A Russian woman arrives in Paris in the first half of the 20th century, as a somewhat belated consequence of the Russian Revolution.
An earlier version of Anastasia? No, though I was surprised at the coincidence in basics between this film and the one I saw last week. And, interestingly enough, there was another similarity between Anastasia and Ninotchka: both starred Swedish actresses, Ingrid Bergman and Greta Garbo respectively.
But, to get on with the film. In the Paris of 1939—just before the eruption of World War II—a trio of Russian delegates arrives at the plush Hotel Clarence. Iranoff (Sig Rumann), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart) and Kopalski (Alexander Granach) are awestruck by the sheer opulence of this fascinating edifice, with its elevator, its porters, its telephones: everything, in fact. After some initial struggling with their Communist consciences, the three persuade themselves that it is their duty to stay at the Clarence: where they live during their sojourn will reflect on how they’re treated in Paris.
Iranoff, Buljanoff and Kopalski therefore check in to the royal suite.
…and get down to work. It emerges that Soviet Russia is (financially speaking) in a bad way, and has been forced to begin selling off all its greatest treasures to other countries. Our three comrades are in Paris to try and find a buyer for the confiscated jewellery of the Grand Duchess Swana. They telephone one of Paris’s leading jewellers, Mercier (Edwin Maxwell) and make an appointment with him to visit them at the Clarence and assess the jewellery.
What they don’t realise is that the waiter setting up the table in the room—and eavesdropping on the conversation—is himself an ex-Russian aristocrat. What’s more, he knows the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), who also lives in Paris. Behind the three Bolsheviks’ backs, the waiter rushes off to let Swana know that her long-lost jewels are within pouncing distance.
Swana is all agog at the thought of finally getting her jewels back. Her lover, Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), is equally excited. He offers to represent Swana’s interests when her lawyer, on the phone, expresses doubts about being able to procure the jewels for Swana.
As a result, when Mercier’s having a look at the jewels (and telling an indignant Iranoff, Buljanoff and Kopalski that he’s not going to offer them the fortune they’d hoped for), Leon turns up too. He tells them that the legal owner of the jewels is Swana; Iranoff and co. have no legal right to sell them. He gives them more bad news: he’s filed a petition for an injunction, prohibiting the Russians from selling the jewels.
Mercier takes himself off, but Leon stays on and soon makes friends with the Russians, whom he introduces to the delights of Parisian life: food and drink, women and song, and general gaiety. He also composes, for his new pals, a draft of a telegram to be sent to Moscow apprising the authorities of the situation and asking for further instructions. Iranoff, Buljanoff and Kopalski, all by now thoroughly tipsy and jovial, agree with everything Leon has to suggest.
The telegram’s sent off, and while they’re waiting, our friends give themselves a makeover: gleaming top hats, spats, canes, buttonholes: the works.
Unfortunately, the makeover has to be reversed in a hurry because it turns out Moscow’s sent a special envoy to handle the situation. The three men, rushing off to the station in their baggy best, find themselves nervously greeting the stern, no-nonsense and supremely efficient Nina `Ninotchka’ Yakushova Ivanoff (Greta Garbo).
She goes to the Clarence and agrees to stay in the Royal Suite—now vacated by her comrades, who’ve moved to a smaller room—but doesn’t hesitate to drive home the point that the room’s tariff (2,000 francs) is equal to the value of a cow in Russia. So, if she stays in this suite for a week, she’ll be costing Russia seven cows.
Ninotchka is sniffily disapproving of Iranoff, Buljanoff and Kopalski’s obviously degenerate activities in Paris. In good Communist worker style, she decides to spend the evening inspecting the Eiffel Tower and learning about its technical specifications. What fun.
What Ninotchka doesn’t realise is that fate has something else lined up for her. While crossing the road, she meets up with (who else?!) Leon, who begins flirting with her. By the time he’s escorted her to the Eiffel Tower, he’s quite infatuated with this grim-faced Russian.
Leon succeeds in taking Ninotchka home and gets in a couple of kisses (which seem to even shake her up a bit), but she leaves soon after and goes back to the hotel.
The next day, Ninotchka spends the morning consulting the French lawyer whom she’s hired—and who, it turns out, is no match for Ninotchka’s efficiency and phenomenal memory. She knows more about French law than he does.
Finally, fed up, Ninotchka goes out for lunch, to a workers’ café. Leon, who’s been keeping an eye out for her, follows her in, insists on chatting with her and tries to tell her abysmal jokes. Ninotchka’s poker face rattles him a bit, but not enough to really discourage this lothario.
Leon finally manages to make her burst out laughing—by accidentally falling off a chair, much to his own discomfort—and from then on, he’s won his lady. Ninotchka’s a changed person, laughing and vivacious, much to the surprise of her colleagues. She confesses to Leon that she loves him, and when he takes her out that evening to a posh restaurant, she lets down her hair and drinks too much champagne much too fast.
Also at the restaurant, to Leon’s embarrassment, is Swana, who isn’t in the least happy to find her lover has switched loyalties—and that too in favour of the Russian special envoy who’s in Paris to do Swana out of her jewels.
So, while Leon and Ninotchka are engaged in starry-eyed romance, trouble is brewing in the background… and when it hits them, it’s not going to be very nice.
What I liked about this film:
The humour. It’s not the gag-a-minute, laugh out loud farce of Some Like it Hot or Man’s Favourite Sport, but it’s an excellent satire on Soviet Russia and its perceptions in the West. For instance, there’s a delightful scene where Ninotchka tells a friend that she’s invited some people for dinner and will be serving them omelettes—and adds that she’s managed to save up two eggs, and her guests will be bringing along an egg each too!
Greta Garbo. She is such a fine actress, and so good at just about every type of role. One of my favourite scenes in this film (though Garbo herself is said to have hated it) is the one where a very drunk Leon and an even tipsier Ninotchka return to her hotel room to have a look at the jewels deposited in the safe. Priceless, and Garbo proves herself a superb comedienne.
What I didn’t like:
The changeover from starchy, stiff-necked Nina Yakushova to charming, giggly Ninotchka was too swift and unconvincing for me. The problem is that in her Soviet worker avatar, Ninotchka is too much of a caricature to be real. As a woman in love, charming, bright-eyed and friendly, she’s much more believable. The switch from one to the other—in the space of a few hours—is therefore a little hard to swallow.
There are some who’ve called this one of the best comedies ever made. I personally don’t think so. Ninotchka has many moments of good comedy, some funny lines and humorous situations, but there are large chunks of the film that I thought more poignant and worthy of introspection than of being laughed at. There is humour here, and romance, but there’s also hope, longing, sorrow, and despair… and more.
Enjoy. This one’s a classic.