"I want to be alone."
--Greta Garbo, "Grand Hotel"
Was there ever a more captivating yet mysterious actress than Greta Garbo? For years in my youth I had heard the name but never saw any of her pictures. She had by that time long since retired from the screen, and her old movies hardly ever appeared on TV. Then, too, her films all sounded alike to me: "Anna" this and that, "Christie" and "Christina." When I finally did come to know her work, what a revelation it was.
Garbo was never, in my estimation, an especially great actress, yet she embodied everything that was glamorous and alluring about Hollywood. She made only a relative handful of movies from the mid twenties through the early forties, and then, at age thirty-five or so, she exited filmmaking altogether, never to return. It was perfect timing, of course, for a woman who would forever be remembered as young, beautiful, enchanting, and enigmatic. It worked. She spent the next forty-odd years never looking back, living in semi-seclusion in New York City, while alternately walking, traveling, shopping, entertaining, and hiding from the camera.
In honor of a true Tinseltown legend (and to mark the 100th anniversary of her birth, 1905-1990), the folks at Warner Bros. have released on DVD her most-popular pictures, available individually or in a big, ten-disc box set. The titles include three silent films in a two-disc set ("Flesh and the Devil," "The Mysterious Lady," and "The Temptress"), plus "Anna Christie" (the 1930 American version and the 1931 German version), "Mata Hari" (1931), "Grand Hotel" (1932), "Queen Christina" (1933), "Anna Karenina" (1935), "Camille" (1936), and "Ninotchka" (1939) on separate discs. In addition, the box contains the original documentary, "Garbo."
Our concern here is "Ninotchka," Garbo's second-to-last film, released in 1939. The studio's publicity blurb on it announced "Garbo laughs." Why? It was Garbo's first starring role in an outright comedy, and when the actress had made her first talking picture, "Anna Christie," the studio had declared "Garbo Talks!" I chose to review "Ninotchka" from the box because it's always been a favorite of mine and shows us a side of the actress sometimes overlooked. I mean, we know she could play the passionate, romantic heartthrob, but here she is just plain funny.
"Ninotchka" is a romantic comedy, with all that the term implies: Boy meets girl; boy and girl fall in love, only they don't know it yet; complications keep boy and girl apart; boy and girl finally get together and live happily ever after. Or at least until the end of the closing credits. In this case, the girl is Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, "Ninotchka" (Garbo), a prim-and-proper Soviet emissary sent to Paris to negotiate the sale of some priceless State jewels, and the boy is Count Leon d'Algout (Melvyn Douglas), a ne'er-do-well playboy and close friend of the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), a thoroughly unpleasant woman who used to own the jewels before the Soviet government confiscated them and forced her into exile.
The movie's forward sets the tone: "This picture takes place in Paris in those wonderful days when a siren was a brunette and not an alarm...and if a Frenchman turned out the light, it was not on account of an air raid." In other words, it's a Paris of some indefinite earlier time, after the Russian Revolution but long before the German occupation.
Three Russians representing the Soviet Board of Trade arrive in Paris to sell the jewels. They are largely comic relief until Garbo appears and the main plot kicks in. Their roles are ably handled by Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach, and Sig Rumann as Buljanoff, Kopalski, and Iranoff. But the three Russians find themselves distracted by the high life of the city, and before they know it, they've lost the jewels. Interestingly, Bela Lugosi gets fourth billing as Commissar Razinin, the head of the Soviet Board of Trade, yet he has no more than two minutes of screen time. Such is the power of a big name.
Enter Ninotchka, a stern, no-nonsense taskmaster sent specifically to reprimand her three comrades and to facilitate the sale of the jewels herself. But she meets Count d'Algout before she has the chance. D'Algout is something of a cad and clearly something of a gigolo, too, the Grand Duchess's lover. Nevertheless, he is a charming cad, played by Douglas in the manner of William Powell in "The Thin Man." Indeed, for years I thought Melvyn Douglas and William Powell were the same guy. D'Algout represents the Grand Duchess in her attempts to get her jewels back.
Anyhow, Ninotchka and d'Algout meet by coincidence, neither of them knowing who the other is or that they are on opposite sides in the matter of the jewels. Yet even when they do find out, love knows no bounds, and they throw political and philosophical differences aside in their desire to be with one other.
