Ninotchka (1939)

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  • directed by Ernst Lubitsch
  • starring Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Sig Rumann, Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach, Ina Claire, Bela Lugosi
  • A stern Russian woman sent to Paris on official business finds herself attracted to a man who represents everything she is supposed to detest.

“I want to tell you something which I thought I would never say, which I thought nobody should ever say because I thought it didn’t exist. And Leon, I can’t say it.”

The poster for Ninotchka carried the tagline “Garbo Laughs!” a nod to her first talking picture Anna Christie, which was billed as “Garbo Talks!” I thought the line was solely referring to the fact that this was her first comedic role after more than a decade of drama either silent or with sound. What I didn’t realize was that it was her actual laugh, occurring halfway through the film and acting as a barrier between two distinct performances, that would end up playing such a huge part of this film.

Garbo’s Nina Yakushova turns up in Paris as a Russian envoy sent to mediate a conflict surrounding a jewelry sale between three fellow countrymen and the Grand Duchess. She plays this half of the film straight as a board, deadly serious, and resistant to the many charms of Parisian society. “As basic material, you may not be bad, but you are the unfortunate product of a doomed culture. I feel very sorry for you,” she says in response to the Count as he attempts to open her eyes to the beauties of the world. She may not care for him or his ideals but she keeps him nearby long enough for her cold, rocky exterior to begin to chip away. It wasn’t his solid joke that finally got her to open up (“A man walks into a restaurant and orders coffee without cream. The waiter comes back and says, I’m sorry sir we don’t have any cream, would you mind taking your coffee without milk?”), but instead it was the sight that we all love to laugh at—a man desperately trying to appear irresistible violently falling off his chair. From that point on Ninotchka emerges from the dark shadow of Stalin and Lenin, no longer suppressing the part of herself that has the ability to appreciate music, smell freshness in the breeze, or look at food as something other than daily caloric requirements.

This is a movie that I would love to watch again and again for the sharp script that brilliantly combines humor and social commentary, great lead performances by Garbo and Melvyn Douglas, and the heartfelt physical humor of Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski. It was the rare romantic comedy that actually has a lot more to promote other than a love between two people. You can watch the entire movie viewing Ninotchka and Léon as stand-ins for the countries and cultures from which they hail. Through the use of some very funny lines and typical romantic comedy situations, the screenplay by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and Billy Wilder, has boiled an examination of geopolitics into a sweet easy-going-down piece of candy. Amazing movie, I’m buying the DVD.

Hey, this is pretty funny: Director Walter Hill recommended that Arnold Schwarzenegger study Garbo’s performance as Ninotchka for his 1988 film Red Heat, which also starred James Belushi.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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