Now this is a picture directed by Ernst Lubitsch that has “the Lubitsch touch”. It’s a light romantic comedy with political overtones. Or maybe it’s a political satire disguised as a light romantic comedy. At any rate it’s a lot of fun, with maybe a teaching moment or two about attitudes toward Russia and Communism as the Nazi threat was building.
The film stars Greta Garbo, with Melvyn Douglas and Ina Claire. The Screenplay is by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and Walter Reisch, based on the Original Story by Melchior Lengyel.
Three Russian members of the Board of Trade arrive in Paris (very funny scene at the beginning as they scope out an expensive hotel) with the assignment of selling jewelry. They are Iranoff (Sig Rumann), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart), and Kopalski (Alexander Granach). Moscow has made their reservations at the Hotel Terminus, a real workers’ establishment, but they prefer a more luxurious lodging at the Clarence, and their rationale is that the Royal Suite there contains the only safe in the hotel large enough to hold the rather large piece of luggage containing the jewelry. Too bad for the boys that Count Rakonin (Gregory Gaye) is currently working as a waiter at the Clarence and is in the suite delivering a meal when they talk about the jewels, stuff them in the safe, and name the former owner: the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire).
Rakonin immediately leaves for the Grand Duchess’s and reports on this development. Delighted, she quickly calls a lawyer and tries to set in motion a lawsuit to prevent a sale and to return the jewels to her. Now, she can’t actually afford a lawyer, so Count Leon D’Algout (Melvyn Douglas) offers to prepare the case and see it though. Like Swana an ex-patriate, D’Algout has trouble with Russian names, so is not Russian, but is he French? Polish? I can tell you that he is Swana’s friend, probable lover, and a bit of a lap-dog. He introduces himself to the boys and outlines for them the difficulties of their position – the trial will be held in a French court with a French judge and a French jury, and the Grand Duchess is quite lovely….. He then authors a telegram for them to sign and send to Commissar Razinin (Bela Lugosi) of the Board of Trade stating the problem and recommending a 50/50 split as the best possible solution. The boys predict a slow response, but still that is plenty of time for them to become duded-out boulevardiers. Then one day they discover an overlooked telegram in their room: Razinin says, Halt negotiations immediately, your authority is revoked, an envoy extraordinaire will arrive Thursday. Problem? Today is Thursday! They rush to the train station, and 20 minutes into the film Garbo appears – alone on the platform, holding two slightly-smaller-than-medium-sized bags, dressed somewhat dowdily in a hat designed only to keep off rain and a two-piece suit reminiscent of a uniform. When asked about the homeland she replies, “… the last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer, but better, Russians.”
Soon Nina Ivanovna Yakushova and Leon meet cute caught on a traffic island waiting for the policeman to blow his whistle and signal for traffic to start moving in the other direction (there are no street light signals). Leon is the first to call her Ninotchka (Little Nina), so maybe he is Russian and was faking struggling with those names.
The process is slow, but between Leon and Paris, Little Nina doesn’t have a chance. Her attitudes begin to soften, and her femininity appears. Leon, on the other hand, begins making his own bed and reading Karl Marx.
We joke about cell phone obsolescence, but it’s an old story. When Ninotchka asks Leon, “Radio? What is radio?”, Leon responds, “Radio’s a little box that you buy on the installment plan, and before you tune it in they tell you there’s a new model.”
So, all is going well. But Swana has one last Ace to play, and Ninotchka returns to Russia without goodbyes.
Back in Moscow we see Nina in the room she shares with two roommates. Not so bad, eh? Except that it is essentially a passageway between two other rooms and the women’ s beds are in alcoves – their only privacy while people walk through is to draw the bed curtains. The roommate currently present is asking Nina about Paris and after hearing some of the story, she says, “All you have to do is wear a pair of silk stockings, and they suspect you of counter-revolution!” Then she asks Nina what she is doing, and Ninotchka reveals that she has asked the boys over for dinner, and she is making an omelette. The roommate express astonishment, and Nina says the she has saved two eggs and that each friend will bring one, and there you are. And the roommate uses this as an example of the worth of the Soviet system: “Alone you have a boiled egg for dinner. but if you live in the true collective system – you have an omelette!”
And Nina makes very happy with her friends, until she receives a letter from Paris. It begins “Ninotchka my darling” and ends “Yours Leon” but everything in between has been redacted, and then in a final blow both pages have been stamped with a full-page-sized “CENSORED” stamp.
Ninotchka buries herself in work, and then, in his only scene, Razanin (remember it’s Bela Lugosi), over her objections, sends Nina to Constantinople to once again pull Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski out of the fire of their own incompetence. And in the brief final sequence we see just how totally capitalistic the boys have become.
A classic and a pure delight. And if you think I have told it all and you don’t need to bother seeking it out, you are wrong. You don’t know of Little Father, or even the outcome of the court case. And what Ace did Swana play?