While in Paris to sell some jewelry for the government, three Russians get distracted when they justify checking into a suite at a swanky hotel because it has a safe large enough to store the jewels. They settle into their lavish suite, enjoying the western capitalist comforts, until a higher ranking official is sent to straighten them out, Ninotchka (Greta Garbo). She is a no-nonsense woman, bland and only thinking of essentials. When she happens to meet Count Leon (Melvyn Douglas), he is instantly fascinated by her, at first for the novelty of being a proud Russian, then for her womanly charms that she hides so well. Romance seems almost foreign to Ninotchka, and as she warms up to Leon, ideas of Western culture do as well. But the romance is complicated by both the jewelry exchange and Ninotchka’s beloved Russia.
I’ll admit, I had my doubts wondering how much I could believe in seeing a a strict Russian comrade turn into the sort of girl who drinks pink champagne in silly, yet fashionable hats. However, this turns out to be Garbo’s greatest role and she is in complete control of the film. She displays her wonderful range between her straight-laced introductions to being happily drunk and in love, while not completely forgetting her character’s Russian roots. That scene where Leon first gets her to laugh, it’s like seeing a flower bloom. Suddenly I could see through that Nurse Ratchet hairstyle and see a soul, and a beautiful one at that. “Garbo Laughs” was the tagline to promote the film, but the best part is that we laugh with her.
Now, I can see the contrasting ideas between Eastern and Western culture either bringing some hearty laughs or leaving people feeling a little uneasy. The film makes some great jokes, most of them at Russia’s expense. When first meeting Ninotchka, Leon says, “I love Russians! Comrade, I’ve been fascinated by your five-year plan for the last fifteen years.” He love to cleverly sneak in a quick punch to Russia in between his flirting all through the film. Soviet Russia is an easy target for a cheap laugh, and the film throws a lot of bulls-eyes.
On the other hand, it can seem that capitalism and Western culture are just seductive to the faithful Russian people. At first, Ninotchka seems content with her strict Soviet upbringing, but soon we see that she was living in ignorance. Was she ever happy before, or is this film saying that women cannot be happy until they are dressed in the latest fashions with a man on her arm and drinking pink champagne? The film seems to make us think that all young people of Russia are just pining for the pretty things they can get in Western culture.
I digress, it can be easy to over analyze this film, but that is not what we are suposed to do. It is simply a fun romantic comedy that is smart enough to raise these cultural and social issues and use them to bring even more laughs. We can partially blame the great Billy Wilder for writing this witty, Oscar nominated screenplay. See it for Garbo’s amazing performance, not for Soviet Russia jokes.
“I should hate to see our country endangered by my underwear.”