Review: Ninotchka (1939)

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I’m working my way through watching the Academy Award nominees for Best Picture in 1939, and I plan to eventually write a post about my thoughts on that great year of film. Yesterday, however, I watched Ninotchka, and I just can’t wait until then to write about this delightful movie, directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch and starring the iconic Greta Garbo.

The plot begins with three Russians who are tasked with an assignment in Paris – until an official, the tough-as-nails Comrade Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, commonly known as Ninotchka, is sent to check up on their progress.  As Ninotchka explores the capitalist world of Paris, she catches the eyes of Parisian Count Leon d’Algou.

As the stoic Ninotchka, Greta Garbo shines.  This is the first – and so far, only – one of Garbo’s films I’ve seen, and I’m eager to see more. Her comedic and romantic chemistry with Melvyn Douglas’s Leon is charming.  A scene in which Leon tells jokes in order to get Ninotchka to crack a smile is endearingly hilarious.  More importantly, Garbo’s deadpan delivery of her lines – including, “Who am I to cost the Russian people seven cows?” and “Your general appearance is not distasteful” – makes this a performance that has stood the test of time.

Of course, those lines wouldn’t exist without the sharp writing of Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and Walter Reisch.  The exquisite dialogue is at the heart of the brilliance of this comedic film.

But as with all good romantic comedies, Ninotchka is much more than a simple boy-meets-girl story.  Most of the comedy pokes fun at Ninotchka’s rigid beliefs and serves as a criticism of communism.  But look between the lines – and at the hilarious final shot of the film – to see subtle jabs at capitalism as well.  This added layer – atop the already-brilliant comedy and romance – elevates Ninotchka to the level of a true classic.

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