Ninotchka (1939)

Though romantic comedies have largely fallen out of respect in mainstream cinema today, there was a time—as has been proved repeatedly throughout the Romantic Comedy Blogathon—when romantic comedies were popular with both critics and audiences. Ninotchka is a fantastic example of these converging interests, as Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas make one of cinema’s most classic and celebrated pairings, and the film itself was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in that most storied year of 1939.

Ninotchka-mapNinotchka (Garbo) is a no-nonsense Russian envoy sent to supervise the sale of some jewels after her three bumbling male comrades get a little too caught up in the pleasures of Paris to close the deal. The previous owner of the jewels, Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), has attempted legal action to forbid the sale, using playboy Leon (Douglas) as her representative in the matter. Ninotchka and Leon meet (meet-cute in fact) and, as opposites will do, become smitten before realizing that their differences span more than just personality and nationality, and veer into the legal conflict of interest. Regardless, we see that they complement each other, and become better versions of themselves when they are together: Ninotchka reins in Leon’s rakish ways, while Leon begins to melt Ninotchka’s icy exterior, drawing them both in towards a more happy medium. In classic romantic comedy style, of course, they must defend their relationship from a series of misunderstandings and supposed dalliances, but in the end, we learn that it takes more than bureaucracy, mileage, and lawsuits to take down true love.

Douglas-NinotchkaNinotchka plays well within the confines of the romantic comedy as we understand them today, but it also pushes boundaries we commonly accept as set in stone, even 75 years later. While today’s rom-com heroines tend to be on the clumsy, hopeful romantic side, Ninotchka is a stern, serious character, initially intent on doing her job—almost to the potential detriment of their love story. In the middle of their meet-cute, she classically deadpans: “Must you flirt?” Ninotchka is especially charming as a romantic comedy lead because she doesn’t start out the movie looking for love, or really, harboring even the slightest of romantic notions. She has to be convinced. The film too, delays the love story in a way that somewhat masks the eventual importance of Ninotchka and Leon’s relationship; we spend quite a bit of time with the silly exploits of the three Russian envoys and the legal proceedings before we even meet Ninotchka. Maybe that’s what makes Nintochka feel so universal; in real life, love doesn’t usually come when you’re expecting it, but rather offers itself in more inconvenient situations.

Ninotchka is also everlasting because, ironically, it’s so completely of its time—and almost problematically so, as World War 2 broke out before the film’s release, thus potentially negating much of the humor and plot points. The filmmakers quickly added a title card emphasizing that this was set in the not-so-distant prewar period—”when a siren was a brunette and not an alarm”—to avoid the outdated effect, but it’s in this unique setting that a modern audience can find inherent historical value. Humor is such an important way of experiencing the world—seeing what about their world was funny to folks at the time—and the political humor in Ninotchka is a fascinating lesson in history. Alongside The Great Dictator, which came out the following year, it’s hard to imagine any other period being able to reveal a man’s mistaken identity by using a “Heil Hitler!” punchline. And while that’s a bit startling for a modern viewer, it also immediately signals a very specific context, and a unique setting—perhaps more so than a title card telling us the date and the city.

Ninotchka-garboI hesitate to say that Ninotchka is more than a romantic comedy, because though it does involve political, historical, and dramatic elements, that would also be admitting that “romantic comedy” is something of a dirty word. Somewhere along the way, the romantic comedy got shoved into the “chick flick” ghetto, as though men don’t enjoy falling in love/laughing, or as though movies intended for a primarily female audience are worth less. Ninotchka, and pretty much all of the entries we’ve seen discussed as part of the Romantic Comedy Blogathon, prove that the genre really is universally enjoyable, and that any attempts of division are the false results of modern movie marketing. It’s a shame… but at least we have movies like these to provide laughs, swoons, and comfort no matter what.

This entry is a part of the Romantic Comedy Blogathon, hosted by Backlots and Carole and Co. Previous entries can be found here, here, and here! Thanks, you two!

11 Comments

  • “Ninotchka” has a perfect script that doesn’t talk down to the audience, and although it may not be what is uppermost in our minds as we watch Ninotchka and Leon, it is most definitely part of its lasting appeal. A perfect example of how fine a romantic comedy can be.

    • Yes, it’s kind of a “challenging” romantic comedy—definitely doesn’t spoon feed you the story. Especially watching it 75 years later, trying to remember what all the various countries’ political structures, etc., were at this moment… :)

  • What an insightful review. So many favorite comments here: “in the end, we learn that it takes more than bureaucracy, mileage, and lawsuits to take down true love.” Or this: “Somewhere along the way, the romantic comedy got shoved into the “chick flick” ghetto, as though men don’t enjoy falling in love/laughing, or as though movies intended for a primarily female audience are worth less.” It’s true of novels too. Jane Austen would get belittled for not writing about “big” issues. As if everyday life isn’t as big as it comes…Leah

    • Yes! The smaller stories always seem to get pushed aside for the big ones… even if giant fighting robots aren’t really more relevant to most of our lives :)

  • […] If Douglas was an ersatz Powell in that film, he got an opportunity to fill in for the ailing Bill — opposite Greta Garbo and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, no less! — in the 1939 classic “Ninotchka.” Learn more about it from The Vintage Cameo: http://www.thevintagecameo.com/2014/05/ninotchka-1939/. […]

  • Danny says:

    Excellently written! I agree that all too often people are happy to demonize romantic comedies. They make an easy target in an era where the big, loud, and crass are overvalued.

    Anyway, I love Ninotchka to death, and it’s pretty much the only Garbo movie I’ve ever felt that way about. And that hat is to die for!

  • Great review! Love your point about how different Ninotchka is from other romantic comedy heroines. She’s a far cry from the madcap heiress or fast-talking screwball dame! As you pointed out, it’s one of the rare films that often leaves the “romance” plot for other concerns. I enjoy the three Russians and their exploits, but it’s always fun to come back to Garbo! I like the musical re-make of this film, Silk Stockings, too, with Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire, but there’s something almost other-wordly and charming about the original! Maybe it is the unique timing and world events that you mention! Thanks for a fun read!

    • Emily says:

      You know, not only have I not seen Silk Stockings… I didn’t even realize it was related to this one ’til I started doing my research for this post! Definitely getting moved up the queue :)

  • Le says:

    You’re right: too bad romantic comedies are not as refined as they used to be. I love Ninotchcka because it introducd me to Garbo, who became a personal favorite. Even her three comrades are very funny! And what about the small participation by Bela Lugosi?
    I wonder how it was for Garbo to work with Ina Claire, who married John Gilbert after garbo left him…
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Kisses!
    Le
    http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com.br/2014/05/adoravel-vagabundo-meet-john-doe-1941.html

  • girlsdofilm says:

    Love your review. Garbo and Douglas and a wonderful pairing, and I’m glad Lubitsch had the confidence to make a romantic comedy using a lead that wasn’t looking for love. This is certainly one of his best films, combined with Brackett & Wilder’s screenplay it had all the ingredients for success.

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