Greta Garbo as Ninotchka, the frosty special envoy from Stalin’s Russia

Billy Wilder, who co-wrote the screenplay for Ninotchka, Greta Garbo’s only comedy, said the 1939 classic had “the Lubitsch touch.”  I say it has the Wilder touch.

Wilder was referring to Ernst Lubitsch, the film’s producer/director, one of the first Hollywood directors to develop name recognition, star status, and a personal following. We’d call him an “auteur” director today, who took charge of everything, like Charles Chaplin, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Clint Eastwood.

His name appeared on the movie posters above the title or below the stars.

Lubitsch was Wilder’s mentor and hero.

Garbo plays a frosty Stalinist special envoy sent to Paris “in those great days when a siren was a brunette, and when people turned off the lights, it was not because of an air raid.”

She is seduced (melted) by Paris, capitalism, and suave, debonair Melvyn Douglas in one of the wittiest total seductions and transformations every put on film.  The crackling sexual tension and chemistry between the two characters, Garbo’s transition from rigidity and frigidity, is “the Lubitsch touch.”

This moment of transformation between Garbo and Melvyn Douglas is “the Lubitsch touch.”

The Wilder Touch

But in a 2012 essay, Bobby Rivers argues that Ninotchka has “the Wilder touch,” snappy, terribly witty, slightly risque action and dialogue.

In Wilder’s signature Some Like It Hot,(1960), which came 20 years later, two guys tussle around in a railroad car berth with Marilyn Monroe in her nightie, and the movie ends with a deadpan homosexual joke. It practically ended the Hollywood Production Code (voluntary censorship) single-handed.

It’s the ultimate Wilder Touch movie.

But in 1939, the sexy thrust and parry between Garbo and Melvyn Douglas includes an exchange in Garbo’s hotel room where she tells Douglas that she was a sergeant in the war, and asks if he’d like to see her wound.

“Most assuredly,” he says.

According to Rivers, wound is European slang for vagina.  European audiences must have howled, and it got past the American censors, who did not get the joke.

That’s the Wilder touch, Rivers says.

 Garbo Was an Actress and a Cult

Garbo was a great actress, and an even greater cult.  The cult gets new followers as quickly as the old ones die off.  The second half of her life, after she left the movies abruptly in mid-career, added to her mystery and legend.

But the root of Garbo’s legend is on the screen:  gorgeous, androgenous, foreign, exotic, mysterious, playing dark roles in dark stories.  The Hollywood legend machine built her legend on her inaccessibility.  “I Vant To Be Alone” was her signature line, mimicked by everyone, like James Cagney’s “You dirty rat.”

Garbo Laughs

Before Ninotchka, Garbo played only dramatic roles.  The adverising slogan for Ninotchka, one of the best-remembered publicity tag lines in Hollywood history, was “Garbo Laughs!”  Nobody knew if she could laugh, or if she had a sense of humor.

She clearly got the humor in this movie.  Her super-serious Stalinist envoy character made fun of all the super-serious characters she played before.

Garbo laughs…

Her first on-screen laugh is an explosion, nothing forced or artificial, when Melvyn Douglas makes a fool of himself falling backward out of his chair. Her second laugh, just as genuine, comes a day later, when she bursts out laughing in the middle of a crowded business conference.  She just got the joke Douglas told her the day before.

“A guy goes into a restaurant and orders coffee without cream.  Five minutes later, the waiter comes back and says ‘We’re out of cream. Can it be without milk?”

…and keeps laughing

Plot Summary

Three Russians, Iranov (Sig Ruman), Buljanov (Felix Bressart) and Kopalsky

(Alexander Granach), are in Paris to sell jewelry confiscated from the aristocracy during the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Upon arrival, they meet Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), on a mission from the Russian Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire) who wants to retrieve her jewelry before it is sold.

He corrupts the three Russians with the pleasures of capitalism, and talks them into staying in Paris.

The Soviet Union then sends Comrade Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova (Greta Garbo), a special envoy whose goal is to go through with the jewelry sale and bring back the three men. Rigid and stern at first, she slowly becomes seduced by the West and the Count, who falls in love with her.

Douglas’s flirting, Garbo’s defrost, Lubitsch’s direction, and Wilder’s wit carry this bare bones plot to four Academy Award nominations in 1939, against the best collection of movies Hollywood ever made in a single year:  Gone With the Wind, Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of Oz, The Women, The Roaring Twenties, Dark Victoru, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Golden Boy, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Gunga Din, Of Mice and Men, and Stagecoach.

Wilder’s Wit: A Few Examples from Ninotchka

Here are some examples of what Rivers and I mean by the Wilder touch:

Pere Mathieu, Cafe Owner: Now, what shall it be?
Ninotchka: Raw beets and carrots.
Pere Mathieu, Cafe Owner: Madame, this is a restaurant, not a meadow.

Ninotchka: Must you flirt?
Count Leon d’Algout: Well, I don’t have to, but I find it natural.
Ninotchka: Suppress it

Ninotchka: We don’t have men like you in my country.
Leon: Thank you.
Ninotchka: That is why I believe in the future of my country.

Count Leon D’Algout: Do you like me just a little bit?
Ninotchka: Your general appearance is not distasteful.
Ninotchka: As basic material, you may not be bad, but you are the unfortunate product of a doomed culture. I feel very sorry for you.

Ninotchka: Don’t make an issue of my womanhood.

Ninotchka: Why do you want to carry my bags?
Porter: That is my business.
Ninotchka: That’s no business. That’s social injustice.
Porter: That depends on the tip.

Ninotchka: The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.

Iranoff: Do you want to be alone, comrade?
Ninotchka: No.

Leon: A Russian! I love Russians! Comrade, I’ve been fascinated by your five-year plan for the last fifteen years.

Ninotchka: What have you done for mankind?
Leon: Not so much for mankind… for womankind, my record isn’t quite so bleak.

Grand Duchess Swana: The morning after always looks grim if you happen to be wearing last night’s dress.

Many Garbo movies are too dark, heavy, and melodramatic for my taste.  That includes her greatest ones, Anna Karenina and Camille. I like her strongest women, in Anna Christie  Mata Hari, Queen Christina, and Ninotchka. 

Ninotchka is not only my favorite Garbo movie; it’s one of my favorite movies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *