Fall in Love with Greta Garbo in Ninotchka

Greta Garbo in Ninotchka

Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:

Ninotchka (1939)

1939 is celebrated as one of the greatest single years of cinematic achievement in the history of the art. That year, Gone With the Wind won for Best Picture up against eight other contenders – Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, and Stagecoach just to name a few. So many of the films of that year became icons, masterpieces that are still widely known, still contributing to the social consciousness and reaching new audiences. In honor of that Golden Era, I wanted to spotlight perhaps the least known Best Picture nominee of that year – Ninotchka.

Looking back, it’s easy to understand why Ninotchka had no chance of beating Gone With the Wind and why it had little chance against the plethora of genius works that year, but in its own right, it’s a hilarious film that still holds up years later. Why it isn’t more well known is a mystery left up to future sociologists to solve, but even if it isn’t on cable television every Sunday like The Wizard of Oz, it certainly deserves to be.

MGM was looking for a way to appeal to European audiences. Their concept was to take Greta Garbo – who was loved in the states and abroad – and place her in a studio comedy. Garbo had done the impossible by crossing over from silent films into talkies and had gained a stoic reputation as a master at her craft, a demanding diva, and a serious dramatic star. To place her in a comedy recast her in a new light for movie-goers, and the decision’s gravity is evident in the tagline for the film: “Garbo Laughs!” Obviously, the gorgeous vixen was selling point enough for any ad campaign, and the concept of her laughing on screen was rare enough to be powerful.

In the title role, Garbo plays a Russian envoy who’s task is to force three Russian delegates in France to go through with a jewelry sale and head back to Russia. Her icy demeanor is melted by the decadence of Western culture and Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas). What follows is a love story and political commentary that creates the archetype for opposites attracting in romantic comedies.

Besides a great pairing between Garbo’s Russian ice queen Nina and Douglas’s devil-may-care Count, a great amount of comedy comes from the exploits of the three Russian delegates – Iranoff (Sig Rugman), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart) and Kopalski (Alexander Granach). While the Count is wooing Nina by falling over chairs – hence the laughter – this trio is involved in enough slapstick to keep the childish side of you happy while their engrossment in the riches of Western civilization is enough to keep your adult, geo-politically interested side engaged. After all, this was a film released during WWII that was specifically targeted to a European market. MGM happened to strike gold by getting a strong response over there and across the pond. The film, critical of Stalin’s Soviet governmental style was banned in the USSR but was regarded as a smash hit almost everywhere else.

It was such a hit, in fact, that it was nominated for Best Picture in that crowded field, Garbo was nominated for Best Actress, Best Original Story Writing and Best Screenplay. Unfortunately, with so much talent swelling the ceremony that year, Ninotchka was overlooked in every category. It’s a fantastic film that had the terrible luck of being released next to a glut of other fantastic films.

It’s comedy is rooted in classic sentimentality, but the dialog is often hammer and sickle sharp, and a ton of the laughs come from knocking Nina’s rigidity off its high horse until she embraces the passion and love of Paris. The successful end result is what happens when you get committed actors – and one of the most notable dramatic actresses of her time – to handle a comedy featuring Billy Wilder’s writing and farce-master Ernst Lubitsch in the director’s chair.

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