If you’re looking for a movie wherein the icy heart of Communism is melted by the power of whimsical romance, you won’t find one better than Ernst Lubitsch’s “Ninotchka.”
OK, so maybe there aren’t many movies that do that, but you shouldn’t discount Lubitsch’s delightful romantic comedy starring Greta Garbo (in her fourth and final performance to garner an Oscar nomination) and Melvyn Douglas.
Set during the height of communist rule in Russia, three Russians are sent to Paris to sell jewelry confiscated from aristocracy during the Russian Revolution in 1917. However, when the trio is beguiled by the charm and hospitality of Count Leon d’Algout (Douglas), acting on behalf of the Russian Grand Duchess Swana, the government sends the stern bureaucrat Ninotchka Yakushova (Garbo) to clean up the mess.
What Ninotchka could never have expected, and what Lenin himself could never have prepared her for, is that her prickly, icy exterior would crack and melt thanks to the charm and persistence of Leon. It’s hard to imagine precisely what it is Leon sees in the plain, indifferent visage of Ninotchka, but he’s taken by her directness nonetheless.
It’s a light, fluffy jaunt of a romantic comedy. There aren’t many lines or segments that really stick out in the aftermath, but thankfully the same can’t be said of Garbo’s performance. She’s clearly having fun here, even when Ninotchka is at her most stubborn and stern. The script (co-written by Billy Wilder no less) rockets the romance between Leon and Ninotchka forward at a breakneck pace as these movies tend to do. All it takes is a single kiss to make this steely apparatchik putty in Leon’s hands.
And yet, for once, I kind of didn’t mind things moving forward at light speed. It’s not a stylized comedy (which generally makes it at least passable for people to fall madly in love at first glance), but it’s certainly affable enough and never really takes itself seriously enough for this detail to matter.
And I suppose that’s part of what is meant when The Lubitsch Touch is referenced. There’s a certain deftness of skill displayed both here and in “Trouble in Paradise,” a lightness and sense character that would likely come off as shallow and trite and are instead used to deliver characters and a tone that are endearing. Lubitsch’s work here is the kind of stuff that most directors of romantic comedies could only dream of. “Ninotchka” is a light affair but its heart is in the right place, plus it’s a fun little kick in the pants to communism. What more could you want?
Next week, I’ll continue my look at the works of Lubitsch with a review of “The Shop Around the Corner” starring Jimmy Stewart, followed by “To Be or Not to Be” and “Heaven Can Wait.”
Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in “Catching Up On…” an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.