It’s easy to see why Ninotchka works as well as it does, and why it’s one of the best films from Hollywood’s golden age and of arguably Hollywood’s greatest year. Just look at the talent involved. Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and Walter Reisch were all seasoned writers, though with their best work admittedly still to come. Ernst Lubitsch had directed a number of excellent silent films in Germany, had hit the ground running once in Hollywood, making his first American film with no less a star than Mary Pickford (Rosita ), and after a series of charming musical comedies, many with Maurice Chevalier, directed the more sublime and sophisticated comedies for which he now best known, films like Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Design for Living (1933). While this was happening, Greta Garbo was working her way through Swedish cinema under the tutelage of director Mauritz Stiller. Her first American feature, Torrent (1926), was followed by a variety of films, each garnering her a steady degree of admiration that would culminate with Anna Christie (1930), her first sound film and one of two films that year for which she would be nominated for her first Academy Awards (the other was Romance). And then there’s Melvyn Douglas, who had by this point more than 30 films to his credit…and he had only just started acting eight years prior. In his future lay Emmy, Tony, Golden Globe, and Oscar wins. Suffice it to say, Ninotchka had a lot going for it.
Just as Anna Christie was sold as the film where Garbo, the enigmatic Scandinavian beauty, finally talked, and bearing in mind the generally somber pictures she seemed to be drawn to, it was brilliantly decided to market Ninotchka as not the film where Garbo talks, but the film where she finally laughs. Apparently, even the idea of the film was built from this very promotion. Of course, there were several Garbo films prior to this that had their fair share of comedy (certainly Queen Christina  is amusing for much of its duration), but the gimmick was effective and worked well to not only tout Garbo the performer, but to also mirror the narrative of Ninotchka itself.
The romantic comedy of Ninotchka somewhat overshadows its driving narrative, which though significant in terms of subject matter and though a vital catalyst for said romantic comedy, becomes nevertheless secondary. But to get everything rolling, three hapless Russians arrive in Paris to sell the jewels of an ousted grand duchess. These men are comrades Iranoff (Sig Ruman), Kopalski (Alexander Granach), and Buljanoff (Felix Bressart, looking reminiscent of Marx, but more Groucho than Karl). The Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire) learns that her jewels are in town and so sends her lover, the slick Count Leon d’Algout (Douglas), to distract the Russians just long enough to take legal action and reclaim pre-revolutionary ownership of the property. After the prolonged delay becomes more than those in Mother Russia can allow, a stern envoy, Nina “Ninotchka” Ivanovna Yakushova (Garbo), is sent to get the arrangement back on track. At first unaware that they are on ostensibly opposing sides, Leon and Ninotchka fall in love and are soon left with conflicts of personal passion and professional duty.
Everyone involved—from Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski to Ninotchka and Leon—enters with a job to do; there is a scheme to hatch, an order to follow, a responsibility to uphold. “We’re here to work, all of us,” states Ninotchka at the start (that’s what she thinks). Something inevitably gets in the way of the best-laid plans, namely, love, which thwarts the goals of all. The relationship between Ninotchka and Leon takes a little effort by the charismatic count, who is equipped with an arsenal of romantic repartee, but he is as smooth as smooth can be and is able to sweet talk his way into anything, with anybody. Ninotchka, on the other hand, could use some work in the romance department, going from saying Leon might be an interesting object of study, to concluding that his “general appearance is not distasteful,” to admiring his corneas. This comically strained courtship is fantastic under Lubitsch’s direction. He was a master at sly, subtle sexual tension, but things are even better when both parties aren’t entirely enthusiastic, at least not at first. So often in his films, there is something of a mutual flirtatiousness between the male and female leads, even if the odds are against them for one reason or another. Here, it’s entirely one-sided in the beginning, and the comedy is inherent in her resolute reluctance and his natural, perpetual flirtatiousness.
While Ninotchka is on the straight and narrow at the start of the film, Leon is perfectly happy to have as much fun as possible, whenever possible, as are his three newfound associates; that is, once they’re under his influence. They’re never quite besotted by overpowering communist devotion, making with little effort excuses to stay in the royal suite of a luxurious hotel, for instance. Less apt to change, or so it would seem, is Ninotchka, who is steadfast in her determination and her ideology.
