Garbo was definitely not known for being a comedienne. Oh, no. This screen queen was in deadly earnest. Dramatic. Serious. Always, dahling. As time went on, though, M-G-M tried revamping Garbo’s image, which is why it took thirteen years for her to make her first comedy, and that was the 1939 film, Ninotchka.
Three Russians, Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski (Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, and Alexander Granach) arrive in Paris to negotiate the return of some jewelry to an expat, the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire) who lost them during the Russian Revolution. The comrades decide to stay at the fanciest hotel in town instead of the working class establishment they had reservations at, but only because it has a bigger and better safe for their pricey cargo (Uh huh. Sure, guys). Assisting them in the proceedings is Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), a Parisian lawyer who is on rather romantic terms with the Grand Duchess, at least on her side. He helps the Russians get acclimated to their new surroundings, and they party hearty on their first night, ordering room service and having the concession ladies join the festivities.
The Russians’ stay isn’t going to be a blitz, as the Grand Duchess has been tipped off that her jewels have been brought to Paris. She plans on making the whole process as painful as possible for everyone, taking her former countrymen to court. Like any bureaucracy, getting everything in place for a legal battle takes time, but Iranoff, Buljanoff and Kapowski see a warm, inviting, and abundant Paris set before them, so they don’t care all that much.
The guys continue to live it up while they wait for the courts to get moving, and their shabby Russian garb gives way to fancy French cutaways and walking sticks. Unfortunately, Moscow has other ideas, and the three friends come back from a stroll one day to find a telegram informing them that an “envoy extraordinary” that is going to arrive in Paris to take over the transfer.
Enter Nina Ivanovna Yakushova (Greta Garbo), colloquially known as Ninotchka, who brings a little bit of home with her. Read: She’s the straightest-laced, most orthodox Russian around. She has her own notions on how to approach the City of Lights, and if they were written down, they would probably look something like this:
1. Remain focused on the mission at hand.
Niceties such as a hotel suite the size of the Red Square or flowers offered by one’s comrades pale in comparison to fulfilling one’s duty to Russia.
2. Feel free to remark on the strangeness of capitalistic fashion.
From time to time one may see silly fashions that excite the senses, but this must be resisted. If Russia isn’t excited about silly fashions, Russians shouldn’t be, either.
3. Even when sightseeing, be sure to maintain the utmost seriousness.
For the conscientious Russian, the sights aren’t made for romance or the spectacular views, but for their technical prowess. Statistics such as the number of steps to the top of the Eiffel Tower or the width of the base are all fodder for the inquiring Russian mind.
4. Venture into the homes of the locals whenever invited (Within reason, of course).
Visiting the natives is like seeing the sights–it is fodder for the curious and reminds them of just how fortunate they are to be Russian. It also has the natural byproduct of being able to show others just what they’re missing, which leads one to Number Five…
5. Always keep the aims of Russia in mind, even when in Paris.
Remember, a good Russian is a tiny cog in the wheel of evolution. They need to take pity on the bourgeoisie. Porters should not have to carry one’s luggage. Butlers shouldn’t have to stand by waiting to cater to one’s every whim. That they’re usually paid somewhat well is immaterial. Russians represent Russia to the pitiable outside world, and it behooves them to make their home look desirable.
So far, so good. By following these tips, Ninotchka’s Russian sensibilities ought to remain comfortably unruffled. However, after arriving in Paris and soaking up la vie belle, Ninotchka would no doubt have to add one more item to her guide. If her superiors could see it, they’d probably send her to Siberia. Or at least yank a few of her weekly egg rations.
6. If one meets a charming Parisian, discard items 1, 2, 3, and 5. Particularly if there are bottles of champagne and plenty of music involved, not to mention lots of funny stories.
Smiling is optional, but it sure is fun. A little Parisian fashion doesn’t hurt, either.
Ninotchka is a delightful movie. The writing is tight, it’s an elegant comedy, and the pacing is perfect. The film might be played for laughs, but it also allowed Garbo enough breathing room to retain the deeply dramatic persona she was so famous for. That’s a delicate balance to maintain when one is sitting in a cafe laughing one’s head off at Melvyn Douglas falling over a table. Amazingly enough, Garbo had kind of a love-hate relationship with her role; she didn’t like the fact that she had to act drunk in one scene. No one would know it, though–Garbo plays her part to the hilt, adding yet another layer to what she could do as an actress. It’s a shame she didn’t get to do more films like this, but we’ll go into the whys and wherefores of that next time.
That wraps up my Day Two of the Greta Garbo Blogathon. Come back Wednesday for Day Three, and as always, Crystal has more Garbo for you at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Thanks for reading, and see you tomorrow!
This film is available on Amazon.