Ninotchka :: A Funny and Fascinating Fossil of a Film…

Cineville - Ninotchka

Ninotchka was made very nearly 80 years ago, in 1939, and as a historical artefact, it's pretty fascinating. Communists are portrayed as humourless, austere and ultimately incompetent, while Nazis (who were only just about to get into their stride) come across as merely ludicrous. On the whole, however, the film stands up pretty well, considering how much the world has changed.

The story concerns the melting of the cold Communist heart of Russian envoy Nina Ivanovna Yakushova (aka Ninotchka, played by Greta Garbo), at the hands of lovably louche American playboy Count Leon d'Algout (Melvyn Douglas). Although the flagrant decadence of the city of Paris, where the main action of the film takes place, must also take some of the blame.

Cineville - Ninotchka

Ninotchka has a mostly cracking, breakneck screenplay (co-written by Billy Wilder) and is still very funny in places, and thoroughly charming throughout. Most of the laughs come from Garbo's wilful sternness and her initial refusal to respond to Douglas's romantic overtures.

It's a great role for Garbo, with Ninotchka getting all the best lines. "Don't make an issue of my womanhood," she tells the Count, and to his butler she says: "The day will come when you will be free. Go to bed, Little Father, we want to be alone." They might not sound so great spelled out here but in the context of the film, they're scorchers.

However, there are a few aspects of the film's datedness that have not fared so well. For example, no one has any idea how to talk convincingly on the telephone, and neither of the two leads have a clue how to act drunk. Oh, and just the speed with which people used to fall in love in old films seems now, to our cynical eye, utterly ridiculous.

Some things, however, never change, as evidenced by this line about the latest technological advance - a line that could equally be applied to the iPhone: "A radio's a little box that you buy on the instalment plan, and before you tune it in, they tell you there's a new model out."

Aaaah, Capitalism. 


Cineville - Ninotchka


The Viewing

This was my first time at the Rialto and for a film that was made almost 80 years ago, it was surprisingly full, with a good 50 or 60 people in the audience. The cinema itself was fine if nothing massively special, with smart wooden interiors. But what a turn-out! I like it when lots of people go to see an old film, rather than just the latest whizz-bang nonsense.

One of the last people to take his seat, just as the film was starting, was a gnarled and leathery old man with a full dirty beard and more than one bag. He looked - and I mean no disrespect by this - but he looked like a homeless person, and I remember thinking that this was unusual. Not that homeless people don't have a right to go to the cinema. Au contraire. It just doesn't strike me as something that they would, ordinarily, ever get round to doing. But I guess that's my prejudice talking. I apologise. 

Anyway, as the film progressed, I could hear some quite elaborate groaning every time there was a kissing scene. It sounded like something akin to disgust and I imagined it was coming from this old geezer. He just seemed the type. Then sure enough, as the romantic aspect of the story came into its own in the film's second act, the groaning resumed and ultimately led to the film's only walk-out - or rather, shuffle-out. Evidently having had enough of the romance, the old guy made his way to the front of the cinema and slowly, deliberately, shuffled past the screen and out of the cinema. It was odd. I felt bad for him, and wondered what must have happened to him to so turn him against romance. I imagined a film of his life, ending with him leaving a showing of Ninotchka one night in Amsterdam. He's miserable and full of bitterness but that night, just as he steps out of the cinema foyer and onto the street, he meets her, the woman who changes his mind. 

I am a romantic. 

Join me. 

About the Author

I am Karl Webster. I wrote these words. If you liked them, you’ll be overjoyed to know that there are plenty more where they came from. So you should definitely sign up to my newsletter if you haven’t already.

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