Ninotchka (1939) – Ernst Lubitsch

 

My time with Greta Garbo comes to an end with this recommended title from the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book, and this one ends up being my favorite, I think. Billy Wilder has his fingerprints on the screenplay for this Oscar nominated film that sees Garbo playing a Soviet envoy on assignment in Paris.

When a trio of Russian men arrive in the City of Lights to sell the crown jewels of the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), which, now belong to the people, according to the government. The three men are enchanted by the city, and end up indulging in a little Western style living until their deal hits a snag. Swana’s friend, Leon (Melvyn Douglas), has brought a bit of an injunction to the deal, and leave the trio in a quandary, which is worsened when they are told that someone is being sent from the Motherland to sort things out.

Enter Garbo’s Ninotchka.

She’s almost a walking stereotype. Cold, aloof, and a hatred of all things Western. When she meets Leon, simply crossing the street, neither know who the other is, and Leon is rather taken with the lovely Soviet. He pursues her throughout the day, setting up a rather nice sequence at the Eiffel tower, and slowly begins to win her over.

The pair have a delightful repartee, and the lines exchanged are highly playful, and enjoyable. They don’t write dialogue like that anymore, filled with wit, frivolity and the subtle hint of innuendo.

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Douglas’ Leon is sly, a charmer, and sees Ninotchka not only as a challenge, but someone he could really care for, and of course, they then discover who the other really is. But, by this point, that won’t stop Leon. he’s hooked.

But there are other things at work, and the romance seems doomed, especially when Ninothcka is forced to return to Mother Russia, and we get a look at what life is like for her there.

Often funny, decidedly charming, this one ended up being delightful, Douglas just seems to be having so much fun, and I love the way the film plays, walking that line between comedy, romance and drama very delicately, and creating memorable characters.

The Pairs sequences let Douglas shine, as his character is completely at home there, but the bits in Russia let Garbo glow, because at this point, she is no longer happy there, and knows there can be more, and knows that somewhere out there, despite the fact that information from the outside world is censored, there is a man who loves her, and is looking for her.

It’s a nicely balanced film, a lot of fun to watch (though I hated the hat her character was so taken with), and while I still may not be a Garbo fan, this is probably my favorite of her films. Everything in it just seems to work, from the meet cute, to the letter, to the film’s end, it all shines. And then there’s Bela Lugosi in a small appearance as Razinin!

What’s your favorite Garbo film?

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