Hollywood 1939: Best Year? Ninotchka (Garbo Laughs)

“Ninotchka,” one of Ernst Lubitsch’s last masterpieces, was based on a script by Billy Wilder (before he became a director), Charles Brackett, and Walter Reisch.

“Garbo Laughs,” announced the original MGM ad, and for good reason. Garbo was mostly associated with (melo) dramatic roles and suffering (Queen Christina, Camille), appearing in stories that always made her say, “I Want to Be Alone!”

In a major departure from her screen image, Garbo (The “Divine”) brings her incredible sensual abandon to the role of a glum, scientifically trained Bolshevik envoy that succumbs to Parisian freedom, that is, romance and champagne.

Reflecting the politics of the times, there’s jeery cynicism built into the script: the Russians don’t defect for freedom but for consumer goods. Some of the sociological banter is a bit outdated, but a light-hearted Garbo still shines.

Directed by Lubitch, this light, satirical comedy has the nonchalance and sophistication that were his trademark (To Be or Not To Be, Heaven Can Wait)

The film contains many inside jokes, including a historical encounter between the great instinctive artist of the screen and the great stylist-technician of the stage–Ina Claire–as a Russian grand duchess.

The other cast members, Melvyn Douglas and Bela Lugosi, also show fine comedic flair.

The material was later adapted into a stage and a screen musical, “Silk Stockings” (1957), directed by Rouben Mamoulian in what became his last Hollywood picture.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 4

Picture, produced by Sidney Franklin

Actress: Greta Garbo

Original Story: Melchior Lengyel

Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and Billy Wilder

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

“Ninotchka competed for the top Oscar award with nine other films: “Dark Victory,” “Gone with the Wind,” “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” “Love Affair,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Stagecoach,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and “Wuthering Heights.”

“Gone with the Wind” swept most of the Oscars, including Picture, Best Actress (Vivien Leigh), and Screenplay. The Original Story Oscar went to Lewis R. Foster for “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”