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December 7, 2010

129. Ninotchka
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
USA, 1939
IMDB | allmovie

Reviewed by Rachel
Approx. third viewing


Three Bolsheviks are sent to Paris by the Soviet Government to sell the jewels of a Grand Duchess (Ina Claire). When it is clear the men are spending more time partying with French maids than securing the sale, the Government send stern female envoy Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova (Greta Garbo) to oversee the situation.

Soon after her arrival, Ninotchka meets the quintessential bourgeois, Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), who is rallying on behalf of the Grand Duchess. When Leon and Ninotchka fall in love, she finds herself going against her communist ideals for the first time in her life.

Essential Scene:

Leon has joined Ninotchka at a restaurant, knowing she was there. He decides to try to make her laugh.

Leon: Do you like Scotch stories?

Ninotchka: Never heard one.

Leon: Well, here. Two Scotchmen met on the street. And I don’t know the name of the street. It doesn’t matter anyway. One’s name was McGillicuddy and the other one’s name was McIntosh. McGillicuddy said to McIntosh, “Hello Mr McGillicuddy.” And McGillicuddy… McIntosh said to McGillicuddy, “Hello Mr. McIn…McGillicuddy!” Then McGillicuddy said to McIntosh, “How’s Mrs. McIntosh?” and McIntosh said to McGillicuddy, “How’s Mrs. McGillicuddy?” —

Ninotchka: I wish they’d never met.

Leon: So do I.

Leon tries another joke. Nothing. Not giving up, he tries another.

Leon: I’ll give you one more chance. Here goes. When I first heard this joke, I laughed myself sick.

A group of men at a nearby table turn to listen.

Leon: Here it goes. A man comes into a restaurant. He sits down at the table and he says, “Waiter, bring me a cup of coffee without cream.” Five minutes later, the waiter comes back and says, “I’m sorry sir, we have no cream. Can it be without milk?”

The group of men laugh hysterically. Ninotchka remains stone-faced.

Leon: Not funny, huh?

Ninotchka: No.

Leon: Well, it is funny! Everybody else thought it was funny! Maybe you didn’t get the point. I’ll tell it to you again. A man comes into a restaurant. Did you get that?

Ninotchka: Yes.

Leon: All right. He sits down at the table and he says to the waiter… Did you get that?

Ninotchka: Yes.

Leon: It isn’t funny so far, but wait a minute. He says to the waiter, “Waiter, bring me a cup of coffee.” Five minutes later, the waiter comes back and says, “I’m sorry sir, we’re all out of coffee.” Oh no, no you’ve got me all mixed up now…

He says, “Waiter, bring me a cup of coffee without cream.” Five minutes later, the waiter comes back and says, “I’m sorry, sir, we have no cream. Can it be a glass of milk?” — Oh, you have no sense of humour.

[Moves his chair back]

None whatsoever.

[Starts to lean his chair back]

Not a grain of humour in you. There’s not a laugh in you. Everybody else laughs at that but not you.

Leon’s chair tips backwards and he falls into a table beside him. The whole restaurant, including Ninotchka, bursts out laughing.

Garbo Laughs!


Ninotchka: Why do you want to carry my bags?

Porter: That is my business.

Ninotchka: That’s no business. That’s social injustice.

Porter: That depends on the tip.

Ninotchka is a modern woman. She acknowledges that sexual attraction and sexual intercourse are natural and normal. She is intelligent and has a firm grasp of the communist doctrine in which she believes with unwavering loyalty. She even served in the army.

But her personality changes at quite an alarming speed. She arrives as a monosyllabic, distant person and suddenly thaws out to become a much warmer person, purely because she has fallen in love. She starts to see the downsides of her beloved country. Whether she actually does change her mind completely about communist Russia is a matter for debate.

Despite the slightly far-fetched transformation, I love this film. The quick and rather dramatic change is needed because the overall statement regarding communism is bigger than Ninotchka herself. The subject is very daring and the film was indeed banned in the Soviet Union.

Although best known for her dramatic roles, Greta Garbo is absolutely ideal for this film. She delivers her early lines in a deliciously deadpan manner that has an air of dry, laconic humour. Just brilliant. And Melvyn Douglas is a joy too!

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