Greta Garbo is a queen and this movie 1000% would not work without her in the lead role. Her presence, her unique sense of humor, her chemistry with everyone she shares the screen with -- it's a truly impressive performance, one that would see her nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award (she had the bad luck of going up against the juggernaut of Gone with the Wind and lost out to Vivien Leigh).
Ninotchka is the story of an idealistic Communist woman who is sent to France to oversee the sale of an expensive packet of jewels, formerly owned by Russian royalty but now property of the Soviet state. There were three men sent over to do the job, but they last about five minutes before the opulence of Paris gets to them and they are corrupted by Western influence.
At the beginning, they perform some truly impressive mental gymnastics to justify their tendency to splurge ("It would reflect poorly on the motherland if we didn't stay at a nice hotel," "We need the largest suite because it's the only room with a safe big enough for the jewels," etc.) But after a while, they drop the pretense and throw themselves headfirst into the glitz and glamour of pre-war Paris. There's a lovely transition shot where we see their traditional Russian hats on a coat rack replaced by more fashionable top hats.
But at some point, the party has to end, especially when you're a group of Russian bureaucrats who will one day need to explain your extravagant spending to a bunch of diehard Commies or face the Gulag.
And that's where we meet Ninotchka. Who is smart and cool and pretty and takes exactly zero bullshit from anybody. Screw Putin, Ninotchka should be the one who's basically the de facto president of the United States.
She also seems to be a little bit of an emotionless robot but hey that's how you have to be sometimes when you're a woman trying to make it in a man's world. Right from the start, Ninotchka is all business, even using her downtime to visit some of Paris' technical achievements so that she can report back to her superiors in Russia.
Which brings her to the Eiffel Tower, arguably the most romantic spot in the entire world, with Melvyn Douglas playing Count Leon d'Algout, arguably the biggest flirt in the entire world.
And while Ninotchka isn't immediately smitten by the playboy count, shall we say, she's certainly intrigued. Even though she literally tells him to his face that his society is going to crumble and his kind will be extinct. But for Ninotchka that's sort of just like conversation?
Anyway, there is a romance, because why would you put Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas in a film together if you weren't going to have them fall in love? But although their chemistry is lovely and there's certainly nothing wrong with them together, the more engaging element of the film is in Ninotchka finding herself.
One of the best scenes in the film is when Ninotchka, alone in her hotel room, double checks to make sure no one is watching, then reverently pulls out a hat she had been hiding in a bureau. For the entire film she had been ridiculing but apparently secretly coveting that hat, and now she finally has it. It's fascinating to watch her try to reconcile her time in Paris with everything she's been taught about the West, and slowly give herself permission to embrace the silly, frivolous side of herself. Which, yes, sometimes involves buying a stupid expensive hat even though it's impractical and barely looks like a hat at all, just because you like it.
There are a few things that elevate this movie beyond others of its ilk. First, as already mentioned, is the fun and multi-faceted performance of Garbo, whose presence and star quality in this film that she was unfairly included among the celebrities labelled as box office poison in 1938. Sadly, Ninotchka is her penultimate film. World War II saw the destruction of the European market that her films depended on for success, and after the war was over her career had deteriorated to a point where she showed little interest in trying to revive it.
It's interesting to watch a film like that this takes gentle jabs at perennially deprived Soviet society and quip about the very real fear of being reported to the government and shipped off to Siberia, not knowing that in a few short years the world would be split in two along these ideological lines. The brief time the film spends in the Soviet Union shows a country of whisperers, where suspicion and fear run rampant. But these issues are dealt with a light, comedic touch. This is partly because the film is made by Ernst Lubitsch, a surprisingly political director who has always preferred to confront oppression by making fun of it rather than adopting a somber tone, but also because its creators were likely unaware of the extent to which the Soviet regime was willing to brutally suppress dissidents and murder its own citizens.
For the purposes of the film, Lubitsch strikes the right tone. He creates poignant moments that showcase the oppression and hardships of Soviet society (the dinner party where each of the friends bring one egg to contribute to a shared omelette comes to mind, as does the scene where Ninotchka and her roommate discuss the uproar caused by Ninotchka's lacy, contraband negligee, periodically interrupted by their neighbor/Soviet informant on his way to the communal lavatory) without weighing down the film.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, and Alexander Granach, the three comrades who bring so much heart and humor to the film. Their chemistry is fabulous and it's lovely to watch their relationship develop throughout the film both with each other and Ninotchka. Hugs all around!