The plot has been remade, rehashed, reworked and regurgitated, but only Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka proves ever so superbly that there’s isn’t a conflict of political ideologies that can’t be reconciled with the help of a little French champagne and Parisian couture.
And on March 11th, she turned 70.
The plot in a nutshell involves a trio of Russians who arrive in Paris to sell off some hot jewelry and are deftly thwarted by a smooth talking Count (Melvyn Douglas) intent on intercepting the contraband at the behest of the Russian Grand Duchess. He intoxicates them with the fleshly delights of the City of Lights and sent in to straighten out the wayward threesome and save the mission is their no-nonsense comrade and commissar Ninotchka (Greta Garbo). The count falls in love with Ninotchka whose Soviet ice thaws for love of the romantic Count … and Parisian millinery. Ninotchka may be a political film in every way, and yet more than the obvious Communism vs Capitalism nature of the plot, it is a Lubitsch film first and foremost. Whether or not it is Lubtistch’s best comedy is up for (rather vocal) discussion (To Be or Not to Be remains my personal favorite) but Andrew Sarris said of Ninotchka that ‘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 décor, elegance of manner, and elegance of heart.”
The film’s tagline ‘Garbo Laughs’ is legendary but a wise man once said that an even more appropriate tagline would have been ‘Garbo Acts!’ I quite agree. We willingly share in the misery of Garbo’s Marguerite and Grusinskaya and Anna Karenina—but when Melvyn Douglas falls flat on his ass, we fall into laughter right alongside Ninotchka … and fall in love with Garbo.