Greta Garbo as a communist in a comedy, who would of thunk it?
Screenplay By: Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch & Billy Wilder
Directed By: Ernst Lubitsch
I am not as immersed in Greta Garbo lore as others are, but I know enough about her and have seen enough of her previous work to understand how much of a departure from the norm Ninotchka was for her. It was a comedy, that’s all that was needed for the departure, because previous to Ninotchka Garbo was mainly in dramatic films. At least all I have seen her in are dramatic films, so if I’m wrong feel free to clue me in. You can see that she isn’t a standard comedic actress in the way she moves and handles herself. Maybe it was the communist role, but Garbo plays very straight, even in the moments when she is letting loose she avoids that swagger or tone that you see out of most comedic actresses. Her straight awkwardness in the role creates some truly great timing and allows you to believe the sudden shifts her character goes through, because the tiniest of changes is like a Teutonic shift for this woman.
It’s odd to think that Ninotchka was made in 1939 and takes a belittling look at communism. In 1939 communism wasn’t thought of as it is today, it was considered the devotion of the intelligent. Lubitsch makes communism the butt of the joke and while we can look back today and see how far ahead of the times Lubitsch was, it’s still intriguing to watch a movie from this time period skewer communism.
The first two-thirds of Ninotchka creates a funny, smart setting. The characters are engaging, watching Garbo’s communist slowly open up is fun, the movie moves at an interesting pace and creates comedy out of situations I wouldn’t normally think of as funny. Garbo going into the ladies bathroom and trying to organize a strike amongst the bathroom attendants is the prime example of comedy in unexpected places. Ninotchka does come off the rails in its last act, I felt the movie came to a complete stop as soon as Garbo was back in Russia. Sometimes movies successfully stave off the ending we all know is coming through suspense or other measures while other times the film is dragged out in a futile attempt to put off that ending. The end of Ninotchka falls into the latter category, most of the fun and comedy vanishes in the final act, and in those scenes you can tell that the movie is being puffed out just to try and hold off on the ending for a little bit longer.
Ninotchka is a charming and funny tale with its only real fault being its inability to get to the ending and feeling like a drag at the end as a result. Greta Garbo is superb, as are Melvyn Douglas and the three Russians I didn’t even mention. Ninotchka was fun to watch and a movie I would definitely recommend to others, unless you happen to be a communist, then you might want to avoid Ninotchka.