Garbo plays Ninotchka, a Soviet envoy sent to Paris to sell jewels that belonged to a former Russian duchess now turned Parisian socialite (Ina Claire). Melvyn Douglas is a count who becomes infatuated with Ninotchka and tries to divert her away from her duty to the Party. It's not Casablanca -- but it's not just another frothy romantic comedy either, thanks to Garbo's performance and the clever screenplay by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett (who also co-wrote the legendary Sunset Boulevard and The Lost Weekend).
A lot of the humor in Ninotchka pokes fun at the Soviet experiment. Early in the film, when Ninotchka is asked how the revolution is going, she reports, "The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians." The humor is not exactly subtle, but hey, if the jackboot fits...
The film's biggest flaw is typical of period romances -- there's too much romance. Douglas' fast-talking repartee is so annoying that modern audiences will likely cheer for the humorless Ninotchka when she ices him with Marxist doctrine, then wince when she falls for him. When Ninotchka criticizes French fashions as frivolous and stupid, we agree. All too soon, she swoons over Douglas' character and begins plotting to defect (and not just because Russian winters suck) and even starts wearing goofy hats. Growing up in a totalitarian state can really impair your judgment.
Still, Ninotchka is possibly Garbo's best film, a slightly offbeat comedy with smart references to the geopolitical situation. It's not a serious film about communism -- but Hollywood hasn't produced a lot of those. Actually, it's kind of unusual to hear jokes about Soviet repression in a Hollywood movie, given the leftish sympathies of Hollywood in the '40s (when Stalin was our nominal ally) and since. Lenin's and Stalin's crimes are not exactly news, but no Schindler's List has been made about the Gulag (by an American).
As a critique of communism, the most murderous ideology in the history of the world, Ninotchka falls short. But it's entertaining and worth seeing for Garbo, one of the first magnetic screen presences. Not long after Ninotchka, Garbo retired abruptly at the top of her stardom and established her final reputation as a reclusive enigma.
Run time: 110 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 1st February 1940
Box Office Worldwide: $2.3M
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Production compaines: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Fresh: 29 Rotten: 1
IMDB: 8.0 / 10
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Producer: Ernst Lubitsch
Starring: Greta Garbo as Sonderbeauftragte Genossin Ninotschka Yakushova, Melvyn Douglas as Graf Leon D'Algout, Ina Claire as Swana, Sig Ruman as Iranoff, Felix Bressart as Buljanoff, Alexander Granach as Kopalski, Gregory Gaye as Rakonin, Bela Lugosi as Kommissar Razinin, Rolfe Sedan as Hotelmanager, Edwin Maxwell as Juwelier Mercier, Richard Carle as Diener Gaston, George Davis as Porter at Railroad Station (uncredited)