Saturday, June 11, 2011


Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch
Produced by: Ernst Lubitsch; Sidney Franklin
Written by: Melchior Lengyel; Charles Brackett; Billy Wilder; Walter Reisch
Starring: Greta Garbo; Melvyn Douglas
Music by: Werner R. Heymann
Cinematography William H. Daniels
Release date(s): November 9, 1939
Running time: 110 minutes
Country: United States
Language: English
Budget: $1,365,000 (est.)

When Ninotchka was released, the film was marketed as the first film where Greta Garbo laughed. She did indeed laugh. But that’s not the highlight of the film. The highlight of the film is how Melvyn Dauglas’ Count Leon woos the stone-cold, idealistic Russian comrade. I saw the film twice in quick successions and wished hopelessly if I would be wooed by someone as dashing as Melvyn Dauglas, in a similar fashion, and in Paris, no less... Some dreams are really impossible.

Today, director Ernst Lubitsch’s 1939 American comedy remains unique on two completely different counts. First, the Greta Garbo-Melvyn Dauglas chemistry (It was Garbo’s penultimate film; the couple did three films together) and the sly and sharp dialogues that pokes fun at Stalin’s Russia. The film was banned in Russia and all USSR states and understandably so. Here is story of an idealist girl seduced by an upholder of capitalism; here’s a film that presents the communists as silly, and ruthless. Here’s a sampling.

An Russian visa official tells an unseen caller: “Hello! Comrade Kasabian? No, I am sorry. He hasn't been with us for six months. He was called back to Russia and was investigated. You can get further details from his widow.”

Then Comissar Razinin says, “This anonymous report was sent to me. They're dragging the good name of our country through every cafe and nightclub. Here: How can the Bolshevik cause gain respect among the Muslims if your three representatives Bujlianoff, Iranoff and Kopalski get so drunk that they throw a carpet out of their hotel window and complain to the management that it didn't fly?”

When Ninotchka was forced to leave Paris even without informing Leon, the latter goes to the airport to get a visa to visit Russia. When he is denied visa, he shouts: “I’ll picket your whole country! I’ll boycott you! No more vodka! No more caviar! No more Tchaikovsky! No more borscht!”

Now, seeing from the point of view of pre-world war II world, there is a slight reference to Hilter’s raising powers. And it refers to the war as well. The film begins with the following dialogue: “This picture takes place in Paris in those wonderful days when a siren was a brunette and not an alarm - and if a Frenchman turned out the light it was not on account of an air raid!”

And there are some things which are relevant still today, though the product may have changed: Ninotchka asks Leon what is a radio, and he answers: “A radio’s a little box that you buy on the installment plan, and before you tune it in, they tell you there’s a new model out.”

But it’s the exchange between Ninotchka and Leon that’s most charming; she idealist, he playboy: Here’s a sampling...

Leon: What kind of a girl are you, anyway?
Ninotchka: Just what you see. A tiny cog in the great wheel of evolution.
Leon: You're the most adorable cog I've ever seen.

Ninotchka: Let's form our own party.
Leon: Right. Lovers of the world, unite!

Some things never age, they become something else.

More on Ninotchka.
More on Greta Garbo.
More on Melvyn Dauglas.
A review of Melvyn Dauglas' autobiography, 'See You at the Movies.'

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