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Few stars can match the legendary status of Greta Garbo. She was a mysterious, exotic figure who captured the imagination of Americans by simply wanting to be alone. The less she said, the more we wanted to hear. In Ninotchka, recently voted one of the top 100 comedies by the American Film Institute, filmgoers were drawn to the theater with the promise that "Garbo Laughs!" It was a takeoff on the advertising campaign for her first "talkie", a film with sound, 1930's Anna Christie. However, Hollywood hid a dirty little secret about that advertising campaign.
In Ninotchka, three Russians from the government's Board of Trade have arrived in Paris to sell a valuable piece of jewelry as part of an effort to alleviate their country's financial problems. Ownership of the jewels is in question because they were taken from a Dutchess during the Bolshevik Revolution. The Dutchess, Swana (Ina Claire), learns that the Russians are in town with her jewels and sends her boyfriend and lawyer, Leon (Melvyn Douglas) to get them back.
Leon wines and dines the Russians, blinding them with the opulence they can't enjoy in Russia, and makes a deal to split the profits from the sale. This angers their boss, Razinin (Bela Lugosi), who sends his top deputy, Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) to straighten out the mess. Once in Paris, the loyal Communist meets up with Leon and, before knowing that they are enemies on this issue, they fall in love.
Can their love survive the legal case? Can their love survive the political differences of their countries? Can this cold fish fall in love at all?
This film is a lot different from the comedies we enjoy today, so you may want to stay away from it if you need a faster pace. Ninotchka is full of wicked satire of Communism and quick one liners that you will miss unless you pay close attention. It doesn't hold up as well over time as other great comedies, like It Happened One Night, but provides a fun night of entertainment for film buffs and those who want to learn more about the old, great films from Hollywood history.
I enjoyed Melvyn Douglas' performance the most. Suave, dapper and smooth, he was the perfect leading man. He has great timing and has the ability to go toe-to-toe with Greta Garbo, not an easy task. Today, his granddaughter, actress Illeana Douglas, entertains us.
The film is full of political satire provided by a young, struggling and talented writer - Billy Wilder. The man we would come to know as the king of sophisticated comedy was a young, Jewish writer in Hollywood who just escaped from Nazi Germany a couple years earlier. Wilder barely knew English when he first arrived in Hollywood, but he was an accomplished filmmaker in Germany, so he learned the language and soon conquered Hollywood.
What is the dirty little secret of this movie? It turns out that Garbo doesn't laugh! On the screen, it looks like she is letting lose with a great chortle, however, director Ernst Lubitsch was dissatisfied with Garbo's attempts to fake a laugh, so he dubbed in another woman's voice to provide the laughter. I was also amused with his lighting of the legendary Garbo. As you watch the film, take a close look at how Garbo's face is awash in light, as if she was an angel, while the rest of the cast has normal lighting.
For a nostalgic trip down Hollywood and Vine, check out Ninotchka.
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Written by Charles Bracket with Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch
Greta Garbo . Ninotchka
Melvyn Douglas .... Leon
Ina Claire .. Swana
Bela Lugosi ... Razinin
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