Ninotchka (1939)

Review

As a sex symbol, Greta Garbo may seem like an odd choice — she lacked the drop-dead gorgeousness of subsequent Swedes like Ingrid Bergman — but few stars have built or maintained a bigger reputation in Hollywood. A silent film star, Garbo caused a sensation when American audiences finally heard her voice (‘Garbo talks!’). Ninotchka is one of Garbo’s few comedies, and part of its success is because the script plays off of the actress’ slightly stiff, very foreign demeanor.

Garbo plays Ninotchka, a Soviet envoy sent to Paris to sell jewels that belonged to a former Russian duchess now turned Parisian socialite (Ina Claire). Melvyn Douglas is a count who becomes infatuated with Ninotchka and tries to divert her away from her duty to the Party. It’s not Casablanca – but it’s not just another frothy romantic comedy either, thanks to Garbo’s performance and the clever screenplay by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett (who also co-wrote the legendary Sunset Boulevard and The Lost Weekend).

A lot of the humor in Ninotchka pokes fun at the Soviet experiment. Early in the film, when Ninotchka is asked how the revolution is going, she reports, ‘The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.’ The humor is not exactly subtle, but hey, if the jackboot fits…

The film’s biggest flaw is typical of period romances — there’s too much romance. Douglas’ fast-talking repartee is so annoying that modern audiences will likely cheer for the humorless Ninotchka when she ices him with Marxist doctrine, then wince when she falls for him. When Ninotchka criticizes French fashions as frivolous and stupid, we agree. All too soon, she swoons over Douglas’ character and begins plotting to defect (and not just because Russian winters suck) and even starts wearing goofy hats. Growing up in a totalitarian state can really impair your judgment.

Still, Ninotchka is possibly Garbo’s best film, a slightly offbeat comedy with smart references to the geopolitical situation. It’s not a serious film about communism — but Hollywood hasn’t produced a lot of those. Actually, it’s kind of unusual to hear jokes about Soviet repression in a Hollywood movie, given the leftish sympathies of Hollywood in the ’40s (when Stalin was our nominal ally) and since. Lenin’s and Stalin’s crimes are not exactly news, but no Schindler’s List has been made about the Gulag (by an American).

As a critique of communism, the most murderous ideology in the history of the world, Ninotchka falls short. But it’s entertaining and worth seeing for Garbo, one of the first magnetic screen presences. Not long after Ninotchka, Garbo retired abruptly at the top of her stardom and established her final reputation as a reclusive enigma.