the globe, hawking treasures confiscated during the Revolution. Three delegates are in Paris to sell the jewels of the Grand Duchess (or former Grand Duchess, as the Soviets call her) Swana. They quickly fall prey to the delights of the City of Lights. So much so that another delegate is sent to check up on them and the job they’re doing.
Comrade Nina Yakushova ‘Ninotchka’ Ivanoff (Greta Garbo) is all business and no fun. She views Paris as just another city which she will study to learn it’s technical secrets and has no interest in flirting with charming Count Léon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas) who tries his best to win her over to the decadent West.
Just when he thinks he’s won, Ninotchka, along with Iranoff, Buljanoff and Kopalski suddenly depart for Moscow. Léon doesn’t know what happened but he’s going to get Ninotchka out of Russia, or himself in, if he has to deck every Russian visa official in the world to do it.
I like that Garbo underplays her role. It fits with a woman from the gray Soviet Union being introduced to the delights of Paris and the West. It’s funny that even though the picture is in B&W, it wasn’t until the scenes in Moscow that I truly “saw” the movie colors as dull. It says something that I laughed more during the famous “Garbo laughs” scene because of the joke Douglas tells and how much the working class men eating in the restaurant enjoyed it than because of Garbo laughing. What I did like is the scene when she first tastes champagne. Again she downplays it but the look that crosses her face as the takes the second sip, then downs the glass, is priceless.
Melvyn Douglas does a likable job he just comes across to me as a supporting man, as in his great role in “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House,” and not a lead. He does have some charming dialogue and I’ll give him points for being able to carry his scenes when Ninotchka was still in her dour mode. His final resolution of not being able to get a visa to travel to the USSR after Ninotchka is inventive but what would he have done had she decided she still wanted to stay in her homeland?
The three third-level apparatchiks made the movie for me. They’re so much fun to watch falling in love with the West and becoming favorites of the cigarette girls at the lavish hotel in which they’re staying. The Grand Duchess Swana could have been either fluff or a bitch but instead she’s given a much better role. Her true dignity is seen after she gets “her” jewels back and comes to negotiate with Ninotchka. She’s a woman of the world who has faced her life post-Russia, made the best of it and has enough strength and street smarts to get what she wants from this hard line Communist. I loved Swana’s line about how the Soviets had taken everything from her. But she’s still standing.
I’m still puzzling out why the last part of the film went flat for me, like a bottle of champagne that’s been left uncorked for a day. I just didn’t buy Ninotchka in her silly new Parisian hat. When she first sees it, she says it’s silly and I agree with her. It’s horrid. And I could never “buy” her falling for it and suddenly cracking and being Miss Bubbly. But once she was back in the USSR, I liked her better. Lubitsch never tried to make one side look “bad” or make fools of his characters, as one person says about the film, there’s a warmth to his feelings about these people and he shows it.
This is the kind of movie that I liked but didn’t really like. One day, if I’m aimlessly channel surfing and happen to come across it, I might watch a bit of it but it’s not a movie I would seek out again nor want to own. The Billy Wilder dialogue is good but not up to the level of some of his later films. Perhaps the film just couldn’t live up to all the hype and rave reviews I’ve read but it didn’t wow me.