As the old movie posters said for the movie, “Greta Garbo laughs!” in the classic 1939 comedy Ninotchka, also starring Melvyn Douglas.
Three Russian commissars (Sig Rumann, Felix Bressart and Alexander Granach) come to Paris with the intention of selling jewelry that had once belonged to the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire). However, Swana is living in Paris, and she learns about the jewels through a former Russian nobleman working at the hotel the commissars are staying at. She sends her lover, Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), to delay the sale of the jewelry in the hope that she can reclaim it. Leon helps introduce the commissars to some of the pleasures of Paris and capitalism, but special envoy Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, or Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) is sent to take over the case. Leon accidentally meets her on the street, and is instantly smitten (although at first neither realizes who the other is). Once she overhears his telephone call with one of the commissars, they realize who they are with. Leon still likes her, and keeps trying to go out with her, which becomes easier after he is able to make her laugh and loosen up. Swana sees all this going on, and jealously takes advantage of Ninotchka when Ninotchka comes back to her hotel room drunk and leaves the safe containing the jewels open. Swana agrees to relinquish her rights to the jewelry if Ninotchka would immediately return to Russia, which she reluctantly agrees to do.
Going into production for Ninotchka, Greta Garbo was trying to shift gears in her career, as she was mainly known for doing a lot of tragic romantic dramas (and was coming off a rare box-office failure with the 1937 film Conquest). The tagline “Garbo laughs!” was apparently the big idea going into the movie, even before the screenplay itself was written! While she was unsure about trying to do a comedy, it resonated with audiences and with critics, resulting in her fourth Oscar nomination and allowing her a new potential career path. Sadly, it was short-lived, as her next film, Two-Faced Woman from 1941, failed. For a variety of reasons, that film’s failure was enough to convince her to retire from the movies.
For me, this movie is the only Greta Garbo movie I have seen at this time. I enjoyed it very much! The comedy worked very well for her and the rest of the cast as well! It’s fun seeing Sig Rumann again (since I mainly know him from some of the Marx Brothers films), along with George Tobias (best known as Abner Kravitz from Bewitched). It’s slightly disappointing to see how little Bela Lugosi is in the movie, considering he was billed fourth, but only really makes a relatively short appearance near the end of the movie. Still, it’s a nice, fun movie, and one I would quite heartily recommend!
The movie is available from Warner Home Video on Blu-ray, both individually and as part of the 5-film Golden Year Collection, and on DVD from Warner Archive Collection.
Film Length: 1 hour, 51 minutes
My Rating: 9/10
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