“Don’t pronounce it – see it!” championed MGM publicity for Ernst Lubitch’s Ninotchka (1939). Whereas, the trailer for Garbo’s first sound picture, Anna Christie’s (1931) had triumphantly declared ‘Garbo talks!’ Ninotchka’s preview trumpeted, ‘Garbo laughs!’ Exactly how much of the public hysteria that dogged Garbo’s fame was undiluted MGM banana oil is open for discussion. Without question, there had been much idiotic frenzy surrounding this Swedish import almost from the moment she stepped off the boat; long before the studio and its cameras took hold of her reincarnation as this deified mystery woman, but of whom MGM studio head, L.B. Mayer had initially and rather sternly scoffed, “Americans don’t like their women fat…and get your teeth fixed!”
Garbo today is a largely forgotten relic like the sphinx with which her famous façade was compared back in 1929. Interestingly, her pictures always did better in the foreign markets than at home. MGM’s first attempt at fabricating a public persona for the ‘awkward peasant girl’ posed her with the studio’s mascot/trademark, Leo the Lion; also, with members of UCLA’s male varsity track and field team. Yet, under Clarence Brown’s direction, the Garbo inscrutability began to form; emerging as full-on erotica in Flesh and the Devil (1929). Alas, it was the talkies that made – and ultimately broke – Garbo. Initially, Mayer had had his misgivings about Garbo’s voice; would it record? Would audiences buy into her thick and lazy Swedish accent? Would the pall of European sophistication be too much for America’s trendier audiences to bear? Mayer and Garbo had nothing to fear.
For a brief decade she reigned supreme as Metro’s highest paid leading lady, as famous for her reclusive behaviors off set as for a single line of dialogue first uttered in the all-star, Grand Hotel (1932); “I vant to be alone!” For the record, in life Garbo never harbored such sentiments, although she frequently expressed an interest to distance herself from the destructive ardor of the American press, who scrutinized her every move as though it were of life-altering consequence to the world. In 1936, Garbo threatened to run away from her stardom. But she found no solace elsewhere on the planet; a young girl throwing herself in front of her chauffeur-driven car, shouting ‘I love you!’ and a Louisiana farmer leaving her his entire fortune in his will. MGM coaxed their reluctant zeitgeist back into the limelight, seemingly the only place where she could be happy – or, at least, be herself. And the camera adored Garbo as it has few stars then or now; reading her mixed signals and multi-layered glances given, occasionally directly into its absorbing lens.
Yet, for all this hype and for some time prior to 1939, American audiences had begun to cool to Garbo; the fascination with the initial cycle of European exoticism having run its course; Garbo’s austere and penetratingly aloof heroines never lending themselves to being pawed or plucked by male counterparts as submissive love interests. As such, by 1939 Americans were ready for a new Garbo – one who could make them laugh as well as cry. And Metro gave them exactly this in Lubtisch’s lighter-than-air confection. Ninotchka is the tale of a Russian commissar, sent by her government to collect a trio of Communist cohorts lulled by the pleasures of Paris. On this sojourn she meets Leon; an aristocrat playboy who finds her irresistible and absurd. He introduces her to all the superfluous luxuries no amount of indoctrinating Marxism can expunge as mere ‘crass’ capitalism.
To this featherweight story, Lubtisch brought his inimitable brand of European sophistication, seemingly out of fashion since the early 1930’s, though miraculously resurrected herein – perhaps, because unlike his other films, Ninotchka never takes much of anything too seriously. Here is a comedy that sparkles like a very rare vintage of champagne, the bubbles tickling the funny bone instead of the nose and leaving one utterly beguiled. Why Garbo had never made another comedy prior to Ninotchka remained something of a mystery. Why she never would again, an even greater one indeed. Garbo is luminous as Special Envoy Nina Ivanovna ‘Ninotchka’ Yakushova; the Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Walter Reisch screenplay embroiling her stoic Soviet in all sorts of amusing ‘fish out of water’ vignettes. The ‘cute meet’ between Ninotchka and Count Leon d'Algout (Melvyn Douglas) is a prime example of the accomplished wry wit the writers have managed to infuse throughout the story; Ninotchka employing Leon to help her spread open a map of the city, inquiring how long it takes a suicidal man to land after leaping from the Eiffel Tower, then positively crushing any and all of his more playful romantic advances by ordering him to “Suppress it!” Taking Ninotchka’s finger into his own, she abruptly inquires, “Why do you need my finger?” to which he teasingly replies, “It’s impolite to point with your own!” In just a few brief lines of dialogue we understand two perspectives implicitly; this hardline party patriot and the slippery sophisticate, destined to capture her heart. The movie’s devilishly sexy interplay is an exercise in extremes; Ninotchka’s inevitable sacrificing of the communist principles beaten into her brain since childhood, a rather optimistic dénouement to the world-weary anxieties that most living outside of Russia after the assassination of Tsar Nicholas could definitely relate to and appreciate.
