Ninotchka (1939)

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.

Greta Garbo in Ninotchka

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.

The three Russians check into the hotel

…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.

Mercier is summoned

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 learns of her long-lost jewels

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.

Leon offers to help Swana retrieve the jewels

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.

Leon breaks up the party

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.

Leon makes friends with the Russians

The telegram’s sent off, and while they’re waiting, our friends give themselves a makeover: gleaming top hats, spats, canes, buttonholes: the works.

The Russians get a makeover

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.

The severe Ninotchka arrives in Paris

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 falls for Ninotchka

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.

Ninotchka meets the French lawyer

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 tries his charm on Ninotchka

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.

Leon and Ninotchka dine together

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.

Swana breaks up the party

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.

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11 thoughts on “Ninotchka (1939)

  1. This sounds like fun, and I love Melvyn Douglas. The few times it played on TCM, I stayed away because for some reason, I find Great Garbo impossible to watch! It may not be so bad in a comedy, and who knows, I may even get to like her!

    This one reminds me of another excellent Soviet-comedy, Comrade X which stars Clark Gable as the American guy trying to romance a communist girl. Sounds like American men were always trying to “cure” Soviet women of communism! ;-)

  2. I’m so glad to have found a kindred soul! I don’t much care for Greta Garbo either. I think she is a very good actress – in fact, she’s great at comedy – but there’s just something about her that I find cold and hard… don’t know how much sense I’m making. But yes, I liked her much better in Ninotchka than in Queen Christina or the depressing Camille.

    Comrade X sounds like fun! Will definitely look out for it. I wonder if Soviet Russia made any films about romances with Americans (or someone from Western Europe, at any rate) in which the `capitalist’ gets converted to communism!

  3. “Cold and hard” – describes it perfectly. Thanks for putting it so well.

    It would be great to find a Soviet counterpart to Ninotchka and Comrade X. That would be hilarious! I dont think we are likely to see it though. Have you seen any Soviet films? I remember watching one on DD long ago and finding it rather boring (it had no songs and that was a sign of a boring movie for my kiddie self!) and one I saw recently that was quite fun. But thats it – no other Soviet films.

  4. I think I saw some Soviet films as a kid… India and the USSR were bosom buddies, and cultural exchanges were a big thing. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen parts of Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, at least, but don’t recall much of it (a very scratchy print, and I couldn’t understand anything except that a war was on).

    But I’m still looking out for Pardesi, the USSR-India collaboration about Afanasi Nikitin!

  5. I love Lubistch, and his fine, ironic comedy. Sometimes he seems to be laughing at his own films….like in One Hour With You…another one I enjoyed very much was To Be Or Not To Be.

    Thanks for “following up”, dustedoff !!!

  6. And thank you for reminding me of this film! I’d meant to see it, but you helped provide the impetus!

    I’ve not seen One Hour With You or even To Be Or Not To Be, but of all the Ernst Lubitsch films I have seen, I’d probably say my favourite is The Shop Around The Corner: so sweet and heartwarming and romantic. I get starry-eyed just thinking about it – and I adore the end!

  7. Ha, I can disagree with Dustedoff and Bollyviewer over another actress! I’ve always been fond of Greta Garbo (and she was quite an excellent actress too). Maybe you don’t like her because she spoke English with that big accent. ;) LOL

    It’s been a long, long time since I saw Ninotchka; I will have to watch it again sometime soon.

    I would love to see Pardesi sometime…

  8. Hehe… it looks like we’re destined to agree to disagree!! ;-)

    I don’t mind Garbo’s accent – but then, in all the films of hers that I’ve seen, she’s not meant to be from an English-speaking country anyway! I admire her a lot, I just can’t summon up a liking for her.

    Yes, Na dir din is a lovely song. I must admit, however, to being more partial to the coloured version – she looks lovely. Can’t seem to be able to find a DVD or even a VCD anywhere, unfortunately – B/W or coloured.

  9. Like Bollyviewer, I’ve always avoided this one when it came up on TCM, and for the same reason: I’m not particularly fond of Garbo. I totally agree with you that there’s something about her that just comes across as ‘cold and hard’. Reading your review has definitely piqued my interest though! (scurries off to find DVD)

  10. I think she shares qualities with Sharmila Tagore that can be off-putting…sort of regal and distant, and beautiful in a touch-me-not kind of way. But I love her (only a little bit because we share a name and I’ve been called Garbo more times than I could ever count)…she’s great in Grand Hotel and Queen Christina, although Anna Karenina is too depressing for me. This looks like a winner though, I haven’t seen it.

    (It’s not enough that I have thousands of Hindi movie DVDs filling up my living room?)…

  11. DG: Yes, it’s worth a watch, and the scene with a tipsy Garbo is superb!

    memsaab: It’s time you designated another room in the house for non-Hindi films! ;-)

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