26 September 2002 | gaityr
Garbo laughs... and for very good reason!
NINOTCHKA tells the story of a female special envoy from Russia (Greta Garbo), sent to Paris to investigate the rather unorthodox and generally inefficient way in which three Russian ambassadors (Iranoff, Buljanoff and Kopalski--the trio serve as an excuse for much slapstick hilarity in the film) are carrying out their job. They're supposed to be selling jewels belonging to the former Grand Duchess, Swana (Ina Claire), but instead get distracted by the luxuries of capitalist society as gleefully pressed onto them by the Count d'Algout, Leon (Melvyn Douglas). It doesn't take long for the dour, humourless Ninotchka to fall hard for the charming Leon, and their love story begins atop the Eiffel Tower in Paris. We gather, however, that Leon and the ex-Duchess share a casual on-off relationship and Swana handily uses Nina's deep love for her mother Russia to blackmail the latter into returning to Russia without a word to Leon. So what happens when the Russian customs official refuses to give Leon a visa into Russia? You'll have to watch for yourself to discover the whimsical, delightful ending.
All in all, NINOTCHKA is a fine, funny film, with romance spilling out of its seams. From the first dry, crisp conversation between Leon and his Ninotchka while they wait for a whistle-break in Parisian traffic, you become involved with the characters and their love as he tries to break down her icy defenses, as he keeps trying in the face of her many rebuffs. One standout scene would be that of the drunken interlude in Nina's Royal Suite, as the couple look quizzically at the necklace that would bring them together and separate them, and Leon crowns his girlfriend before laying her gently on the bed, kissing her goodnight and taking his gentlemanly leave. It's also hard to beat the scene in which, as the tagline proudly declares, 'Garbo Laughs!', as Leon tries to coax a laugh out of Nina, and only succeeds by falling over backwards in his chair. The romantic comedy is certainly strong and sweet, but there's plenty of other comedy available as well, largely thanks to the three Russian sidekick ambassadors charmed by the benefits of capitalism. It's great fun watching them flounder helplessly when they first meet their stern, unforgiving Comrade Yakushova, but warm up to her when they return to Russia and have an omelette dinner together.
There is no doubt that Greta Garbo turns in a great performance as the title character. She plays the ice queen very convincingly, with the appropriate suggestion that her lips haven't seen a smile in a decade or so. (If you're worried, her Russian accent is also perfectly credible, though at times she lapses into something somewhat less than Russian.) When she finally breaks into laughter, the transition is believable, as is the sunny change that thereafter infuses Nina as she becomes Leon's Ninotchka. It's an especially nice touch to have her unable to suppress a wave of laughter in the first official meeting--it's also hilarious when she suddenly generously gives her three colleagues fifty francs because they're out of money... only to qualify that by asking them to bring her back 45 francs! I think it is to Garbo's credit that she can pull off both the dour, passionless Comrade Yakushova and the almost shy, giggling Ninotchka with equal aplomb. (Her frequent question, "Can I make a speech?", when drunk on champagne is--I think the only word for it is--adorable.) That face of hers, so famous around the world, really *is* made for the cameras, and I think Lubitsch captured it beautifully. (Lubitsch also directs with the lightest of touches, allowing his cast full rein.) Melvyn Douglas looks absolutely no different from his role a decade later in MR BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE, but there is no doubting that this is Garbo's film.
This is a sweet, happy film about love overcoming ideology, nationality, and geography, and one that doesn't feel the need to beat us over the head with it. The relationship is well-developed, the characters interesting, and the execution top-notch. For me personally, the film lacks something that would render it a 10/10 classic, but that certainly isn't indicative of its quality as a romantic comedy. A great way to spend an evening. 8/10.