After its main titles, Ninotchka begins with a beloved ode to the city of light, ‘where a siren was a brunette’ and ‘when a Frenchman turned out the lights it was not for the sake of an air raid!’ We are introduced to three Russian Commissars, Iranov (Sig Ruman), Buljanov (Felix Bressart), and Kopalsky (Alexander Granach), come to sell the formidable jewels of the ex-Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), an exile of the Imperial Russian aristocracy presently living in Paris, but who is quite unaware her fabulous assortment of tiaras, necklaces, bracelets and the like have made their way from her former, now revolutionary-strapped homeland. The Commissars are in town to meet with the jeweler, Mercier (Edwin Maxwell), who has promised them a fair price for these glittery relics of old Russia. Alas, one of the hotel’s waiters, Rakonin (Gregory Gaye) has deduced the contents of the Commissars’ briefcase and hurried to forewarn Leon and Swana of their arrival. Leon concocts a devious plan to delay the sale of the jewels with an injunction. In the meantime, he easily persuades Iranov, Buljanov and Kopalsky to trade in their drab Soviet garb for some flashy Parisian designer clothes. The trio occupies the ‘Royal Suite’ inside a lavishly appointed hotel and indulges in the pleasures of Paris – everything from caviar to cigarette girls. Leon sends a telegram to Moscow, reportedly written on the Commissars’ behalf, altering their government of the delayed sale. In reply, Moscow sends a real hard-liner, Ninotchka, to take control of their negotiations.
Ninotchka and Leon meet on a crowded Paris street corner. She is unimpressed by the gaiety that surrounds, and even less receptive to his immediate advances. She orders Leon to take her to the Eiffel Tower, studying its perspective and vistas from a purely rational engineering standpoint. Leon flirts with her. To his great surprise, she demands they return to his private apartment. Leon is, of course, otherwise passionately engaged to the superficial Swana who is tired of her face and bored with the high life. Nevertheless, she is not about to give Leon up. Nor is she willing to settle for anything less than the return of her jewels. Leon pursues Ninotchka, taking her to nightclubs where he gets her quietly inebriated. More accustom to goat’s milk than champagne, Ninotchka gets snookered; Leon taking her back to her hotel suite. The next morning Ninotchka awakens, still wearing last night’s frock, to find Swana hovering over her. The Duchess explains Leon knew nothing about it, but she has managed to bribe someone at the hotel into gaining access to her room and to the safe where the jewels were kept. Swana makes a promise to Ninotchka – a swap, actually: the jewels for Leon.
Reluctantly, Ninotchka agrees. After all, her mission has been fulfilled. She will be hailed a heroine in Moscow. Alas, once home, Ninotchka cannot shake the memories of Paris from her mind, telling her devoted roommate, Anna (Tamara Shayne) of its’ excitement, color and sparkle, and making a present to Anna of the gown she once wore to dance with Leon the night she first realized she was desperately falling in love with him. Iranov, Buljanov and Kopalsky arrive for a visit, grateful Ninotchka’s glowing report on their ‘behaviors’ abroad has spared them exile to Siberia. The foursome spends the evening reminiscing about their adventures. Time passes. Leon tries to get a visa to visit Russia. He is repeatedly denied. Then, in the dead of winter, Commissar Razinin (Bela Lugosi) summons Ninotchka to his office to inform her of an anonymous tip off from Constantinople, suggesting Iranov, Buljanov and Kopalsky, who were sent abroad on another trade mission, have badly undermined the Bolshevik Revolution with their considerable carousing inside every nightclub in Turkey. Razinin orders Nintchka to go to Constantinople and retrieve her wayward comrades, almost certain to be exiled to Siberia upon their return. Very reluctantly, she agrees; discovering Iranov, Buljanov and Kopalsky resplendently decked out and awaiting her arrival with bouquets of flowers. Ninotchka is shocked to learn they have no intension of returning with her to Soviet Russia, having begun new lives as restauranteurs. Better still, Ninotchka discovers the whole anonymous tip off was a ruse deliberately designed to get her out of Moscow. Leon is waiting in the wings. He proposes marriage and Ninotchka willingly accepts.
