Three Soviet envoys, Buljanoff (Felix Bressart), Iranoff (Sig Rumann), and Kopalski (Alexander Granach), are sent to Paris to negotiate the sale of fabulous jewellery confiscated by the State from the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire) to help raise badly needed cash by the Communist regime. They encounter obstacles, thanks to the Duchess' aristocratic friend Leon (Melvyn Douglas) so Moscow sends the dedicated comrade Ninotchka Yakushova (Greta Garbo) to troubleshoot. But when Leon meets her, he falls in love and eventually seduces her - not only romantically, but to the sweet charms of Paris and capitalist things like champagne, silly (but irresistible) hats and evening gowns. Swana doesn't like this turn of events and launches a scheme to separate Ninotchka and Leon.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
This was Garbo's first comedy and second last film. And it's a unique role for her, first because she starts off as a dour, cold comrade with no sense of humour, and second because she laughs herself into a love of capitalist vices. Director Ernst Lubitsch and the writers give everyone sparkling dialogue, much of it spoofing the dead heart of communism and its failure of providing human warmth. But it's a love story above all, put together with sophistication and wit.
The humour and romance are floated on the contemporary political divide between communism and capitalism, and the film was banned in Russia. One could argue that Moscow made a propaganda mistake: the Soviet media could well have portrayed the film as good example of the superficiality of capitalism - had it been taken seriously. (Humourless comrades could have ...)
But it's not all one way. In the hotel suite of the three Soviet emissaries, Mercier (Edwin Maxwell) the jeweller examines the goods with an eyepiece and shrewdly bargains with the Bolsheviks over the terms of the sale of the jewels: "Very good, superb, excellent, it would be foolish to belittle the quality of the merchandise but your terms are impossible. My counter offer is the absolute maximum. We're undertaking this deal only because of the prestige involved. And frankly, we're expecting to take a loss." The suspicious Russians whisper critically of capitalism:
Iranoff: Capitalistic methods.
Buljanoff: They accumulate millions by taking loss after loss.
The film was nominated for four Academy Awards (but no wins; this was the year of the victorious Gone With the Wind), including Best Picture, Best Actress (Greta Garbo with her fourth and last unsuccessful nomination), Best Original Story (Melchior Lengyel), and Best Screenplay (co-writer Billy Wilder's first of a career 21 nominations). Lubitsch wasn't nominated.
Until Ninotchka, Garbo had a cool, dramatic screen image, which MGM's publicity machine inverted to great effect in promoting the film the tag line: 'Garbo Laughs!' And to pre-empt the difficulty of Americans pronouncing the title, the studio added: 'Don't pronounce it - see it!' These tags are reproduced on the cover of this DVD.
In all the attention to Garbo and Melvyn Douglas and the wonderful Ina Claire, we should remember the three stooges: Buljanoff (Felix Bressart), Iranoff (Sig Rumann), and Kopalski (Alexander Granach). These three actors provide a great deal of the film's humour, representing the human weaknesses that stand in contrast to communist ideals. They are also a loveable trio of incompetents with good intentions.
Published: April 10, 2008
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NINOTCHKA: DVD (PG)
CAST: Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire, Bela Lugosi, Sig Rumann, Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach, Gregory Gaye, Rolfe Sedan, Edwin Maxwell, Richard Carle
PRODUCER: Ernst Lubitsch
DIRECTOR: Ernst Lubitsch
SCRIPT: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Walter Reisch (story by Melchior Lengyel)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: William Daniels
EDITOR: Gene Ruggiero
MUSIC: Werner R. Heymann
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Cedric Gibbons
RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes
PRESENTATION: 4:3 from 1.33:1 original; B/W
SPECIAL FEATURES: Subtitles in Arabic, Bulgarian, Dutch, English, French, Italian, Romanian, plus English and Italian for the hearing impaired
DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Bros Entertainment
DVD RELEASE: April 9, 2008
RIVERSIDE SNEAK PEEK PREMIERES
A program of premiere screenings of new movies prior to their commercial release
on 4 consecutive Tuesdays - March 10, 17, 24, 31, 2015 - at Riverside Theatre,
Curated & presented by Andrew L. Urban, discussion to
follow with special guests. Briefing notes provided.