US (1939) Dir. Ernst Lubitsch

“Garbo Laughs!”

Amazingly that tagline was seemingly enough to sell this film to audiences in 1939, just as “Garbo Talks!” worked nine year earlier with Anna Christie her first talkie. That didn’t stop the film being banned in the Soviet Union though, but that is understandable it was a satire mocking the communist way of life.

Paris, France and three Soviet agents, comrades Iranoff (Sig Ruman), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart), and Kopalski (Alexander Granach), arrive at a posh hotel to serve as their base for selling jewels confiscated during the 1917 Russian Revolution. A former soviet nobleman working as a waiter in the hotel overhears Iranoff talking about the jewels, which belonged to former Russian Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire).

He informs Swana about the deal, who immediately gets an injunction blocking the sale and sends her paramour Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas) to retrieve the jewels. Leon halts the sale pending the lawsuit hearing and by introducing the Russians to the luxury of high Parisian life. When their masters learn of the delay, they send a special envoy to complete the deal, Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova (Greta Garbo).

It’s no surprise that the Soviets weren’t impressed with Ninotchka – the entire premise is devoted to portraying life under Lenin as miserable and grey, and the people humourless and unrefined due to their stringent insistent on denying themselves pleasure. But rather than promote it as a savage attack on Communism, it was wisely sold it as a satirical romantic comedy to home and non-Soviet international audiences  

This doesn’t stop the script, co-written by Billy Wilder, from being full of witty, barbed observations that take direct aim at Communism amidst a few more subtle digs here and there, including a cracking final sight gag to end the film. It was incredibly bold of the Yanks in making this film in the first place during World War II in its infancy and the hindsight knowledge of Russia being allies of the West, which prevented its re-release until after the war.

One shouldn’t also overlook the irony of the constant digs towards Russia’s controlling of its people through propaganda when the film itself is pretty much a propaganda piece in itself, promoting the benefits of a democratic, capitalist society every chance it gets. To its credit, the script allows the Soviets to defend their position, making some valid points during a particularly personal showdown late in the film between Ninotchka and Swana.

Ah yes, the romance part of the story. It is inevitable but the plot needs something to frame the political commentary around. Leon may be with Swana but he is taken by the stern faced Russian he meets outside the hotel unaware of who she is, since he and everyone else, was expecting a male envoy. In true Hollywood fashion, all it takes is a trip to the Eiffel Tower and a bit of charisma to make Ninotchka’s icy demeanour thaw.

Ninotchka naturally hates herself for falling so easily for this suave capitalist but like her comrades before her, the free easy living life of Paris proves a comfort she finds difficult to resist, and suffers in silence for the sake of her mission. The famous tag line referring to Garbo laughing is actually a pivotal moment in the film – Leon fails to get this ice queen to lighten up via a slew of jokes but has her in hysterics when falls off his chair.

But this doesn’t afford us any respite from the political point scoring rhetoric, if anything it facilitates it further, especially when the well-heeled ex-Soviet duchess finally clashes with the stone faced Bolshevik, both with some home truths to impart regarding the veracity of their opposing philosophies. It’s all rather convivial and hostile free, certainly lacking in physical aggression and hysterics, leaving it to the weight of their words to do the damage.

How much of this was Billy Wilder’s input I don’t know, but the third act contains the most cynical material and the cleverest in turning the pro/anti-Russian narrative into a astutely written comic misadventure heading towards the feel good climax. Wilder’s fingerprints are the most visible on the writing but let’s not undermine the contributions of the others, Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and Melchior Lengyel’s screenplay.  

Really, Ninotchka should be deemed an international production rather than a Hollywood one, with a German director, Austrian, Hungarian, and German writers, a Swedish lead, and German, Hungarian, Dutch and American cast. Only two Russian both actors appear but in small roles only, a shameful indictment of how bad the still present Hollywood habit of “whitewashing” was back then.

Not that audiences would have been aware enough to complain about it, since they weren’t even subject to dodgy faux Russian accents to add insult to injury. It is possible the Paris setting was a tactical ploy by Hollywood to throw their punches on neutral territory, so any upset Soviets would be judging French decadence instead of American decadence.

For Garbo, this was her only comedy and would transpire to be her penultimate film, retiring in 1941. I never noticed it before but as the stern, humourless Ninotchka, Garbo strongly resembled Isabelle Huppert which is also where she is at her best. The lines are so much funnier delivered with a straight face, and you can see her struggling not to laugh before her cue during the famous laugh scene.

Eventually she morphs into “regular” Garbo (i.e. glam, wistfully romantic, enigmatic) to keep the crowd happy, naturally contrived but congruent to the events of the final act, where the savagery of the satire hits its peak. Since Lubitsch was known for brisk, social comedies there are a few moments where the pace slackens here but makes up for it with the constant snappy dialogue.

Despite playing to the Garbo gallery, Ninotchka is a prime example of a smart, sharply written satire with many points of issue that still holds up today.