Ninotchka is a charismatic romantic comedy. Better still, in 1939 it unequivocally demonstrated the girth of Garbo’s gifts had not yet been fully tested on the screen. Apart from being the asexual figurehead of an ersatz European sophistication, perpetually cast in opulent period costume melodramas that were steadily falling out of favor with American audiences, she could also play robust comedy and deadpan humor with equal aplomb, grace, elegance and charm. A colossal hit for MGM, Ninotchka would also prove a disastrous foray into the subsequent ‘de-glamorization’ of this cinematic sphinx, exploited two years later in George Cukor’s disastrously subpar, Two-Faced Woman (1941); regrettably, the movie that put a period to Garbo’s career. Rather than face any more bad reviews, she retired from the fray with all her radiance and mystery intact, living as a recluse in Manhattan for the rest of her days with only periodic escapes to her native Sweden. Although Garbo was inundated with offers from American film companies to make her ‘comeback’, for reasons never entirely disclosed to her legions of adoring fans, she would never again appear on the screen.
Since her time, Garbo’s mysteriousness has been ensconced in movie land folklore; a unicorn for the ages who seemingly sacrificed her art for the quiet life, repeatedly denied whenever she dared venture beyond the relative safety of her gated Manhattan apartment. Ninotchka is the final jewel in Garbo’s crown; a fitting tribute to her formidable talents as it remains such an anomaly in her body of work, but also, because it tantalizes us with glimmers of the possibility of another Garbo the world was never again to witness outside of the tabloids. Director, Ernest Lubitsch was a master craftsman of this sort of silky romantic comedy; Garbo, his strongest ally as she willfully lampoons the grave exterior concocted for her – not only in this picture – but virtually all the efforts MGM had made to build her up as a supremely tragic figure of the movies. Lubitsch unapologetically deflates this premise to riotous effect in Ninotchka.
In retrospect, Melvin Douglas is a mistake as Nina’s romantic ideal. Although undeniably slick as the cosmopolitan suitor, Douglas somehow lacks the necessary sex appeal to pull off the roguishly handsome Leon without at least a few hitches along the way. He is most engaging when making a fool of himself, as when toppling from a bench while attempting to profess violent love to his paramour, instead incurring her rapturous laughter. Douglas also manages a moment of restrained, almost poetic, sincerity when confronting the superficial and subversively demonstrative Swana in a scene where he quietly professes his enduring love for Ninotchka; not yet knowing she has already boarded a plane back to Moscow.
In 1957, MGM and director, Rouben Mamoulian elected to remake Ninotchka as Silk Stockings; a beloved affair co-starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse; also, featuring the exuberant and deliciously lush and suggestive lyrics of composer, Cole Porter; an affecting and updated retelling. It is a curious thing when a remake bests the original but, in hindsight, one ever so slightly craves for the 1939 non-musical starring Garbo to burst into song and dance too. Barring this absence, Ninotchka is an adroit comedy, sprinkled with the pixie dust of immeasurable and generally un-quantifiable movie magic. One cannot imagine the film without Garbo, and yet, the remake is ably supported by Charisse’s superbly stern and leggy counterpart. And the chemistry between Astaire and Charisse in the remake, particularly as they elegant wrap around one another’s supple limbs during their divinely inspired pas deux is a wonderment to behold. Perhaps, it is a fool’s errand to choose which film is more enjoyable, for they really are two uniquely organic experiences; each possessing virtues and merits to study and extol. I’ll play the diplomatist herein and declare I like them both equally – but for decidedly different reasons. Either way, marrying Garbo to comedy was a pair ‘fated to be mated’. Ninotchka is divine.
Garbo's preferred cinematographer, William H. Daniels also photographed Ninotchka in luminous B&W. Warner Home Video's Blu-ray considerably advances on the old DVD release from 2003; darker contrast and looking more crisply refined on the whole; occasionally revealing the artifice of the backlot facades cobbled together with rear projection subbing in for Paris. Nevertheless, this is how Ninotchka ought to look on home video; admirably reproducing all of the details in these elaborate sets and with a natural grain pattern looking very film-like. The movie, which merely looked respectably solid on DVD, now sparkles with renewed luster. Moderate stabilization has been applied. Age-related artifacts occasionally glimpsed on the DVD are wholly absent from the Blu-ray. The image is smoothly satisfying without suggesting any untoward DNR tinkering.
For the very first time, I marveled at the sumptuous hotel décor, as example, and was delighted to see some truly gorgeous fine details in Garbo’s clothing, hair and makeup. Ninotchka looks very fine indeed. The DTS mono audio has a relatively low bitrate. However, as much of the film is dialogue-driven I did not particularly notice any undo shortcomings outside of the obvious ones inflicted by the source element. As on the DVD, Warner offers us nothing by way of extras of merit; a pair of short subjects and trailer is all we get. Bottom line: while I would have preferred Warner go the extra mile for a new audio commentary or, perhaps, even the inclusion of the extraordinary TCM documentary they presently own the rights to on Garbo’s life, I cannot poo-poo the results born of their efforts herein. Ninotchka on Blu-ray comes highly recommended! P.S. – also available as part of Warner’s 1939: The Golden Year box set and the preferred mode of purchase, provided you do not already own any of the titles independently.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)