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Friday Film Review: Ninotchka

Ninotchka (1939)
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Grade:B-

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.

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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.

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

8 Comments

  1. MicheleKS
    Aug 21, 2009 @ 05:15:32

    It’s been years since I’ve seen this movie but I thought it was cute and funny. And when I first saw it the USSR was still in existence.

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  2. joanne
    Aug 21, 2009 @ 07:37:33

    It’s been years for me too since I’ve seen this movie. Any chance to see Greta Garbo on screen shouldn’t be missed. The secondary characters were a great deal of fun.

    I must admit that the re-make with Cyd Charisse called Silk Stockings was more to my taste since the ‘lighter’ take of the musical version lent itself more to what this is; a fairytale romance.

    Great review, thank you.

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  3. Kelly C.
    Aug 21, 2009 @ 07:57:47

    I agree with Joanne. I’d much rather watch the Fred Astaire / Cyd Charisse version, Silk Stockings.

    ReplyReply

  4. Jane O
    Aug 21, 2009 @ 09:07:29

    I have a feeling this one is really dated. Sometimes that can be charming, but I’m not sure it is in this case.

    ReplyReply

  5. Karenmc
    Aug 21, 2009 @ 13:37:57

    I watched it years ago on a big screen, then again recently on television. Works better on the big screen, because you can really see the actors' faces.

    ReplyReply

  6. Evangeline
    Aug 21, 2009 @ 16:43:30

    I had roughly the same reaction you had to Ninotchka. It’s charming and fluffy and romantic, and the jokes are sharp (and like you, I like how the Soviet Union isn’t portrayed as this big bad menace), but somehow, it falls short of the “classic” status everyone affords it. Yes, it has Lubitsch, Garbo and the Brackett-Wilder writing team, but I never felt connected to Ninotchka herself. And I agree! Her scenes in the USSR felt more believable than her scenes in Paris. But I have to disagree with you on Melvyn Douglas–an entirely underrated actor who was as facile with comedy as Cary Grant. Sure he played the heavy or a pushy boor a lot of the time, but he made it so charming and irresistible. He was also amazing in dramas–such as A Woman’s Face. As for another Lubitsch/Brackett-Wilder film, you simply must get your hands on Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. I hear it’s to be packaged with the upcoming Claudette Colbert Collection to be released this winter. It’s one of sexiest films ever made under the Production Code.

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  7. Jayne
    Aug 21, 2009 @ 17:41:24

    Looks like I need to try “Silk Stockings” based on the number of people here who like it! And if “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife” shows up at Netflix, I’ll give it a shot too.

    ReplyReply

  8. Jayne
    Aug 21, 2009 @ 17:46:10

    I have a feeling this one is really dated. Sometimes that can be charming, but I'm not sure it is in this case.

    And when I first saw it the USSR was still in existence.

    Maybe that’s it. Perhaps it would have worked better then instead of now, after the “fall” of Communism?

    ReplyReply

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