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USA, 1939

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Corp.; black and white, 35mm; running time: 110 minutes. Released 3 November 1939. Rereleased 1947. Filmed 19 May 1939–16 July 1939 in MGM studios.

Producer: Ernst Lubitsch; screenplay: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and Walter Reisch, from the story by Melchior Lengyel; photography: William Daniels; editor: Gene Ruggiero; sound recording director: Douglas Shearer; production designer: Edwin Willis; art director: Cedric Gibbons; music score: Werner R. Heymann; costume designer: Adrian.

Cast: Greta Garbo (Ninotchka); Melvyn Douglas (Count Léon d'Algout); Ina Claire (Grand Duchess Swana); Sig Rumann (Iranoff); Felix Bressart (Buljanoff); Alexander Granach (Kopalski); Bela Lugosi (Commissar Razinin); Gregory Gayle (Count Rakonin); Rolfe Sedan (Hotel Manager); Edwin Maxwell (Mercier); Richard Carle (Gaston).



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* * *

The advertising campaign for Ninotchka is proof of a publicist's faith in the collective amnesia of the American public. "Garbo Laughs" was treated as momentously as was "Garbo Talks," the slogan that announced her first sound film, Anna Christie. The marketing of Ninotchka takes no account of Greta Garbo's frequent laughter, her smile and the lightness of her touch throughout her 1930s films. Just three years before, in Camille, playfulness and humor inflect her doomed "lady of the camellias." Ninotchka is, however, her first comedy. Its principal comic ploy is a paradoxial reflection on Garbo as actress. Here she is made to play, through the first part of the film, a woman who apparently has no emotions. Audiences must read this as they would a scene that suggests that Fred Astaire is clumsy or that John Wayne is a coward. Ninotchka extracts much of its humor from the deadpan expression of an actress whose presence is a sign of deep emotional resonance.

The story of the rigid, businesslike commissar who awakens to luxury and love in Paris is coherent with director Ernst Lubitsch's stylistics. His major films demonstrate the connections between an elegance of decor, elegance of manner, and elegance of the heart. The film's narrative pretext is the sale of jewels; Ninotchka falls in love with an absurd hat just as she falls in love with Léon. Much humor is drawn from the contrast between a lush Parisian hotel and the austere Moscow room Ninotchka shares with a cello player and a streetcar conductor.

As is usually the case in the films of Lubitsch, the comedy reflects back upon the characters. The director uses the comedy of manners to authenticate and dramatize the feelings of the protagonists, and in this, he is at odds with the hard-edged, satirical bent that is characteristic of the writers of Ninotchka, Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch, a mode that becomes particularly apparent when Wilder turns to directing their scripts. The appeal of Ninotchka is in the mix of talents, from Garbo's emotional complexity, to Lubitsch's wry sentiment, to the writer's acerbic wit. The range of the performances includes the broadness of the three bumbling commissars and the drawing-room bitchery of the Grand Duchess Swana (to which Ina Claire brings her distinctively brittle sophistication). Melvyn Douglas provides the pratfall that inspires Garbo's celebrated laugh, and the warm charm that inspires her love.

Very successful at its release, it seemed to promise a new direction in Garbo's faltering career. Her next and final film, Two Faced Woman, also co-starring Melvyn Douglas, proved that considerable comic talents also require a comic script. But Ninotchka was reborn, first as a Cole Porter's Broadway musical, Silk Stockings, with film stars Hildegarde Knef and Don Ameche, and then as a musical film with Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire.

—Charles Affron