Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939)


(director: Ernst Lubitsch; screenwriters: from the story by Melchior Lengyel/Charles Brackett/Billy Wilder/Walter Reisch; cinematographer: William Daniels; editor: Gene Ruggiero; music: Werner R. Heymann; cast: Greta Garbo (Ninotchka Ivanovna Yakushova), Melvyn Douglas (Count Leon d’Algout), Ina Claire (Grand Duchess Swana), Bela Lugosi (Commissar Razinin), Felix Bressart (Buljanoff), Sig Rumann (Iranoff), Alexander Granach (Kopalski), Tamara Shayne (Anna), Richard Carle (Gaston), Rolfe Sedan (Hotel Manager), Gregory Gaye (Rakonin); Runtime: 111; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Ernst Lubitsch; MGM; 1939)
“It’s Garbo’s next-to-last film and first American comedy.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Ernst Lubitsch (“The Smiling Lieutenant”/”Monte Carlo”/”The Wildcat”) directs with his usual Lubitsch touch this cynical romantic comedy, now proclaimed a classic, that stars Garbo for the first time in a film since the 1934 “20th century.” Posters advertise it as “Garbo laughs,” in an attempt to capitalize on the legendary Garbo mystique. It’s Garbo’s next-to-last film and first American comedy. Writers Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch keep it smart, chic and clever. It’s based on the story by Melchior Lengyel, that leaves us with the message that capitalism is not so bad when compared with communism and especially when promoted by a handsome stud like Melvyn Douglas. The film gingerly criticizes the politics of the Soviet Union at a time when they were being courted to be on the side of the West against the war-mongering fascists.

Three bumbling Soviet emissaries, Buljanoff, Iranoff, and Kopalski (Felix Bressart, Sig Rumann, and Alexander Granach), arrive in Paris on a mission to sell the valuable royal jewels confiscated from the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire-married to John Gilbert, who had a highly publiziced affair with Garbo when they starred in the 1926 silent classic Flesh and the Devil) during the Communist revolution. The aim is to get quick cash for the strapped Russian government to feed its hungry workers. When they botch the sale, their big boss Commissar Razinin (Bela Lugosi) sends as a special envoy, the loyal, humorless and stern Ninotchka (Greta Garbo), to straighten things out. Swana, in the meantime, retains her playboy boyfriend Count Leon (Melvyn Douglas) to retrieve the diamonds. In the process Leon starts a romance with the icy Ninotchka, converts the three comrades to be full-fledged capitalists and in the end convinces a warmed-over Ninotchka to stay with him in Paris.

The sly political jokes include Garbo saying: “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians” and there are a few well-placed jokes mocking the failed Soviet Five-Year-Plan. The most noteworthy Lubitsch touch scene revolves around a stag feast in a luxury hotel ordered by capitalist Douglas for the three grateful comrade emissaries, who can’t believe their good fortune. The film was funny in spots, but I thought it was also crude, lacked the usual Lubitsch subtleties, was not up to speed with the better earlier Lubitsch comedies and that the last half hour really slowed things down with an uninteresting artificial resolution.