not in our stars, but in ourselves
Oh, comrade. No matter how many times I see Ninotchka (1939), no matter how often I repeat the jokes to myself, no matter how frequently I think of Comrade Yakushova beaming at a portrait of Lenin and urging, “Smile, little father!”, and then the portrait doing just that – I just light up. It’s directed by Ernst Lubitsch – of course. I mean, it’s a perfect movie. Naturally, it’s a Lubitsch. And if you like any of the following – Paris, the 1930s, silly hats, Russians, jokes about Russians, frothy depictions of whites versus reds, star-crossed lovers, omelettes – then I cannot recommend Ninotchka too strongly.
We begin in Paris, at the chichi Clarence Hotel. Three representatives from the Soviet Union, Iranoff (Sig Ruman), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart), and Kopalksi (Alexander Granach), are seduced by capitalism’s splendor and decide to stay there rather than at the modest hotel where Moscow had made them a reservation. Not only do they stay at the Clarence: they stay in the Royal Suite. They’re in Paris to try to sell jewels that, back in the good or bad (depending on if you’re a white or a red) old days of the Czar, belonged to the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire). Trouble is that Swana is in Paris, and one of her friends works at the hotel. He tells her that the jewels are about to be sold to the highest bidder, and she furiously tries to get them back. To that end, she dispatches her lover, Count Léon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), to file an injunction against the sale of the jewels and to work on Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski. Léon could sell water to a fish, such is his charm, and before long he’s converted his three Soviet adversaries to bourgeois allies.
Moscow does not care for these developments. They send a special envoy to set things right again: Comrade Nina Yakushova (Greta Garbo).
She very specifically says that she will do no further dealings with Swana’s representative – but then, of course, they meet and sparks fly and worlds collide and so on. It’s a pretty straight romantic comedy from there, but there’s a lot of political detail to work through to get to that point.
I love it all, though. As a devoted Russophile, I am just plain nuts about Ninotchka. Ninotchka is the heroine, and Lubitsch doesn’t make too much fun of her convictions. And when he does, he at least allows that she genuinely believes in the justice of communism and believes that capitalism is doomed. But he’s obviously much more of a fan of his “doomed old civilization” and how it sparkles – and so am I. And while Swana is the villain of the piece, and obviously used to getting whatever she wants, however many serfs and cossacks and peasants had to suffer for her sake – she does have some glorious jewels. And palaces. And music, and literature, and dance. In short: things that make life worthwhile, if you can’t or don’t have love. The fact that, within the film, Russia is trying to auction off those things in order to ensure that there’s a bare minimum of bread for its sprawling population – well, that’s just one tragedy of many in Russian history.
But it’s not a tragedy. It’s a comedy. And a terrific one at that. As the posters and trailers screamed, Garbo laughs! She guffaws! She giggles! She titters! She even gets sloppily drunk! No more smouldering temptresses: here, she’s a stern former sergeant whose frosty tundra is thawed by Parisian sunshine. It’s a beautiful transformation – possibly Garbo’s best, according to me and maybe no one else – and worth the price of admission itself. Garbo does two things better than anyone else: suffering and adoring. Here, she even manages to branch out: sometimes she’s cute, coy, self-deprecating, wise, and just plain adorable. She’s not just an attractive block of wood here, as she sometimes was with less inspired directors and material. She’s lively and lovely, and I wish she and Lubitsch had made 400 films together.
Sometimes, my rhapsodizing on film is a bit over-the-top, and perhaps a bit unwarranted. But the best part of Nintochka is that I’m not overselling any of its charms. See it now, see it often. You’ll thank me, little father.
P.S. Those of you who know me also know that I am a diehard Fred Astaire fan, and so I eagerly sought out Silk Stockings (1957). Fred and Cyd Charisse and Cole Porter songs and Rouben Mamoulian directing – how could they go wrong? Well, they did. But one scene that absolutely beats the living daylights out of its equivalent scene in Ninotchka is the one where she’s alone in her room, changing into her sexy Parisian duds. That Cyd. When she danced, with you or with anyone else, you stayed danced with.