Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Ninotchka (1939)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch


Garbo Laugh! This was the phrased used to publicize first endeavor into comedy for the Swedish born star actress for MGM. The long, stoic-faced emotional beauty, Greta Garbo, makes another splash on cinema as she expands her performing abilities into the realm she was not familiar with. Banking on a catchphrase used when Garbo made her first sound, Ninotchka is a film that was produced and released during the early parts of World War II, before the United States would be pulled into the international clash, and would satirize their future war time allies, the Soviet Union. The film would become a well embraced comedy for American audiences at a time while Europe was falling deeper into war.

Ninotchka starts off so strict...
Ninotchka is a romantic comedy about a rigid Soviet lady learning to enjoy life and falling in love with the freedoms of the western world and the man who introduces her to these new delights in life. Strict, militaristically disciplined Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka”  Yakushova (Greta Garbo) is sent from her home country of the Soviet Union to Paris to ensure the sale of priceless aristocratic jewelry claimed by the nation during the Russian Resolution for much needed monetary state aid for the socialist nation. Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), a suave Parisian nobleman, is sent to slyly infiltrate the sale of the jewels for their previous owner, the former Russian Grand Duchess (Ina Claire). During his mission Leon comes to be quite stricken by the beauty and discipline of the very interesting Ninotchka. Slowly he opens her up to the freedom of capitalism and the joys of life it allows as the two fall in love. However, the only way the Grand Duchess would drop her lawsuit, thus giving up her claim to the jewels is if Ninotchka leaves Paris, in turn leaving Leon as well. She heartbreakingly does so in order to benefit her country. Leon surprises her after she leaves France by showing up at her door, making the idea of love goes beyond politics or money.

What makes the picture so surprisingly entertaining are the satirical jabs made at the expense of Soviet Russia, keeping in mind that in 1939 World War II had spread across Europe. The comedy is lighthearted, while at the same time is quietly political. Greta Garbo spreads her wings a bit artistically, adding humor to her skill set. The movie is yet another Hollywood romantic comedy set in Europe, as was very popular during the time of 1930s Hollywood features, but this particular film features saltire that would punch holes in the stressful news that appeared to be pouring in from overseas on a regular basis due to the unset of war.

The picture’s Academy Award nominated story and screenplay, partially penned by Billy Wilder, would be a tale written because of the sign of the times. Europe was being torn in several different directions at this point and satire made light of the situation. Most of the jokes were made at the hands of the Soviet Union, including it’s the mocked “five year plan” that took longer than expected, and several of their rigid ways which are shared by the actions of Grabo’s character of Ninotchka. A small jab is even made at the hands of Nazi’s during a train station scene when we are introduced to the title character.  What the script and accomplished romantic comedy filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch do is knock the political strife of overseas affairs down a peg, sending an up-with-capitalism message.

Before Ninotchka Greta Garbo was coming off the box office failure of Conquest, an expensive venture that did not make its money back in theaters. Coupled with her introverted public image her status as a star had greatly waned far the more successful earlier parts of the decade. The idea of her playing in a comedy was something she was apprehensive about, but it took such a chance to draw the much needed attention to make her name economically feasible again.

Garbo Laughs!
The tagline of “Garbo Laughs!” was attached to the picture to harken back to the “Garbo Talks!“ that went along with Anne Christie, her first talking picture of which she was nominated for an Oscar. Here this phrase was used to manifest Garbo’s first venture into a comedic role, not simple her laughing, as she had done many times in other features. Like Anna Christie, she would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress., her third career nomination.

The ever important role of the man that wins the heart of Garbo would go be Melvyn Douglas, the middle-aged actor known for his smooth talking romantic comedy roles. This was actually his second feature with Garbo as he was her love interest in 1932’s As You Desire Me. He plays the usual well-dressed middle-aged gentleman   that can talk his way through any situation. The character of Count Leon is rather generic compared to the bigger actors of the day, but his confident demeanor allows for humor to contrast with the strict Ninotchka in the film.

To manifest her change she wears this "fashionable" hat, which was created just for the film.
Ninotchka opened to favorable reviews domestically and helped to revive Greta Garbo in the minds of audiences. However the film would be banned by the Soviet Union and surrounding nations for its satire of the communist country and its perceived shortcomings. Despite this lack of foreign revenue the film would still make good profits internationally.

The picture, come award season, would be up for four Academy Awards, including best picture. Ninotchka would leave a lasting legacy on the film world as it inspired many other films, and even the Broadway musical Silk Stockings. The feature would be elected to preservation in the National Film Registry in 1990, only the second class, by the Library of Congress, and would be honored the American Film Institute’s list for 100 Top Laughs and 100 Top Passions.

Beyond being an entertaining feature about the freedom of capitalism, the picture rejuvenated the name of Greta Garbo. However the Hollywood star would remain low key and only appear in one more feature before retiring from the business at the unset of the United States joining World War II. Ninotchka leaves us a lighter side of Greta Garbo that audiences clearly enjoy, but would sadly not see much of.

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