When I looked at the list of nominees from 1939, I didn’t recognize the name Ninotchka at all. My first feelings when I saw that name on the list were feelings of frustration; I didn’t want to watch a depressing Russian love story with Greta Garbo, who would probably die at the end after a dramatic illness (yes, that’s what I assumed the story was after only seeing the title). I was so pleased to find out when I watched it that it is the complete opposite of those assumptions. I was also pleased to find out that it’s a freakin’ awesome movie.
So what’s the story? The Soviet experiment is failing, and the government has sent emissaries to capitalistic countries to sell some of the treasures that they confiscated from wealthy Russians. Three rather incompetent men are sent to Paris to sell some jewels that had belonged to Duchess Swana during the Revolution. Swana finds out they have her jewels, and her lover, Leon, volunteers to get them back. He manages to gum up the process enough that the government sends Ninotchka, a very stern woman, to Paris to fix the mess. Will Leon be able to change Ninotchka’s views of the world?
The Good: This movie is hilarious. The screenplay is very well done. There are lots of good zingers from Ninotchka about the uselessness of Parisian society that manage to make fun of both communism and capitalism at the same time. So funny.
The acting is very good. Greta Garbo makes Ninotchka’s transition from a committed, no-nonsense Communist Party member to a woman in love believable. My favorite moment is when she goes out dressed in fashionable clothes instead of her practical Soviet clothes. She’s so self-conscious and feels a little bit silly, while at the same time she knows she looks good. It’s a very woman thing, and Garbo plays it perfectly. The three original envoys sent to Paris are very funny, always making excuses about why they need to spend money for the good of the Party. Melvyn Douglas as Leon was a little bland, but not terrible.
Since it’s high Parisian society in the late 1930s, the clothes are lots of fun. That is all.
The Bad: Although I completely understood why Leon fell for Ninotchka, I could never quite understand why she fell for him. I always like to understand couples in a romantic movie, but I wasn’t able to do so in Ninotchka.
The Ugly: While all of the Russians have (more or less) Russian accents, all of the Frenchmen have American accents. It’s a tiny thing, but it really distracted me.
Oscars Won: None.
Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actress in a leading role (Greta Garbo); best writing, original story; best writing, screenplay.