Saturday, October 04, 2014

Ninotchka (1939)

This is the third of four films that Ernst Lubitsch made for MGM (he'd previously directed THE STUDENT PRINCE IN OLD HEIDELBERG and THE MERRY WIDOW for the studio, and would direct THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER the following year). MGM was not a studio known for being particularly hospitable to highly personal filmmakers like Lubitsch, but it did excel at producing polished, sophisticated romantic comedies, and the result here is one of Lubitsch's finest films. Though perhaps a little softer around the edges than his earlier films for Paramount, with the sexual innuendos toned down due to the production code, there are still some biting satirical jokes -- mainly about Communism and the Soviet Union -- that deliver a punch thanks to the sharp writing of Walter Reisch, Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. It's stylistically a bit more restrained than Lubitsch's Paramount comedies, but benefits greatly from the sumptuous Cedric Gibbons art direction and sparkling William Daniels cinematography.

Garbo is quite funny in her rare, highly-publicized comic turn, with a dry, understated delivery that is perfectly suited to the character of the icy Soviet envoy, though it is Melvyn Douglas who delivers some of the film's biggest laughs, demonstrating here what a fine light comedian he was, especially in his failed attempts to get Ninotchka to crack a smile with his corny jokes. The supporting cast is superb, especially Ina Claire as the former Russian aristocrat trying to reclaim her confiscated jewels; Sig Rumann, Felix Bressart and Alexander Granach as the trio of Russian agents on official business in Paris who find themselves seduced by capitalism; and Bela Lugosi in a brief but effective turn as the commissar. The final gag is a classic, and one of the funniest moments in Lubitsch's entire filmography.

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