Combustible Celluloid
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With: Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire, Bela Lugosi, Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach, Gregory Gaye
Written by: Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, based on a story by Melchior Lengyel
Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 110
Date: 10/06/1939

Ninotchka (1939)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Garbo Laughs

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This highly enjoyable comedy -- one of the greatest ever made -- actually comes about despite three incredible talents working against each other. Greta Garbo stars as Ninotchka, a Russian Agent who comes to Paris to supervise the sale of priceless jewels. Her comrades have been sent before her and have proved susceptible to the temptations of Paris. Ninotchka is not so easy.

Soon she meets Melvyn Douglas who falls madly in love with her and attempts to court her, as all manner of funny business develops. When Ninotchka and her comrades go back to Russia they find that they miss the pleasures that Paris had to offer them.

The screenplay was written by Billy Wilder (along with Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch) three years before he made his directorial debut. It's directed by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch, a hero of Wilder's. Strangely, Ninotchka is Lubitsch's most uncharacteristic work. It was broader than he was used to and relies heavily on dialogue. Lubitsch managed to squeeze some of his characteristic bits in here and there, such as the scene outside the comrades' hotel room where we hear their cries of joy as food, wine, and girls are brought to them. Garbo, too, was in a vastly different role than we had ever seen her before. She's very funny in Ninotchka, but she was also capable of portraying great passion, and it's a shame to see her draw it in here.

Nevertheless, Ninotchka is a funny and lively comedy. It was a Best Picture nominee during the legendary year of 1939, which also included: The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, and Wuthering Heights. And none other than Bela Lugosi (Dracula) has a small role as a Russian leader.

Warner Home Video, which currently holds the rights to all the old MGM stuff, has released a truly spectacular DVD box set, the Garbo: The Signature Collection, certainly one of the all-time greats. It includes no less than ten Greta Garbo films, plus both English and German-language versions of Anna Christie (1930). Other films include: The Temptress (1926), Flesh and the Devil (1927), The Mysterious Lady (1928), Mata Hari (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), Queen Christina (1933), Anna Karenina (1935), Camille (1936) and Ninotchka (1939), plus a new Turner Classic Movies documentary, Garbo. Other extras include a snippet from the lost film The Divine Woman, an alternate ending for The Temptress, audio commentary tracks on selected films, a featurette about composing the new scores for the silent films, a photo gallery and a trailer.

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