Program Notes: Ninotchka (1939)

For most of her career, the great Swedish star Greta Garbo (1905-1990) was known as a dramatic actress. A tragic actress, in fact.

In films like Flesh and the Devil (1926), Anna Karenina (’35), and Camille (‘36), the ethereal-looking Garbo loved, suffered, and died. With regularity.

Audiences were riveted by Garbo’s subtlety of expression, something they were unaccustomed to in silent film. In just a few years she became the best-known woman in world, the “unapproachable goddess of the most widespread and remarkable mythology in human history,” according to social critic Alistair Cooke.

Garbo was considered the movies’ most mysterious and seductive leading lady. Most of her films were box office sensations, and the public became obsessed with her personal life and loves ... a situation the fundamentally shy and insecure actress found distressing. As a result she went to extremes to shun unwanted publicity and protect her privacy.

Film Screening:
Ninotchka (1939)
Saturday, Jan. 4 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

Comedians and even animated cartoons often spoofed a line from Garbo’s film Grand Hotel in which her moody ballerina character says, “I want to be alone.”

Given her grim screen history, then, few were prepared for 1939’s Ninotchka, a brilliant comedy from the Berlin-born Ernst Lubitsch, Hollywood’s greatest director of sophisticated humor.

Lubitsch had made his mark with comedies of upper-class romance like One Hour with You and Trouble in Paradise (both in 1932), Design for Living (’33), and The Merry Widow (’34). These were films distinguished by sophistication, wit, elegance, and nonchalance.

But the thought of the great Garbo being funny was alien to movie audiences, a fact the studio publicity department hammered at with the movie’s much-publicized tagline: “Garbo Laughs!”

The film is a spoof of both dour communism and free-wheeling, hedonistic capitalism. Garbo’s title character is a stern, ideologically pure Russian special envoy dispatched to Paris to retrieve three members of a Soviet trade delegation who have fallen for the city’s night life and show signs of “going native.”

The bumbling bureaucrats have been corrupted by a count (Melvyn Douglas) who wants to get his hands on some jewelry confiscated from the aristocracy during the Russian Revolution. Now the suave, debonair gent turns his attentions to the joyless Ninotchka, who at first resists but, little by little, finds her grim Communist resolve broken down by champagne, music, and the lights of Paris.

Initially there were questions about whether the uptight Garbo and the outgoing Lubitsch would get along.

The actress, recalled one of her producers, “liked directors who left her alone ... She didn’t care for directors who directed her. She had some kind of somnambulistic instinct for her effect on the camera. Whoever tried to interfere with that she instinctively fought. You couldn’t really direct Garbo. And, if you look at her films, you find that she is always more or less the same, including in Ninotchka.”

Plus there were Garbo’s eccentric work methods. She allowed no visitors on her set (not even studio officials), was known to have signed only one autograph, and often insisted on being filmed surrounded by flats or screens so that not even extras and crew members could watch her act.

Lubitsch – who described Garbo as “probably the most inhibited person I ever worked with” – had to find ways to accommodate his star’s peculiar demands, yet still mine Garbo’s natural humor. For he’d been told by her friends that in private she was terribly funny.

The genius of Ninotchka is that Garbo doesn’t try to be funny. Great comics are egoists, but Lubitsch discovered that Garbo had “no phoniness, no star allures. She is the only star I ever worked with I did not have to drag away from the mirror.”

Lubitsch’s answer was to not direct Garbo. He would talk to her about an upcoming scene, then send her off into the wings to psyche herself up. He courted her, coddled her, soothed her. He had to be particularly patient in shooting the famous restaurant scene in which Garbo laughs out loud – the privacy-loving actress would be surrounded by extras playing the other diners.

But – after protesting that she couldn’t do it, that she would be terrible – Garbo came out and did it. Beautifully.

Upon release Ninotchka won rave reviews and became a hit – though some patrons complained that constant audience laughter kept them from hearing all the dialogue.

Raved one reviewer: “The first lady of drama plays a deadpan comedy role with the assurance of a Buster Keaton.”

So popular was the film that Garbo decided that her next film would be a comedy, too.

Big mistake. Two-Faced Woman (1941) had the right ingredients – Garbo was once again teamed with Melvyn Douglas, and behind the camera was the popular director George Cukor. But the film was a clumsy mess.

“It’s almost as shocking as seeing your mother drunk,” wrote Time magazine’s critic.

The withering reviews and tepid box office did it for Garbo. Shortly after the release of Two-Faced Woman she retired at the age of 35. She had appeared in 28 films, and that was enough.

Over the next half century she was repeatedly offered chances to return to the screen, but rejected them all. Occasionally she would be surreptitiously photographed going to and from her New York City apartment, but for the greater part of her life she realized her wish: She was left alone.

Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: The Comedies (Part I)”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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