Genre: Romantic Drama and Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 50 min.
Release Date: November 23rd, 1939 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Ernst Lubitsch Actors: Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire, Bela Lugosi, Sig Rumann, Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach, Gregory Gaye
hree Russians arrive in Paris on official business. Members of the Russian Board of Trade, they nervously check in to the pricey Hotel Clarence, where they learn that the Royal Suite is the only one available that can accommodate their valuable luggage: 14 pieces of jewelry belonging to the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire). However, that room will cost even more money, which will surely attract unwanted attention from their superiors – as well as nosey hotel staff.
Meanwhile, the Grand Duchess speaks with her fling Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas) before Count Alexis Rakonin (Gregory Gaye) demands an immediate meeting with her. Rakonin, having been at the Hotel Clarence, informs her of the bolsheviks’ secreted treasures, which he believes to be Swana’s missing jewelry, having been seized by the Soviet government. But the police don’t wish to start a war over such trifling matters, insisting that there’s little they can do with potentially stolen foreign items in France.
Between the introduction of the three somewhat-bumbling, middle-aged comrades (Sig Rumann, Felix Bressart, and Alexander Granach), the sparkling booty, d’Algout’s bothersome meddling, and a champagne-addled revelry, the setup takes so long that it’s easy to forget what this picture is supposed to be about. It takes nearly 20 minutes before the star herself appears: Greta Garbo as Yakushova Ninotchka, an icy, frowning, monotonic, severe, former sergeant and current special envoy for the equally frightening Commissar Razinin (Bela Lugosi). “Don’t make an issue of my womanhood.”
Despite the goofiness of the Russian trio, insincerely worrying about possible imprisonment in Siberia, this Ernst Lubitsch-directed romantic comedy (with a screenplay in part by Billy Wilder) takes its time to reveal its genre categorization. Even when d’Algout coincidentally runs into Ninotchka and does his best to flirt, it’s not a simple task to tear down the female comrade’s considerable psychological barriers. The culture clash (and the fact that they represent opposing sides of the jewelry dispute) does add some blitheness, as if an alien creature must be educated on the ways of basic human interaction (and gets to experience life’s little luxuries for the first time, with curious commentary), but it’s largely forced and unnatural, even if it’s conducive to humor. “What kind of a girl are you, anyway?”
“Your general appearance is not distasteful.” The laughs remain subtle and spaced apart, while the romance is hard-won; it’s obvious from the start that the two leads are destined to end up together, but their incompatibility poses a significant hurdle. A major piece of the puzzle involves the amorous aristocrat struggling to get Ninotchka to laugh, telling stale jokes to little effect. In some ways, this sequence sums up a portion of the film: when characters must insist that something is funny, it drains the inherent drollness out of the situations.
Nevertheless, Garbo’s transformation from expressionless shrew to cheerful merrymaker is more than amusing. She’s thoroughly charming, coming alive after shedding her gloomy facade, even if her counterpart is terribly generic – and forgettable. A love triangle, an approaching end date for the jewelry lawsuit (which could put a stop to her dalliance), regret over her festive transgressions, and political complications make the film slightly more engaging – as well as an unlikely but romantic-drama-appropriate ultimatum to initiate the third act: Ninotchka must leave Leon in return for the jewels, which would greatly help her suffering people.
“No one can be so happy without being punished.” It’s a classic film showdown, and one that really only works in these types of pictures, but it generates a magnificent ethical predicament. The pacing suffers, however, as the extreme austerity and poverty of Russia (including food rationing, cramped housing, no radio music, and strict censorship of letters) becomes its own subplot (surely a unique, filmic critique of the era), contrasting with the frivolities of Paris, while Ninotchka’s country-hopping governmental duties further stretch out the running time. Whimsical musical notes to supplement steely characters or actions isn’t enough to counter the grimness, nor are complementary missions smart enough to feel necessary. But the finale is a welcome surprise (of sorts), returning to the dependable romance of lighthearted fantasy.
– Mike Massie