A 1939 masterpiece by the inimitable Ernst Lubitsch, starring Greta Garbo as the eponimous Nina Ivanovna Yakushova (Ninotchka for short) and Melvyn Douglas as her indispensible romantic interest, Count Leon. Among the supporting cast Bela Lugosi is particularly worthy of mention for sheer legend status.
Like any good romantic comedy (and this is one of the best), there are two parts to this movie: the story and the plot. The plot, sketched in rough, is as follows: three rather nincompoopish agents are dispatched by the Bolshevik government to Paris, there to contract the sale of the confiscated jewlerry of some Grand Duchess. Barely off the train, they begin to be seduced by the devious wiles of materialism and quickly make a mess of the proposed transaction. A commissar, chosen carefully on the beasis of her utter devotion to the cause, staunch loyalty to the party and unbending determination in the face of duty, is dispatched post haste to shape them up - the aforementioned Ninotchka thus enters on the scene. At the same time, the Grand Duchess, none to pleased to be parted from her jewels, sends her faithful minion Count Leon to foil said plans by subverting and seducing her into betraying the Motherland. Much hilarity ensues. So far, so normal.
But the story... The story is eternal. Like any old Benedic and Beatrice, Harry and Sally, Elizabeth and Darcy, it is the story of two people who hate each other on sight, who are diametrically opposed to each other in tastes, character and ideology - and who fall truly, madly, deeply in love with each other. Wonnn-derful.
The movie is remarkeable for many things: the sparkling dialogue, the crisp direction, the sensitive camera work, the well timed sense of comedy, the undefinable "Lubitsch Touch" that makes it so wonderfully all-clothes-still-on sexy. But two things I think make it stand out most brightly from the ranks of old black-and-whites for the modern viewer.
The first is the political content of the film. Although it is plainly anti-bolshevik (and the benign forces of capitalism inevitably win), it was made before the red scare penetrated Hollywood, and is thus a unique glimpse into how the USSR was viewed by American intellectuals at the time. Humourless, cheerless, emotionally barren, slightly ridiculous in its earnestness and ultimately doomed to fauilure, yes - but not menacingly evil or insiduously expansionist.
The second is Greta Garbo's laugh. For those of you who are not intimately familiar with her euvre, it is perhaps worth pointing out that Great Garbo never laughed(*). She was the prototypical marble-featured tragic heroine, the calm ice maiden, the untouchable other-worldly goddess of the screen. And when she does finally laugh on screen in this movie, it's as if she is the real Ninotchka - in slow motion one sees years of enforced poise, serious minded self control, peeled off her stunningly gorgeous features, her whole body being lit up from within by a foreign and glowing light. Watching that scene it is possible to believe that the movie was conceived solely as a vehicle for the birth of this new, kinder, deity.
Of course it's not all about the Communism and the cult of Garbo. It's a hilariously funny movie with many great one-liners and delightfully comic sequences. If you only watch one film in black and white this year, let it be Ninotchka.
(*) Just in case you were wondering why, it's because she had bad teeth. 'Strue. Same about Marlene Dietrich.
1939, MGM. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, written by Melchior Lengyel (story), Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch.
Cast (courtesy of IMDB):
Greta Garbo - Ninotchka (Nina Ivanovna Yakushova)
Melvyn Douglas - Count Leon d'Algout
Ina Claire (I) - Grand Duchess Swana
Bela Lugosi - Commissar Razinin (Moscow Board of Trade)
Sig Ruman - Michael Simonavich Iranoff
Felix Bressart - Buljanoff
Alexander Granach - Kopalski
Gregory Gaye - Count Alexis Rakonin, Waiter-Spy
Rolfe Sedan - Hotel Manager
Edwin Maxwell - Mercier, the Jeweler
Richard Carle - Gaston, the Butler