Confessions of a Film Junkie: “Classics” A review of “Ninotchka”
By: Lauren Ennis
Critics often say that the best year in American cinema was 1939. That year Hollywood produced an unusually high number of financial and artistic successes that led to an Oscars ceremony that was nothing short of nail biting. 1939 saw the release of such classics as The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Destry Rides Again, Wuthering Heights, and Gone with the Wind. Several of these films proved to have groundbreaking effects upon the history of American film. One of the less well known classics of 1939 proved to have an even greater effect than its contemporaries, as it went on to influence the business of its producing studio, the career of its leading lady, and even the outcome of an international election. This film is the political satire/romantic comedy Ninotchka.
|Oh, that Greta!|
Ninotchka combines the Hollywood standard ‘boy meets girl’ scenario with a scathing critique of life in the USSR. The film begins with Soviet envoys Buljanoff, Iranoff, and Kopalski arriving in Paris to complete a transaction on behalf of the Soviet government. The transaction involves the legally convoluted sale of several expensive jewels that had been confiscated from Grand Duchess Swana during the Russian Revolution. The three bumblers are dazzled by the beauty and carefree atmosphere of the city, and almost immediately find themselves on the path to capitalism. Their conversion is accelerated by the arrival of French aristocrat/gigolo, Leon D’Algout, who is in the midst of an affair with Swana, and takes it upon himself to bring the sale to the French courts. Although the three Soviets initially resent Leon’s interference, they are soon won over by his charms, and discard their political obligations to indulge in the high life he presents to them. Word quickly reaches Moscow of the men’s incompetence, and the Soviet government dispatches envoy Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, aka Ninotchka. Upon her arrival, Ninotchka is a stern and grim woman whose only concerns are her obligations to the Soviet Union. After a chance meeting with Leon, however, Ninotchka also finds herself becoming susceptible to the charms of Paris. After much politically tinged verbal fencing, Ninothcka and Leon begin a relationship and learn that there more to life than high society’s mindless parties and communism’s brotherly love.
|Looks like someone just saw "Office Space" for the 1st time|
In many ways, Ninotchka was ahead of its time. Although several films in 1939 explored both contemporary and historical politics, the makers of Ninotchka took their film a step further by not only incorporating criticism of a foreign nation into its script, but basing the film’s entire premise upon that criticism. By the time the United States entered World War II in 1941, the USSR became one of the United States’ most important allies, and such criticism would become strictly forbidden in American cinema until the start of the Cold War. Although the Soviet Union was still an ally of Nazi Germany’s (as of the 1939 Soviet Non-Agression Pact), many in the United States were sympathetic to the Soviet cause, particularly artists. Throughout the 1930’s, various high profile actors, writers, and film makers offered their financial and public endorsements to the Soviet Union, which they believed really was the ‘workers’ paradise’ that its propaganda claimed it to be.
|Those Commie B@stahd's!|
The MGM team behind Ninotchka defied popular trends by successfully revealing and criticizing the reality of Stalin’s Russia through a combination of screwball antics and dead pan humor. The film includes a virtually nonstop series of anti-communist ‘one liners’ including “Comrade, I’ve been fascinated by your five-year plan for the last fifteen years!” and “the last mass trials were a great success; there will be fewer but better Russians”. Through its exceptional writing and delivery, the film manages to inform viewers of such weighty issues as Stalin’s purges and the instability of Soviet economics without once breaking its rapid pace or losing its sense of humor. This use of satire ultimately led to the film being banned in the Soviet Union and its satellite states. In an interesting turn of events, the United States government later used the film as a propaganda device in the Italian elections of 1947 to 1948. In order to combat the spread of communism to formerly fascist Italy, U. S. covert operations embarked upon a sophisticated propaganda campaign, which included repeated showings of Ninotchka. After the election was won by the Christian Democrat Party, one communist worker reportedly lamented “what licked us was Ninotchka”.
|"Michelle Bachman is running for President? Pfffft XD"|
Although the inclusion of political humor was clearly a risky decision, the greatest risk that MGM took in making Ninotchka may have been its choice to cast Greta Garbo as its leading lady. From the mid 1920’s to the mid 1930’s, Garbo was the undisputed queen of MGM, and a consistent box-office draw. By 1939, however, her career began to lag following the commercial failure of her historical romance Conquest two years earlier. After being typecast first as a ‘femme fatale’ in her silent years and later as a tragic ‘fallen woman’ after the advent of talkies, she began to wear on audiences who were tired of seeing her in what was essentially a series of variations on the same character. In a surprise decision, MGM determined that the problem was not Garbo, but the parts that she was repeatedly cast in. In order to capitalize upon her maiden voyage into comedy, the studio recycled her old tag line from her first talking picture (Anna Christie), “Garbo Talks!” and changed it to “Garbo Laughs!”. The change of pace was a success for Garbo and earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Unfortunately, the success of Ninotchka was not able to completely revive her career, and she retired from acting after the commercial failure of her romantic comedy Two Faced Woman two years later.
Although it is often eclipsed by its more renowned contemporaries, Ninotchka truly was a classic in 1939 and remains so today. The film daringly combined politics and humor in a time when international relations were often precarious at best, paving the way for political satire in Hollywood. This film also allowed audiences a glimpse of Greta Garbo’s acting range and comedic talents, causing many audience members to lament ‘what might have been’. Through its combination of dry wit and unabashed romanticism Ninotchka provides its audiences with a brief escape into a Parisian fantasy, while simultaneously reminding them of the possibilities of a well-executed romantic comedy. To quote the film’s poster, don’t pronounce it, watch it; you won’t be disappointed.