Sunday, 14 April 2013

Ninotchka (1939)

"Garbo Laughs!". Ernst Lubitsch's "Ninotchka" is so often reduced to that. True, it seems the slogan was decided before any line was written and  I understand MGM's need for the slogan (it's good and catchy), but on another hand I find it simplifies the film tremendously, focusing solely on one scene.

"Ninotchka" is probably set in the early/mid-1930s, at the time the Soviet Union sold many of its treasures to the West. In the film, a trade delegation is sent to Paris to sell the state confiscated court jewels from Grand-Duchess Swana (played by Ina Claire). Warned of this by a loyal White Russian, now a waiter at the hotel used by the delegation, she sends her lover, a bankrupt French nobleman, Leon (Melvyn Douglas) to delay the procedures. In response, Moscow sends a new negotiator, comrade Nina Ivanova Yakushova, also known as Ninotchka (Greta Garbo).

"Ninotchka" is a comedy, a romance and a political satire. The romance, mostly evident in the later sequences in Paris is probably the most routine part of the film, but it still is carried well. But where the film excels is in the comedy, the satire and the mix of both. When she arrives in Paris, Ninotchka is almost an authomaton, heartless and emotionless - her approach to men ("Must you flirt?") and love/sex (a chemical process) sum of her view of the world. The first sequence in Leon's appartment is brilliant and most interesting, quite explicit for the time - she was there for sex... ("Go to bed, little father. We want to be alone.") The comedy sections, particularly the fall of the three Soviet commissars is where Lubitsch's touch is most present. The hats changing, and the maids running around are things he used in other places as well.

But the satire, and some of the best lines of dialogue, seem to me that come from Billy Wilder, who signed the script with Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch. Lines like "There are going to be fewer but better Russians" and "I should hate to see our country endangered by my underwear" are too sharp to be anyone else's. I also think that the delicate balance of keeping Communists and Capitalists (and Nazis at one moment), White Russians and Red Russians, in a delicate balance where no one comes out well and everyone is the same is his - and from what I know from their partnership, I'd say the fact that we care for them is probably due to Brackett. The two scenes between Swana and Ninotchka give glimpses of the harsh reality: in the first, Ninotchka refers to the cruelty of the cossacks; in the second Swana mentions the pain of being an expatriate (and who is fighting to keep the man she loves, even if she'll never admit it). In that moment, and despite the hindsight of history, Swana was rather touching and a real person, as opposed to a frivolous Grand-Duchess.

This is also the film where Garbo gives us a tantalising glimpse of what her career might have become if the war (her main market seems to have been in Europe), bad advise would have not interfered (she allegedly refused another film with Lubitsch on advice from a friend) and her decision to leave cinema had not come to place. Gone is tragidienne, and suddenly a modern actress that could have carried on through the 1940s. Her stone faced comissar is as brilliant as her woman in love - although, I have to say, I cringe at her laughing scene. She does look fake.

Melvyn Douglas gives one of his best pre-war performances (and would reunite with Garbo two years later for her final film) and I couldn't go without a word for the brilliant trio of Iranoff, Buljanoff and Kopalski (Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach) who steal every scene they're in. Even the ending.


Judy said...

I saw this film fairly recently and definitely agree with you that there is a lot more to it than 'Garbo Laughs!' Another great review, Miguel - I especially like your point on how the scenes between Swana and Ninotchka give glimpses of the harsh reality on both sides.

Anonymous said...

Love this film Ina Clare perfect in her role.
Melvyn Douglas ideal costar for Garbo. What a shame she retired after her next film.