24 October 2005
100 films: Ninotchka
starring: Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire, and Alexander Granach
written by: Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder & Walter Reisch, based on the story by Melchior Lengyel
directed by: Ernst Lubitsch
NR, 110 min, 1939, USA
When three Russian emissaries sent to Paris to sell jewels are dazzled by the evils of capitalism, it is up to humorless Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) to ensure the Russian people and the socialist ideals are not abandoned and that the jewels are not held up in court by their former owner, the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), who lost the jewels during the revolution. Her faithful friend Count Leon d'Algout (Melvyn Douglas) makes it his goal to seduce Ninotchka, or at very least get her to smile.
While the US and the Soviet Union were still allies in 1939, this era between the two World Wars marks the beginning of Hollywood's war against the communist way of life. The filmmakers present a stark contrast between a dreary, oppressive Russia and a carefree, beautiful Paris, where one can live life without a care. Partly for security reasons, and partly because they are bad communists, the three emissaries rent the royal suite in the largest hotel in Paris, while back in Moscow they must live in cramped quarters, sharing a small room with several other people, constantly living with the fear of being reported and sent to Siberia. But in Paris, they can have grand parties in the royal suite with bottles and bottles of champagne. Ninotchka, upon her arrival, puts an end to all happiness. She inspects the Eiffel Tower from a technical standpoint, and when told that the tower is only used by desperate Parisians as a place to jump, she asks how long it takes them to land. When the Count does get her to laugh, it destroys her entire facade, and with it the majority of her ideals. To the filmmakers communism is not only an economic system, but a suppression of happiness. It is impossible to be a communist and truly be alive. Never-mind that this is obviously untrue, or at very least a cruel statement to make about any ideology. The film is capitalist propaganda of the most effective kind, and makes no apologies for that fact. Hitler was doing the exact same thing in Germany, only without the beauty of Greta Garbo to make the argument for him.
Before a single line of dialogue was written, came the tagline "Garbo laughs". The writing team, headlined by Billy Wilder, was given the job of coming up with a screenplay that would support that tagline, and they did a fantastic job. The script is just brimming with political jabs in both directions and stands easily with some of Wilder's best work. Garbo had never before done comedy, but here she does a masterful job. She maintains a perfect poker face until the point she laughs, but from that point on cannot for more than a few seconds without at least a hint of mirth. When she falls in love with the Count, she does so completely. Her performance earned her a fourth Academy Award nomination, and probably would have won had she not been against Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara (Gone with the Wind).