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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

You're the most adorable cog I've ever seen.

Oh Ninotchka, my little Ninotchka.  Man that's fun to say.  Feels good rolling off your tongue.  If I ever get another dog, I'm going to name her Ninotchka Yakushova just so I can shout the name from my porch.

Anyway, onto the movie.  I haven't done the research, but I think this is Greta Garbo in her first role as a Marxist Robot.  Her acting is meant to be a parody of her typical roles, which is funny, I guess, she didn't really do comedies, romantic comedies were even more of a stretch.  The Marxist Robot routine makes for some absolutely painful lovemaking scenes.  ("lovemaking" is, of course, used in the old-fashioned sense in which it does not necessarily refer to intercourse)  For example:

Leon:  Can it be that I'm..........falling in love with you?
Ninotchka:  Why must you bring in wrong values?  Love is a romantic designation for a most ordinary biological, or shall we say chemical, process.  A lot of nonsense is talked and written about it.

[omg.  swoon]

Quick synopsis:  Three Russian men are sent to Paris to sell some jewelry that had been confiscated during the Revolution.  They justify staying in the royal suite in a fine hotel because it has a safe in the room, they stand around rationalizing their decision and are overheard by another Russian exile working as a waiter.  He runs off to speak to the Grand Duchess Swana, also a Russian exile, also the former owner of the jewels, to tell her that her long lost jewelry is back in town.  Here we are introduced to her lover/boy-toy, Count Leon D'Algout, who says, "Leave it to me!  I'll get your jewels back!"  He then goes off to befriend the 3 Russians (who are played by German actors, so naturally this film was banned in the Soviet Union) and seduce them with wine, women and song.  Once they're good and drunk, he gets their approval to send a telegram to their boss, Comrade Rakonin (played by Boris Karloff) saying that they've agreed to settle for 50% of the jewels' value.  And the party continues.  Meanwhile, Rakonin sends a telegram back stripping the men of their authority and instructing them to await the arrival of his envoy who will take over the sale.  And by "envoy" he means "Marxist Robot".
                                          Ninotchka Ivanova Yakushova

So Ninotchka is strictly business.  She deplores capitalism, frivolity, excess, wastefulness...well, pretty much everything.  On her first exploration expedition in Paris, she has the good fortune to run into Count Leon D'Algout, who does not realize that Ninotchka is in charge of the jewels he's trying to obtain for his mistress, BUT is actually enamored by her deadpan, mortician-like demeanor.  Seriously.  ("OH! a Russian!  I love Russians!  I've been fascinated by your 5-year-plan for the last 15 years!"  The Count is a witty mofo)  He's so enamored that he follows her to the Eiffel Tower and somehow manages to get her into his apartment.

Now.  You may hate this entire movie.  You may be bored to tears.  You may be the long-lost Grand Duchess Anastasia seething with rage because this movie makes a mockery of Russia and trivializes the Imperial way of life that was brutally seized from you when you were just an innocent.  But whatever your opinion, the entire movie is justified by the scene that follows:

Leon:  (to his butler) Good Evening Gaston!
Gaston:  Good Evening Monsieur.
Ninotchka:  Is this what you call a butler?
Leon:  Why, Yes.
Ninotchka:  (to Gaston)  Good evening Comrade!   (to Leon) This man is very old, you shouldn't make him work.
Leon:  Oh, he takes good care of that.
Ninotchka:  He looks sad.  Do you whip him?
Leon:  No, but the mere thought makes my mouth water.

He's so quick with that last line, you're not sure you heard it.  Back it up, watch it again.  Yes, he really did just say that.  Gold.  Pure gold.

So anyway, they send the butler to bed and they get ready to do the nasty.  Which in the Hayes Code days translates to rough kissing, which is more or less symbolic of a fuck.  They are interrupted when Leon takes a phone call from the Duchess' lawyer, providing the name of the Russian Envoy, that's right, Ninotchka.  Realizing they are enemies, she makes her leave, "You represent White Russia and I represent Red Russia!"  And so she goes back to her Comrades and they get to work on selling some Imperial jewels.

Meanwhile, Leon can't get his little Marxist Robot out of his mind and takes to stalking her. She puts up a pretty good resistance, but then he falls over a chair, making her laugh, which corrupts her programming, making her susceptible to human emotion.  To speed up the process, she buys a ridiculous hat (from Dr. Seuss, I think) which has strange powers over her, making her giggle, smile and fall in love with Count Leon D'Algout.

                                  This Hat Will Make A Capitalist Out Of You

So he takes her out dancing, where they run into Leon's Imperial Ex-Girlfriend where a pretty epic catfight ensues.

Swana: Is that what they're wearing in Moscow this year?
Ninotchka: No, last year, madame.
Swana: Isn't it amazing? One gets the wrong impression of the new Russia. It must be charming. I'm delighted conditions have improved so. I assume this is what the factory workers wear at their dances.
Ninotchka: Exactly. You see, it would have been very embarrassing for people of my sort to wear low-cut gowns in the old Russia. The lashes of the Cossacks across our backs were not very becoming, and you know how vain women are.
Swana: Yes, you're quite right about the Cossacks. We made a great mistake when we let them use their whips. They had such reliable guns.

                              Ouch.  I got $50 on the Bolshevik.

So Leon and Ninotchka get wasted on champagne and they end up back in her hotel room trying on Imperial Jewelry.  Carelessly, they forget to put it back in the safe so the exiled waiter from the beginning of the film  (remember him?) sneaks in and steals all the jewels.  Ninotchka wakes up with a raging hangover and the Bitch Duchess Swana standing over her bed and giving her shit for drinking too much and trying to sell her jewels (which have now been returned to her.)  Swana demands that Ninotchka leave on the next plane to Moscow, which she does, despite the fact that she's in love with Leon.  (I forget why, something about a tractor for Stalin.)  So she goes back to Russia where life sucks.  Leon tries to write to her, but her letters arrive completely censored.  Finally, Boris Karloff sends Ninotchka to Constantinople to oversee her old Comrades, who are still being sent abroad despite the fact that they only screw around and never get any work done.  There, she is reunited with Leon and there is a happy ending.  The film ends with one of the Russian men protesting the other two. 

I think this film is great.  It seems so ordinary, boring even, but if you pay attention, it's full of little comedic gems.  Melvin Douglas, or whoever wrote his lines, must have been one of the wittiest men of his day.  His delivery is razor-sharp and I like it. 

Vital Statistics

Ninotchka 1939
Director:  Ernst Lubitsch
Starring:  Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire, Boris Karloff
Running Time:  110 minutes


  1. Ha "...but the mere thought makes my mouth water."

    I wish you'd review some of the Criterion Collection so I could wade through the pile of crap and only select the good ones to watch.

  2. I am swimming in Lubitsch films at the mo - this one, A Design For Living, The Smiling Lieutenant, & especially Trouble In Paradise. Check that one out if you haven't so far.

  3. Actually this is the first of his films I've seen, but I'll be sure to check out others.