Op-Ed: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions – ‘Ninotchka’ (#40)
When Ninotchka was released in 1939, it represented a step in the right direction for Greta Garbo, who could easily claim to be the world’s least versatile actress. She played a haughty aristocrat who denied herself pleasure in everything from Queen Christina (1933) to Conquest (1937), and won the hearts of teenage girls who had been taught that the ideal woman was a martyr. Garbo gave these girls the opportunity to experience the thrill of adultery and explicit sex, while also making them feel noble and virtuous. All of her characters would flirt with the idea of sleeping with a younger man or a political leader from another country but they would always choose to give up their own happiness in order to satisfy the desires of the people around them. All sorts of contrived plot devices would be used to put Garbo in a position where she just had to reject the advances of her lover and end up dying of tuberculosis. She was so saintly that she didn’t make attempts to fight back against the strictures of a conservative, highly puritanical society or, I don’t know, seek out a doctor who could treat her tuberculosis. She would sneer down at the little people who surrounded her and, by extension, the audience. 1930s audiences ate up this imperious hauteur and the idea of the good, suffering woman who doesn’t even make an effort to fight for what she wants. Unlike Joan Crawford, who played spunkily, street smart career girls who were willing to lie, cheat and steal to get ahead, Garbo played pathetic fallen women who represented the apotheosis of outdated ideas about what women should be. As the 1930s came to a close, she became box office poison and it was clear that she would need to make a big splash if she was going to continue her reign as Queen of Hollywood. Nobody expected her to appear in a comedy and audiences were shocked when they learned that they were going to hear Garbo laugh.
Ninotchka allowed Garbo to satirize her persona as a stoic, self-sacrificing European who looked down on the plebs who admired her. She plays Ninotchka, a phlegmatic Soviet agent who is sent to pre-war Paris to confiscate Soviet-owned jewels from Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire). Her mission is complicated by the fact that Swana’s lover, Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), has managed to set up a lawsuit that prevents the jewels from being sold. He is able to win over Ninotchka’s colleagues, but he struggles to get through to her and finds himself falling in love with her. When she begins to return these feelings of love, she grows concerned about the fact that she has been corrupted by the shallow, materialistic Parisian lifestyle that d’Algout leads. Her commitment to her mission wavers and she begins to consider giving everything up for the man she loves.
The plot does force Garbo to play yet another damsel in distress who looks towards men for guidance but she’s far more independent and self sufficient in this film. Even when she falls for d’Algout, she retains aspects of her serious, detail oriented personality. There’s also something to be said for the fact that Garbo and Douglas just have that spark that so many other screen pairings lack. To watch Garbo delighting in her ability to mock Douglas is to see her finally come out of her shell. Douglas possessed the ability to make flirting look effortless and, as always, he does help to elevate the performance of his co-star, but he remains aware of the fact that this is Garbo’s show and he is there to serve as her accompanist. She is given the responsibility of carrying almost every scene on her shoulders and she carries all that weight with ease. The blend between her usual screen persona and the comical twists that the screenplay introduces are seamless. You never doubt for a second that Garbo is a seasoned professional when it comes to working in this genre and that might be the highest praise that you could offer to a performer who rarely stepped outside of her comfort zone.
A considerable amount of credit must also go to Ernst Lubitsch, who specialized in making this sort of classy romantic comedy. He always had a way of sneaking an air of carefree sexuality into films that could have seemed stuffy and uptight. You don’t see any lovemaking on-screen but Lubitsch makes it easy to fill in the gaps and assume that the main characters have sex in between every scene. Far from being vulgar, this implication provides films like Ninotchka with the touch of sophistication that made them seem ahead of their time. Everybody is able to enjoy sex and their lack of guilt over their carnal desires is liberating. This anarchic spirit powers Ninotchka and it ends up feeling far more radical than your average anti-Communist romantic comedy about a Swedish/Russian special envoy with a soft spot for French playboys.
This is one of those times when you have to praise AFI voters for making an obvious choice and choosing a widely beloved classic. Ninotchka continues to enchant viewers all over the world and it hasn’t lost any of its charm in the past 82 years.