"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

August 29, 2011

"Ninotchka" by Ernst Lubisch, with Greta Garbo (1939) (Film review)

Ninotchka (d. Ernst Lubitsch) was promoted as the film in which Greta Garbo, the femme-fatale with the dark image, for the first time "laughs." Well, in this fluffy film she is made to laugh about Melvyn Douglas falling on his back and I am sure the real Garbo would never have laughed at such a stupid gag.

Ninotchka is a comedy of which parts have aged badly. The sociological banter is outdated. Although there are some snappy lines (thanks to the presence of Billy Wilder on the writing team?), I miss the subtlety I associate with Lubitsch and find in his other films.

So that leaves us Greta Garbo, playing Ninotchka, a stiff and unsmiling Soviet apparatchik come over to Paris to call three of her agents to order. Ninotchka falls rather too easily in love with aristocratic playboy Leon (Douglas), after which she is transformed into a frivolous romanticist loving beautiful clothes (gown designer Adrian deserves honorable mention here).

It was not capitalism that toppled communism, but flirtation. I sure am willing to buy that, but the only part of the movie that worked for me was the beginning, when Garbo plays a sort of parody of her own screen image: cold, curt and humorless - those are scenes that contain some real humor. After she converts to a softer image she gets drunk on champagne and has to talk with a double tongue in two extended scenes that are totally unfunny (I was relieved to find that also Garbo hated it).

Greta Garbo certainly was a great actress, she has real screen charisma. But why did she mostly play in the wrong films? She doesn't appear in even one film that is great and of artistic importance. That is her tragedy and also why her image has faded in recent years.