Heralded as the film in which “Garbo laughs”, Ninotchka is a supremely delightful comedy centered on an unlikely romance between a ne’er-do-well French playboy portrayed by the dapper Melvyn Douglas and a deadly serious Bolshevik aptly cast with the Silent Screen’s dramatic queen, Greta Garbo. Although sent to Paris on government business, the icy beauty melts when she finds herself attracted to a man who represents everything she has learned to detest. Likewise, the roguish aristocrat who was merely playing around for sport is sent for a loop when he finds that he has truly fallen in love for the first time in his life.
Ninotchka’s plot may be characteristic of a typical screwball comedy, but this is an Ernst Lubitsch film, and thereby it possesses that “rarest” of all elements in the film industry of the day; “the Lubitsch touch”. Lubitsch’s unique flare for romantic comedies with sophisticated wit and style (The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not To Be) prompted envious peers to bestow this blessing upon films helmed by the talented man. In fact, the legendary Billy Wilder idolized the German born director so much that he kept a plaque in his office in order to inspire him during those moments of writer’s block. It read, “What would Lubitsch do?”
It was only Lubitsch who was capable of drawing the comedienne out of the notoriously dramatic Garbo. Stern in manner yet exquisite in form, Garbo plays the unemotional Russian official as a pitch perfect “straight man” for the better part of the film. Known for a terribly serious persona on and off the screen, it is an absolute revelation when the Swedish beauty finally bursts out into uncontrollable laughter. It is one of the most contagious moments in screen history, helped along by the amusing charm of Douglas.
Although the role of the carefree Count was originally set for Cary Grant, Douglas makes it impossible to imagine anyone else in the part. Douglas is sadly often overlooked as a leading man, but as the Count in Ninotchka he is undoubtedly one of the best examples of the self-deprecating yet vain sophisticate that typified the screwball comedies of the thirties. And regardless of the lack of any early recognition, his talents would eventually garner him two Oscars for Best Supporting Actor later in his career (Hud, Being There).
Interestingly enough, Lubitsch was originally slated to direct The Women at the time of this production, but he and George Cukor were swapped and both films undoubtedly were the better for it (I can’t imagine Lubitsch dealing with Joan Crawford). Ninotchka just wouldn’t have been the same under any other director, regardless of the great talents involved. To prove this point one only has to look ahead two years when, after the huge success of the original star pairing, MGM decided to reunite Garbo and Douglas with Cukor as director in Two-Faced Woman. The result was a disastrous flop that sent Garbo into early retirement and Douglas into playing supporting roles (in which he obviously excelled). Makes you wonder whether or not a little of that old Lubitsch touch might have made a whole lot of difference.