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Ninotchka (1939) starring Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire, Bela Lugosi, Sig Ruman

Synopsis of Ninotchka

In Ninotchka, Greta Garbo bursts into a rare bit of onscreen laughter during her portrayal of a cold-hearted Soviet agent who is warmed up by a trip to Paris and a night of love.

Editorial review of Ninotchka courtesy of Amazon.com

Ah, those fun-loving Communists! In Ninotchka three Soviets make their way to Paris to sell off imperial jewels to raise money to buy tractors for the USSR. When Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), former owner of the jewels, discovers what’s happening, she deploys her lover Leon (Melvyn Douglas) to recover her gems. He starts a court proceeding while seducing the three bumbling Soviets with the luxuries of capitalistic life. The delay of the sale is noticed in Moscow, and Comrade Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) is dispatched to Paris to settle the matter.

Soon after arrival, she meets Leon, who is charmed by her severe, uptight manner and her stunning beauty (“I love Russians! Comrade, I’ve been fascinated by your five-year plan for the last 15 years”), and he sets about wooing her, despite her disbelief in love (it’s merely a “chemical reaction,” she dourly informs him). Romance, jealousy, and capitalistic frivolity ensue.

When this film was released in 1939, it was advertised as “Garbo laughs,” as it was her first and only comedy. The film, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, is amusing not only for its story line, but also for its dated look at early Communism (Ninotchka keeps a photo of a stern-looking Lenin by her bedside, although she feels uncomfortable doing so in a room that costs 2,000 francs a night, the price of a cow back home). The satirical image of the young Communist fighting against corrupt Western ways seems somewhat idealistic today but nonetheless provided levity during the shaky political times of the film’s release. Viewers may be jarred by the casual “Heil Hitler” greeting of a couple at the train station, but overall this film holds up as one of Lubitsch’s masterpieces and a lighter glimpse of the mysterious Garbo. –Jenny Brown


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