Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Ernst Lubitsch|
|Produced by||Ernst Lubitsch|
|Screenplay by||Melchior Lengyel|
|Story by||Melchior Lengyel|
|Music by||Werner R. Heymann|
|Cinematography||William H. Daniels|
|Edited by||Gene Ruggiero|
|November 9, 1939|
|Box office||$2.3 million|
Ninotchka is a 1939 American comedy film made for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer by producer and director Ernst Lubitsch and starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas. It was written by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and Walter Reisch, based on a screen story by Melchior Lengyel. Ninotchka is Greta Garbo's first full comedy, and her penultimate film. It is one of the first American movies which, under the cover of a satirical, light romance, depicted the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin as being rigid and gray, in this instance comparing it with the free and sunny Parisian society of pre-war years.
Three Soviet agents, Iranoff (Sig Ruman), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart), and Kopalski (Alexander Granach), arrive in Paris to sell jewellery confiscated from the aristocracy during the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Count Alexis Rakonin (Gregory Gaye), a Russian nobleman reduced to employment as a waiter in the hotel where the trio are staying, overhears details of their mission and informs the former Russian Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire) that her court jewels are to be sold by the three men. Her debonair paramour, Count Leon d'Algout (Melvyn Douglas) offers to help retrieve her jewellery before it is sold.
In their hotel suite, Iranoff, Buljanoff and Kopalski negotiate with Mercier (Edwin Maxwell) a prominent Parisian jeweller, when Leon interrupts the meeting. He explains that the jewels are stolen and a petition has been filed preventing their sale or removal. Mercier withdraws his offer to purchase the jewellery until the lawsuit is settled.
The amiable and charming Leon treats the three Russians to an extravagant lunch, gets them drunk and easily wins their confidence and friendship. He sends a telegram to Moscow in their name suggesting a compromise.
Moscow, angered by the telegram, then sends Nina Ivanovna "Ninotchka" Yakushova (Greta Garbo), a special envoy whose goal is to win the lawsuit, complete the jewellery sale and bring back the three renegade Russians. Ninotchka is methodical, rigid and stern, chastising Iranoff, Buljanoff and Kopalski for failing to complete their mission.
Ninotchka and Leon first meet outside the hotel, their respective identities unknown to one another. He flirts, but she is uninterested. Intrigued, Leon follows her to the Eiffel Tower and shows her his home through a telescope. Intrigued by his behavior, Ninotchka tells him he might warrant study and suggests they go to his apartment. Ninotchka becomes attracted to Leon and eventually, they kiss, but they are interrupted by a phone call from Buljanoff. Ninotchka and Leon both realize they are each other's adversaries over the jewellery and she leaves the apartment, despite Leon's protestations.
While attending to the various legal matters over the lawsuit, Ninotchka gradually becomes seduced by the west and by Leon, who has broken down her resistance and fallen in love with her. At a dinner date with Leon where she unexpectedly meets her rival for the jewellery and for Leon's affections, Swana face-to-face, she consumes champagne for the first time and quickly becomes intoxicated. The next day, a hungover Ninotchka wakes to find that Swana has procured Rakonin to steal the jewellery. Swana informs Ninotchka that she will return the jewels and drop the litigation if Ninotchka leaves Paris for Moscow immediately so that Swana can have Leon to herself. Ninotchka reluctantly agrees and after completing the sale of the jewellery to Mercier, Ninotchka, Iranoff, Buljanoff and Kopalski fly that evening to Moscow. After Swana informs Leon that Ninotchka has left for Russia, he immediately tries to follow her but is denied a Russian visa, because of his nobility. Sometime later in Moscow, Ninotchka invites her three comrades to her shared apartment for dinner and they nostalgically recall their time in Paris. Ninotchka finally receives a letter from Leon, but it has been completely censored by the authorities, and she is devastated. Time passes. Against her wishes, Ninotchka is sent to Constantinople by Commissar Razinin (Bela Lugosi) to again retrieve Iranoff, Buljanoff and Kopalski after they fail at their mission to sell furs. After she arrives in Constantinople, the three Russians inform Ninotchka that they have opened a restaurant and will not be returning to Moscow. When Ninotchka asks them who was responsible for this idea, they point to the balcony where Leon is standing. He explains that he was barred from entering Russia to win Ninotchka back, so he and the three Russians conspired to get her to leave the country. He asks her to stay with him and she happily agrees. The final shot in the film is of Kopalski carrying a sign protesting Iranoff and Buljanoff are unfair after his name on the electric sign at their restaurant does not illuminate.
The movie was released in late 1939, shortly after the outbreak of World War II in Europe, where it became a great success. It was, however, banned in the Soviet Union and its satellites. Despite that, it went on to make $2,279,000 worldwide.
In a play on the famous "Garbo Talks!" ad campaign used for her "talkie" debut in Anna Christie (1930), Ninotchka was marketed with the catchphrase "Garbo Laughs!", commenting on Garbo's largely somber and melancholy image.
The comedy, through Mr. Douglas's debonair performance and those of Ina Claire as the duchess and Sig Rumann, Felix Bressart and Alexander Grannach as the unholy three emissaries; through Mr. Lubitsch's facile direction; and through the cleverly written script of Walter Reisch, Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, has come off brilliantly. Stalin, we repeat, won't like it; but, unless your tastes hew too closely to the party line, we think you will, immensely.
More recently, in 2008, film critic Dennis Schwartz discussed the humor of Ninotchka:
The sly political jokes include Garbo saying: "The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians" and there are a few well-placed jokes mocking the failed Soviet Five-Year-Plan. The most noteworthy Lubitsch touch scene revolves around a stag feast in a luxury hotel ordered by capitalist Douglas for the three grateful comrade emissaries, who can't believe their good fortune. The film was funny in spots, but I thought it was also crude, lacked the usual Lubitsch subtleties, was not up to speed with the better earlier Lubitsch comedies and that the last half hour really slowed things down with an uninteresting artificial resolution.
In 1955, the musical Silk Stockings opened on Broadway. Written by Cole Porter, the stage production was based on Ninotchka's story and script and starred Hildegard Neff and Don Ameche. MGM then produced a 1957 film version of the musical directed by Rouben Mamoulian and starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Actor George Tobias, who portrayed Commissar Markovitch in Silk Stockings, also appeared in Ninotchka in an uncredited small role as the Russian official who gets punched by Leon for refusing him a visa. The MGM films Comrade X (1940), starring Clark Gable and Hedy Lamarr, and The Iron Petticoat (1956), starring Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn, both borrow heavily from Ninotchka.
Pleased with the success of Ninotchka, MGM quickly decided to team Garbo and Douglas in another romantic comedy. Two-Faced Woman (1941) was the result and Garbo received the worst reviews of her entire career. It turned out to be her final film.
In 1990, Ninotchka was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In 2011, Time also included the film on the magazine's list of "All-Time 100 Movies".
Ninotchka is based on a three-sentence story idea by Melchior Lengyel that made its debut at a poolside conference in 1937, when a suitable comedy vehicle for Garbo was being sought by MGM: "Russian girl saturated with Bolshevist ideals goes to fearful, capitalistic, monopolistic Paris. She meets romance and has an uproarious good time. Capitalism not so bad, after all."