1939: the year that gave us Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and Mr Smith Goes to Washington, among a great many others. Oft forgotten and perpetually standing rather neglected in the corner though is Ninotchka, a lively little comedy that not only leaves you grinning like a fool but touches the heart in such a way movies rarely do today.
Critical to the film’s success is the sparkling script, perfectly engineered by Walter Reisch, Charles Brackett and a young Billy Wilder. They venture where no writer would ever imagine with graceful hilarity, and the result is a unique and masterful retelling of a tale told countless times. One can see their creativity early on, when we realise that they have had the effrontery not to introduce the the eponymous Ninotchka until some twenty minutes into the film (which in many a movie world is more like an age).
In her place, they send us instead three stooge-ish gentlemen from the Soviet Union, whom we first meet as they gleefully discover the marvel that is the revolving door. Iranov, Buljanov and Kopalsky have been sent to Paris in order to engender the sale of a jewellery collection once belonging to the ex (and they are very quick to highlight this) Grand Duchess, who incidentally is also living in Paris at this time. The three are intercepted however by Count Léon d’Algout who introduces them to the wonders of capitalism in an attempt to thwart their plans and to recover the jewellery of his companion the Duchess.
The fruits of the Count’s efforts are explained when a shot of three dependable-looking caps dissolves, giving way to another shot of the same hatstand. In their place, we see two bowler hats, and an especially shiny ol’ topper. The three, we realise, have crossed over to the dark side.
The character of Ninotchka by this time is right at the back of our minds, but is promptly propelled forward again when we realise her role in this charming narrative: to completely the transaction – to succeed where her three countrymen have failed completely. It is here that the at first almost puzzling structure plays out beautifully.
The three are perfect foils to the Nina “Ninotchka” Yakushova and represent everything she is not. Yakushova is stern while they are interminably frivolous. She is devoted to her cause and to her communist ideals while they set up in the Royal Suite and hope the guys back home never find out. When played out against those of her comrades, Yakushova’s particular characteristics are highlighted even further.
And her realiser – the great Garbo herself – is truly sublime in bringing the heroine to life. The casting of Greta Garbo, poking fun at her own perennially doleful persona, is what can only be described as a flourish of casting genius. The riotous dead-pan delivery, the brusque manner with which Yakushova attacks every task at hand, the absolute disdain with which she regards Parisian hats and French baguettes – all this is executed with such comedic flair that it is almost tragic to think that Garbo dabbled so little in comedy in her career.
Yet there are also a few moments of melancholy in Ninotchka, and in these we are reminded exactly why Greta Garbo was the premier film tragedian of her day (and arguably every day since). There is a very wonderful scene in which Nina must feign good-spirits in her voice, but her expression, which we can clearly see, reveals her true feelings.
While frumpy, grumpy Miss Yakushova is indeed a lot of fun to watch, and the unhappy Nina can break your heart without a word, neither are nearly as lovely as Ninotchka, the young lady who begins to blossom as she succumbs to the whimsical charms of Paris, and in particular, the whimsical charms of a mysterious man. He is, of course, Count Léon d’Algout, the very enemy she has been sent to fight.
It is a pleasure to watch this unlikely pair fall slowly and so hopelessly in love. Under the light and remarkably stylish hand of Ernst Lubitsch, such a picture is painted of what falling in love really ought to be like; it is a vibrant transformation, when two people become not only boundlessly happy but also come to be the very best versions of themselves. For the overtly languid Leon, this is seen in something as simple as him making his bed for the first time in God knows how long. For Ninotchka, the special envoy who once barely knew how to crack a smile, it is a girlish jovialiality that positively shines from her.
With the cinema of the 21st century largely plummeting into a sea of cynicism and frankly, almost painful self-awareness, the simple romance at the heart of Ninotchka seems a relict from a time long-gone. Its theme though, that love can overcome any boundary – whether it be ideological, political or cultural – is one that I am sure still resonates today.