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Ninotchka (1939)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“Garbo laughs!” or “The picture that kids the commissars!”

The taglines above hint at two reasons to watch Ninotchka. The first reason: the brilliant cast, led by Hollywood's legendary Greta Garbo, and opposite the superlative Melvyn Douglas. The second reason: the ground-breaking story, co-written by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch, and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Some who read this review might not recognize the name "Greta Garbo," but when this movie came out she contended for the title of greatest star in Hollywood. Garbo played serious roles, but this was her first and greatest comedy. Although not the first Brackett / Wilder collaboration, the story rates among their best by poking fun at Communism well before the Cold war.

By the time of the movie's release France warred with Germany. However, the movie opens showing a peaceful city scene with text noting: “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!”

The scene changes to the large and lavish Hotel Clarence, and its manager sauntering about its main entrance. Through that entrance comes a plainly dressed man: Buljanoff (Felix Bressart) looking around at the hotel's interior. The manager asks Buljanoff if there is anything he can do for him. Buljanoff says “No” and leaves. Another similarly dressed man: Iranoff (Sig Ruman), comes in and gazes at the lavish hotel interior. The hotel manager repeats the same ritual as with Buljanoff. Next comes Kopalski (Alexander Granach), who gazes while making a circuit inside the revolving doors and does not actually enter. Buljanoff, Iranoff and Kopalski discuss the grandeur of the hotel on the sidewalk, saying how Russia has nothing like it. Through Iranoff and Kopalski telling Buljanoff that Lenin would want them to stay at the Clarence for Russian prestige, they overcome his fear of being shipped to Siberia.

As they discuss the rooms and rates with the hotel manager, the Russian emissaries discover they must reserve the Royal suite as only it has a safe big enough to contain their valuable package. After securing that object in the suite's safe, Iranoff calls a Parisian jeweler saying that he has all the jewels formerly of the Grand Duchess Swana. Iranoff says this within the hearing of a waiter setting a table in the suite. The waiter leaves the room immediately and, after having someone cover for him in the Royal suite, heads to the apartments of the Grand Duchess.

The scene changes to her apartment where Swana (Ina Claire) entertains Count Leon d'Algout (Melvyn Douglas). Leon tells Swana he has arranged to sell her memoirs of life in Czarist Russia, when the hotel waiter Count Alexis Rakonin (Gregory Gaye) requests audience with the Grand Duchess. Rakonin tells of the Duchess's jewels being at the hotel. She rushes to call her lawyer, who disappoints; but Leon, always seeing the angles, tells her to rely on him.

Back at the Royal suite, the Russians speak with the jeweler Mercier (Edwin Maxwell), who dickers with them on a price for the jewels. Leon joins them, telling Mercier and the Russians that he has an injunction preventing any sale of the jewels until the French courts decide the contested ownership. After Mercier leaves, Leon further advances the seduction of the Russians begun by the hotel and its possibilities. He also writes a memo for them to their superior at the Russian Board of Trade, Commissar Razinin (Bela Lugosi) suggesting that, half being better than nothing, the Soviets should split the jewels with the Grand Duchess.

After time in the Parisian hotel has effected marked changes in the three Russian emissaries, Razinin sends an Envoy Extraordinary to take over the Russian end of negotiation. The three go to the rail depot to meet the Envoy. Expecting a man, instead they find Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, known as 'Ninotchka' (Greta Garbo). When she first arrives in Paris, Ninotchka shows very little personality other than Party bylaws and dialectical materialism might suggest. She decides that she will not deal with the Grand Duchess or her representative: Count d'Algout; however, on her first sight seeing trip to the Eiffel tower she meets Leon not knowing of his relation to the situation. They develop a different sort of romantic relationship which leads into the main portion of the story.

Ninotchka plays up the vivacious aspects of Western economies, while accentuating the drab and soul crushing attributes of life under totalitarianism. Hilarity saturates the dialog and situations as Ninotchka's Soviet ideology and matter of fact attitudes contrast with the “decadence” of Paris and Leon's suavity. Remade as a musical in 1957, Ninotchka's story -- now directed by Rouben Mamoulian with music by Cole Porter -- became Silk Stockings. I've already reviewed a few films in which Melvyn Douglas had a part, but this film shows his leading man qualities very well. However, Ninotchka may provide the best movie to start an appreciation of Greta Garbo and her work. In addition, along with a plenitude of humor, it contains insights into some shortcomings of all centrally planned economies.

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