Douglas appears throughout Ninotchka as the one making most of the jokes, or at least the one looking like he’s constantly in on a joke. Garbo, however, plays the early sequences with such an exaggerated deadpan seriousness that her blank, emotionless expression becomes an essential part of the evolving humor. It’s a comedy of embellished contrast, and so once the façade is broken, it’s a welcome and hilarious release for the characters and the audience. What does it, what gets Ninotchka to give Leon a chance and to finally laugh, is ironically not the jokes that Leon tells—that is, it’s not the verbal comedy, which is what predominantly makes Ninotchka such a funny movie—rather, it’s a basic display of physical slapstick, the primitive, not at all sophisticated sight of someone falling down and looking like a fool.
If the political comedy of Ninotchka plays a secondary role to its more romantic moments, one still can’t deny the existence of this more prescient humor. The amusing scrawl at the start of the film alludes to Ninotchka’s pre- and post-war placement: “This picture takes place in Paris in those wonderful days when a siren was a brunette and not an alarm – and if a Frenchman turned out the light it was not on account of an air raid!” Released in America just after the start of World War II, but two years before US involvement, therefore in between the conflicts as far as Hollywood was concerned, Lubitsch, Wilder, et al had some relative leniency in terms of what they could get away with. Ninotchka is therefore a film equal parts romantic comedy, on the surface, and biting political satire, at its core.
In this, Ninotchka is quite unexpected in its audaciousness (though perhaps it shouldn’t be all that surprising when one considers those controversially provocative figures behind the film). What strikes one most now, looking at the picture with decades worth of retrospect, are the conflict related jokes, as when Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski conclude that a man looks like a comrade, only to see him greet a woman with a hearty Heil Hitler! Or when, not long after, Ninotchka delivers one of the best lines in the film as she reflects on the recently successful mass trials, which have resulted in “fewer but better Russians.” We’re somewhat stunned: 1) by the fact that someone back then dared make jokes about such things, and 2) that we’re still laughing at them today.
Without downplaying or debating the actual calamities one associates with capitalism or communism, Ninotchka does manage to poke some fun at the defining foibles of each social system. True, communism undeniably bares the brunt of the jokes, with quips that ridicule the rigors of such an organization, as well as its apparently apathetic, oppressive, and bland mindset embodied by the initial Ninotchka, but there are more than a few laughs to be had at the expense of capitalist frivolity. The primary difference between the two, as is personified by the Leon/Ninotchka disparity at the start of the picture, is that while one group of individuals may have the high-minded ideals, one group seems to be having more fun. Melchior Lengyel, who came up with the original story of the film, summarizes the picture like this: “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.”
As much as the dialogue in Ninotchka is unmistakably the work of the like-minded collaborators Brackett and Wilder—probably less so the Vienna-born Reisch—so too are many of the visual touches clear signifiers of the cinema of Ernst Lubitsch (who also contributed, uncredited, to the screenplay). From the sequence with the cute cigarette girls entering the room of Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski to incrementally more boisterous approval, humorously and teasingly shot from the hallway, to the subtle transition of ragged and worn caps dissolving into top hats and bowlers, Lubitsch enjoys the steady breakdown of supposedly stalwart standards in the face of sex, class transition, and basic pleasure. Ninotchka is also a perfect example of why Hollywood endings are still so satisfying, as cliché as they may sometimes seem in our jaded age. We know with a general certainty that Ninotchka and Leon will end up together; for a classic romantic comedy like this, it’s a rule with few exceptions. So in knowing this, we’re content to play the game, to go along for the ride, remaining happily confident and comfortable in the conventional.
At the 1940 Academy Awards, Ninotchka received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Writing, Original Story, and Best Writing, Screenplay. Of course, the big winner that year was Gone with the Wind (on which, interestingly enough, Ninotchka’s original director, George Cukor, briefly worked, before being replaced by Victor Fleming, who would win Best Director). In any event, Ninotchka was a widely enjoyed success. Not at all surprisingly though, one place where the film did not go over well was in the Soviet Union, where it was promptly banned.
While all the above may contribute to the quality and enjoyment of Ninotchka, for many, the film is all about Greta Garbo. One of the best and most accurate quotes about a movie star, and movie star allure in general, is Kenneth Tynan’s 1954 comment that, “What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober.” The essence of Greta Garbo’s screen presence is truly something magical: a mysterious, unidentifiable attraction, a breathtaking persona of utter captivation. Garbo was more than just looks though. She was a great performer with a powerful command of every frame she occupied. Her follow-up to Ninotchka was the 1941 feature, Two-Faced Woman, again with Melvyn Douglas. Though she lived to the ripe old age of 84, passing away April 15, 1990, it would sadly be her final film.