The movie succeeds on the strength of its stars, specifically Garbo, who glistens even beneath the stern facade of a Soviet clone; its director, Ernst Lubitsch ("The Merry Widow," "The Shop Around the Corner," "To Be or Not To Be," "That Uncertain Feeling"), who made these smart, breezy affairs so convincingly; and the clever dialogue. When Iranoff says to d'Algout, "I suppose you expect us to hand over the jewels," d'Algout replies, "Oh, no, I'm no highwayman, just a nuisance."
It's a delightful affair, full of sparkling wit and wisecracks. As Ninotchka is getting off the train in Paris, she says to a porter, "Why should you want to carry other people's bags? That's social injustice," and the porter responds, "That depends on the tip."
Still, it's Garbo's picture, and she's wonderfully droll and wry and not above self-parody. One of her comrades asks her if she wants to be alone; "No!" she answers soundly. But later she relents, announcing, "We want to be alone."
When Ninotchka and d'Algout meet, she asks him, "Must you flirt?" "I don't have to, but I find it natural," he answers. "Suppress it!" she demands curtly. At first Ninotchka expresses no sentimentality, no feelings whatever. To her, lovemaking is merely a mechanical, bodily function. D'Algout asks her, "Do you like me a little bit?" She responds, "Your general appearance is not distasteful... Chemically, we're already quite sympathetic."
The key scene in the movie, though, is when Ninotchka finally loosens up and becomes human. Appropriately, it is the first time she laughs. "Will you smile?" d'Algout asks. "Why?" "Why, just smile," d'Algout insists. "At what?" She finally succumbs and laughs when d'Algout accidentally trips and falls over a table in a restaurant. And when she does laugh, she becomes almost giddy, forcing the audience to laugh along with her for the rest of the picture.
As with so many comedies of the thirties and forties, particularly ones meant to take the viewer's mind off the doom and gloom of the Great Depression and the Second World War, this one is filled with splendid sets, glittering gowns, posh hotels, and expensive restaurants. Moreover, the movie celebrates smoking and drinking as the height of elegance and sophistication.
It was a simpler age, perhaps, in some ways a more innocent age, but a few of the movies it produced like "Ninotchka" remain as entertaining today as ever.
The picture size, of course, is a standard, Academy-ratio 1.37:1, rendered here at 1.33:1. The black-and-white contrasts are strong, but there is a small degree of grain present, most noticeable in outdoor scenes and stock footage. A bright picture helps the definition most of the time, although it sometimes look a little too bright, with lighter tones almost washed out on a few occasions. A good, cleaned-up print helps, too, with age marks, scratches, blotches, and flecks non-issues.
By today's standards, the sound is a rather ordinary 1.0 monaural, greatly improved through Dolby Digital processing. It is somewhat thin, mainly in the strings, and there is little in the way of frequency or dynamic range; but it is certainly clean and clear in the midrange, which is where we find its dialogue. During quieter passages, one notices a touch of background hiss, just a hint; otherwise, no complaints.
There isn't much in the way of extras on any of the individual Garbo discs except the silents. "Ninotchka" has a theatrical trailer; thirty-two scene selections; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
However, if you buy "Ninotchka" in the big box set, you also get the 2005 documentary disc, "Garbo." It's eighty-six minutes long, divided into twenty-four chapters, and narrated by Julie Christie. The documentary examines Garbo's life, her career, and her contradictions through interviews with friends, family, actors, biographers, critics, writers, and filmmakers. I'm not sure any of them shed any new light on the figure, but it's a fascinating look at a fascinating character, nonetheless.
"Ninotchka" breaks no new ground as a romantic comedy, but thanks to Garbo, its supporting cast, and director Ernst Lubitsch's magic touch, it remains one of Hollywood's most sparkling products. Although it's a shame Garbo hadn't walked away from the spotlight after this film instead of her next, and last, film, the less-successful "Two-Faced Woman" in 1941, WB's Garbo box set reveals her best sides, and her final film probably doesn't matter any more. We will always remember Garbo as simply being Garbo, one of the handful of most popular actresses ever to grace the screen.