A person could go on all day about the delightful 1939 comedy, Ninotchka. What’s not to love about a film with Cedric Gibbons art direction, Adrian gowns, Ernst Lubitsch’s skilled directing (a.k.a. “The Lubitsch Touch“), and a top-notch cast?
What we admire most is the script.
The screenplay was a collaborative effort by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch and a man who would become one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed directors, Billy Wilder.
To us, the script is like sneaking into your grandmother’s freezer and discovering a cache of baked goods. There are plenty of funny lines, endearing characters, and thoughtful observations on geopolitics.
Ninotchka is set in pre-World War II Paris, where three Russian envoys have arrived with orders to sell Russian jewels on behalf of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, prices are not ideal because the market has become flooded with such jewels.
There’s a bigger glitch: A Russian Countess in exile (Ina Claire), learns the Soviets have arrived with intentions to sell her family’s confiscated heirlooms.
Moscow then dispatches an Envoy Extraordinary named Ninotcha (Greta Garbo) to Paris to sort out this mess.
Wilder & Co. have created such intriguing characters that even if this film had no plot, it would still be fascinating. Characters reveal, in the first exchange of dialogue, their agenda and their eventual outcome.
For example, the Countess’ courtesan (Melvyn Douglas), is a suave fellow who appears with this introduction: “Remember that platinum watch with the diamond numbers? You’ll be in a position to give it to me now.”
Garbo, at the start of the film, is a dour, industrial-strength communist. She doesn’t suffer fools, and she despises frivolity.
Her adversary, the Countess, is a refined, cultured woman who is equally tough. She despises everything Garbo represents. Our sympathies throughout the movie lie with Garbo, but Claire is not going down without a fight. When the two women finally meet, Claire sharply reminds Garbo of everything the Bolsheviks have taken from her.
Whether as a screenwriter or director, Wilder is as funny as he is cynical. He’s an unflinching observer of human nature. This script incorporates Wilder’s trademark shrewdness, but we also find something unexpected.
Ninotchka, at heart, is overwhelmingly life-affirming.
Garbo’s character undergoes an incredible transformation in this film. When she first arrives in Paris, she orders her fellow comrades, “Don’t make an issue of my womanhood. We’re here to work.”
When she sees a ridiculous hat in a shop window, she almost can’t express enough displeasure. (“A civilization cannot survive with such hats.”) However, each time she passes the window, her contempt softens. Then, when she opens a carefully-locked drawer in her hotel room and pulls out said hat, we realize she is shedding Soviet rhetoric for a more human existence.
Douglas is drawn to Garbo in spite of (or because of?) her humourless demeanour. He implores her to smile and to laugh at “the whole spectacle” of life. “Thinking about death is so glum,” he says.
After Garbo’s internal human-ness awakens, she gives a poignant speech which must have been acutely felt by audiences in 1939, when the world was on the verge of global war. Her speech is almost a direct plea to world leaders.
“Comrades, people of the world,” she says, “the revolution is on the march. I know, bombs will fall, civilizations will crumble, but not yet. Please – wait. What’s the hurry? Give us our moment. Let us be happy.”
Ninotchka received four Academy Award nominations, including Best Adapted Screenplay. We know you’ll enjoy this clever film co-authored by the great Billy Wilder.
Ninotchka: starring Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire. Written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Walter Reisch. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, BW, 1939, 110 mins.