The advertising slogan for 1939’s Ninotchka read “Garbo Laughs”- and it perfectly sums up this remarkable film! Greta Garbo steps down from her ice queen pedestal part way through the film, playing stern Communist Comrade Ninotchka, who slowly warms to the appeal of Parisian romance and champagne.
Three Soviet emissaries, played by Felix Bressart, Sig Rumman and Alexander Granach, arrive in Paris for a mission but find themselves a little… overwhelmed by the joys of the west! Superbly efficient Comrade Ninotchka is sent to do the job instead- being equal to three men- and retrieve the jewels of former Grand Duchess Swana. It is the Soviet government’s contention that the property of the aristocrats belongs to the people. Things become rather complicated however once the Grand Duchess’ lover, played by Melvyn Douglas, takes a fancy to Ninotchka… distraught Duchess Swana decides she will give up all claim to the jewels if the not-so-frosty-anymore commissar will fly away from her count.
Whilst many of Garbo’s films rely on her presence alone for their appeal, that is not the case with Ninotchka- her first film in English and the penultimate of her career.
Billy Wilder’s brittle, witty script- written with Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch- is the strong yet flexible backbone of a film that merrily charges through bumbling emissaries and abrupt changes in personality without loosing it’s naturally light touch.
Playing opposite Garbo, Melvyn Douglas is sauve in his dinner jackets and manages to play some pretty gushy romantic dialogue with enough playfulness to loose neither his conviction nor his edge. Indeed, in an adroit satire of both Communism and capitalism, Ninotchka never looses its sweetness- however sad it might be. It is notable as one of the earliest political spoofs of Stalin’s Communist Russia and even more remarkable for being released during the second world war. With its absolute control, power of censorship and drab life of deprivation, it’s made clear why the Russian emissaries aren’t keen to return to the Soviet Union.
One of the best parts is witnessing Garbo shift gears from a humourless deadpan to cracking up at Douglass falling off his chair. The seriously-austere figure turning playful may be something that we have seen before but rarely has it been done so well! Ninotchka is a brilliant satire, combining farce, romance and politics, it’s funny without loosing Garbo’s elevated intensity and you would be remiss to miss it.