It is possible that still to this day I would not have seen Ninotchka had it not been for its appearance on one of those lists of the best movies ever made or movies you have to see. I bought it as part of a Greta Garbo box set some time before that list crossed my path, a box set that seven years later still has several untouched DVDs. But I am lucky/glad the circumstances led me where they did because Ninotchka truly is one of the best pictures ever made.
This Best Picture/Writing/Actress-nominated movie will play at noon ET Saturday as part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar. It might not have won in that oh-so-competitive year of 1939, but it has maintained a place in cinema history nevertheless.
The tag line for the Ninotchka promotions was “Garbo laughs” because it was one of the few lighter roles she did in sound. When you start into the movie, however, you will be befuddled by that reference because as this Russian officer Ninotchka, Garbo fails to smile for the front third of the flick. The Swedish star plays the heavy who enters France to find out what is taking three bumbling Russian officials so long in selling some royal jewels. These Iranoff (Sig Rumann), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart), and Kopalski (Alexander Granach) have discovered the wonders of a capitalistic society and all the luxuries it offers and are in no hurry to return home.
Ninotchka will resist the lure of the romantic and decadent city of Paris even when she finds the kisses of Leon, played by Melvyn Douglas, delightful. It is an absurd hat that will turn her, however, and when she breaks down into laughter, we know Mother Russia’s spell has been lifted.
Ninotchka almost seems scandalous in how heavily Garbo’s character pushes the message of the evils of capitalism and the glory of communist Russia. One can forget all that, however, when the leading lady starts living life to our own delight. Garbo is so charming as the naive adult entering such a luscious society, but she also plays the brutally stoic role perfectly. Douglas, meanwhile, could not be more charming. I feel like as an actor he largely failed to make his mark or distinguish himself from the mass of similar leading men, but he really is swoon-worthy here. I find the duo particularly enthralling in a late-night scene in Leon’s apartment after “little father” the butler has been sent home. Garbo’s growling of “again” as a request for another kiss is hilarious, endearing and unexpected all at once.
And if you have never heard of Ninotchka and the title has you bewildered in terms of pronunciation, no worries. By the end of the picture you too will be shouting “Ninotchka, Ninotchka, Ninotchka!” and possibly asking your significant other to “salute”.
It might be worth noting on a down point that Ninotchka was remade into the 1957 musical Silk Stockings with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. My first disappointment with that film is that it did not actually feature the jazz standard “Silk Stockings”. Secondly, it is a tragic disappointment story and performance-wise when compared with its origin movie.