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Ninotchka

Ninotchka(1939)

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Director Ernst Lubitsch's sparkling romantic/political farce Ninotchka (1939) bears special distinction in the storied cinema oeuvre of Greta Garbo for a number of reasons. Beyond being the Solitary Swede's only genuine venture into comedy, it was her last truly representative vehicle, as she embraced her notorious self-imposed retirement after the misfire follow-up Two-Faced Woman (1941). Warner Home Video has finally given this enduringly charming tale its deserved release on DVD, available singly as well as bundled within the impressive ten-film set Garbo: The Signature Collection. While the script's digs at then-contemporary geopolitics are obviously of their time, the wit with which they were delivered still crackles, and its star provided perhaps her most endearing characterization on celluloid.

With a generation barely past after the fall of the Czar, a trio of low-level Soviet functionaries-- Iranoff (Sig Rumann), Buljanoff(Felix Bressart), and Kopalski (Alexander Granach)-- disembark in Paris, charged with fetching the State the best possible price on the conscripted family jewels of the royal exile Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire). Once in their plush hotel accommodations, however, the trio comes to develop a taste for that forbidden capitalist decadence, a circumstance that's swiftly exploited by Count Leon d'Algout (Melvyn Douglas), a savvy playboy and sometime paramour of the Grand Duchess. Threatening to drag the issue of the gems' ownership through the French courts for years, Leon lubricates the negotiations with champagne, and the toasted troika is soon happily recommending a 50-50 settlement to Moscow.

The Politburo reacts by placing control of the mission in the hands of special envoy Nina Ivanova Yakushova (Garbo), beautiful but unsmilingly severe, clinical, and pragmatic. Using her fiercely regimented downtime to examine Paris' civil engineering, she has a chance encounter with Leon. While she initially regards his come-on as bourgeois buffoonery ("Must you flirt?" "I don't have to, but I find it natural." "Suppress it."), the count is fascinated with her frostiness, and persists in his attentions until he successfully chips away the last of her flinty fa├žade.

While clinging to her principles, Ninotchka can't help but enjoy being subtly seduced by not merely by Leon, but by the West-- She breaks down and acquires the improbable high-fashion chapeau that she had mocked in a store window upon her arrival. Her growing bond with the count isn't lost upon Swana, who determines that she had ceded enough to the Marxists in her lifetime. With Ninotchka unconscious after a night's partying, the Grand Duchess arranges the theft of the jewels from her hotel room. Swana's willing to negotiate, however, with her first demand being Ninotchka's return to the USSR.

In the initial phases of this singular performance, Garbo seemed to enjoy the chance for some self-mockery of her austere public persona, coming across as nearly robotic in her single-minded service to the state. By its conclusion, the script is playing to her strengths, as she convincingly conveys the depths of her feelings for Leon and her devastation at their separation through the slightest and subtlest shifts in her expression. Douglas, so frequently treated by MGM in this phase of his career as a second-team William Powell, rose to the occasion with an effort that perfectly complemented the leading lady, convincingly playing the moneyed dilettante whose intrigue with his polar opposite builds to infatuation.

Rumann, Bressart and Granach are delightful as the apparatchiks naughtily reaching into the cookie jar of kapitalist excess, and the cattily Claire is wholly credible in her bitterness towards the Bolsheviks. Bela Lugosi wrangled fourth billing out of his two-and-a-half minutes of screen time as Ninotchka's immediate superior. The boundlessly clever screenplay, as adapted by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch, shows collective spirit insofar has how the tweaks were evenly doled out amongst the Reds, the Czarists and the West.

Warner presented Ninotchka in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and the print and mastering job are of more than decent quality. The quality of the Dolby 1.0 Mono audio also suffices. The primary quibble to be had with Warner's DVD presentation of Ninotchka is in the extras package, which is as spartan as its heroine's Moscow flat. The theatrical trailer is all that's provided. Given WHV's track record with providing worthwhile audio commentaries on its product, the absence of such on a film comedy of Ninotchka's stature is as confusing as it is disappointing.

For more information about Ninotchka, visit Warner Video. To order Ninotchka, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jay S. Steinberg