Ninotchka

Released:  1939

Cast:  Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire, Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, Alexandar Granach, Bela Lugosi

Oscar Nominations:  Best Picture, Best Actress (Greta Garbo), Best Writing, Original Story (Melchior Lengyel), Best Writing, Screenplay (Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, Billy Wilder)

SUMMARY:  In Paris (sometime between WWI and WWII), three Russians walk into a luxurious hotel, in clear awe.  When questioned by the manager, they introduce themselves as Buljanoff (Felix Bressart), Iranoff (Sig Ruman) and Kopalski (Alexander Granach), emissaries from the Soviet Union.  Though they have reservations at a very basic hotel, made for them by their government, the three men decide that this might be detrimental to their image; it would reflect better on Russia if they stayed in the luxury hotel.  The men are in Paris to sell a collection of jewels, and use this same logic (partially sound, as it has the only safe large enough) to book themselves into the Royal suite.  As the men are getting set up in the room, they are overheard by a hotel waiter.  This man, a Russian noble who had left during the Revolution, realizes that the jewels the men have brought once belonged to the Grand Duchess Swana; they were confiscated during the Revolution.  This waiter knows Swana (Ina Claire), and hurriedly informs her that her jewels are in town.  Swana is involved with Count Leon D’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), who is in the room when the waiter arrives.  Swana supports Leon, but her money is running out.  As such, Swana does not have the money to buy back her jewels, but this does not stop her from calling in her lawyer to try to retrieve them.  When she learns that this is impossible without a large sum of money, Leon decides to try to stop the sale of the jewels himself.  He goes to the Royal Suite, where the three men are meeting with a jeweler.  They are unhappy with the price being offered them, but when Leon delivers legal papers calling into question the ownership of the jewels, the jeweler backs out completely.  Leon then befriends the three men, and begins to show them the wonders of a first-class hotel in a capitalist country.  The men enjoy themselves tremendously, and make no effort to hasten the court case regarding the jewels.  The Soviet Union responds by sending in one of their top agents to finish the job.  When Iranoff, Buljanoff and Kopalski learn of this, they immediately move to the plainest room in the hotel, leaving the Royal Suite for the new man.  This new man turns out to be a woman:  Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova (Greta Garbo), who has little of the same weaknesses as the three men.  Rather than make a deal with Swana, as the three men want to do, Ninotchka flat-out refuses to deal with her, and severs all communication.  She then orders each of them out to learn about Paris’ infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Leon has been informed of the new agent, but does not know it’s a woman.  On his way to the hotel one night, he accidentally meets her, and although she is anything but flirtatious, he takes a liking to her, and follows her around the city.  When he asks her to come back to his house, she agrees, believing that it will provide more information on the lives of Parisiens.  Once there, Leon continues to try to seduce her, with no success.  However, when he finally kisses her, she starts to thaw somewhat.  She even kisses him later, but then they are interrupted by a phone call from Buljanoff:  he explains that the new agent is a woman, and Leon suddenly makes the connection.  When she also realizes who he is, she severs their budding relationship.  However, several days later Leon finds her again, and decides to try to make her laugh.  Several jokes fail miserably, but when he falls out of his chair in anger, Ninotchka howls with laughter.  After this, she starts to spend more time with Leon, and her strict Soviet demeanor begins to loosen as they fall in love.  One night, Leon takes her to dinner at a fancy restaurant – the very same one where Swana is eating that evening.  Swana goes out of her way to insult and degrade NInotchka, leading Leon and Ninotchka to get roaring drunk after her departure.  When they return to the Royal Suite, Leon persuades Ninotchka to try on one of Swana’s jewels; she eventually falls asleep still wearing the tiara.  She is awakened next morning by Swana herself, who smugly announces that she is now in possession of the jewels – though Leon was not involved in any way.  Swana proposes a deal:  she will return the jewels if Ninotchka agrees to leave Paris immediately, without saying any goodbyes.  Ninotchka knows that the jewels will buy bread for the Russian people, and so agrees to the deal.  She, Buljanoff,  Iranoff and Kopalski return to the Soviet Union, but all three have become disillusioned.  Meanwhile, Leon has been desperately trying to get into the country, but with no luck.  After some time, Ninotchka is called into her superior’s office at work, and told that Buljanoff, Iranoff and Kopalski have blundered their latest mission, in Constantinople, and that her help is needed.  When she arrives, she finds that the three men are deliriously happy, and have opened a Russian restaurant – they have no intention of returning to Russia.  They have also arranged a present for her:  when she turns around, Leon is waiting for her.  He explains that since he was unable to get into the country, he instead got her out.  He also tells her that if she returns, he will keep setting up scandals that result in the defection of Russians:  therefore, it would be best for Russia if she stayed with him.  They reunite as Buljanoff, Iranoff and Kopalski quietly leave the room.

MY TAKE:  This movie was famously advertised with the phrase, “Garbo laughs!”, as she was more well-known for playing dramatic roles.  This movie was actually written specifically as a comedy vehicle for Garbo, and it worked spectacularly.  What’s less funny than a die-hard Communist in the early years of the Soviet Union?  Ninotchka is a perfect example of this stereotype:  she has no sense of humor, she does not believe in extravagance or frivolity, and she thinks only of business.  For quite a while, she is able to keep this up even as Leon is trying his best to break through.  However, when he falls out of his chair, she absolutely busts a gut, and things improve dramatically from there.  I thought the whole movie was really funny, particularly Ninotchka’s observations about capitalistic society – she just deadpans these one-liners that totally deflate Leon.  The other three Russians, Buljanoff, Iranoff and Kopalski, are also hysterical, as they use roundabout (and hilarious) logic to justify their enjoyment of Paris.  Obviously, this movie was set and released before the onset of WWII and the consequent Cold War, because it would not have been nearly as believable afterward:  there would be a much more sinister feeling to Ninotchka (and the three men would be in DEEP trouble for screwing up), and I seriously doubt that a Frenchman would actively try to seduce her.  However, the timing for this movie was perfect, and it’s terrific.

RATING:  Great entertainment.

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