The Set-Up: "Garbo Laughs!" That's how M-G-M trumpeted Ninotchka on their posters. The studio's great (and temperamental) star had survived the transition from silent films to talkies, and was part of Hollywood royalty. Greta Garbo was strong, sympathetic, enigmatic, and appealed to both sexes of movie-goers: attractive to men, while empathetic, elegant and not threateningly beautiful to women.
And she could act, with a minimum of fluttery artifice in both silent films and talkies. She lured your attention, performing internally with a half-committed expression in transition that you wanted to watch to see what it would break into. Her signature line (not entirely accurate) was a heavily-Swedish-accented "I vant to be alone," essentially playing "hard-to-get" with the entire movie-going public
And like most enigmatic women in the movies, she was always cast in dramas, if not downright tragedies.
Except for this one.
Ninotchka is like the best of both worlds: decadent and disciplined, outrageously florid, but done in dead-pan, a real world-story with the inspiration of a fairy-tale—a merger between greedy capitalists and stuck-in-the-mud communists. There's something to criricize about everybody. And it has an amazing combination of talents behind the camera: writers Charles Brackett and his Nazi-fleeing partner Billy Wilder, who, in a few years, would get behind the camera himself and become one of the cinema's great directors; but here, the man in charge was Ernst Lubitsch, a director of such grace and cunning, he could cull charm and evoke laughs out of seemingly any situation or subject. He was so respected in Hollywood that his indefinable taste and abilities had to be given its own film term, its own category and definition—"The Lubitsch Touch." No other talent in movie-town could duplicate it (and Wilder himself would chase after that special "something" for years).
And this scene has his dynamic. Brackett and Wilder go over-time with the story-telling (it is a long scene), but it is mostly done in one take, one continuous recording on film. That's a bit unusual for movies, where coverage and convenient editing points are king (especially in these ADD days). It recalls more the marathon of stage-acting. The burden falls on Melvyn Douglas, and occassionally, in this complicated scene, he flusters remembering his lines, trying to find the beats, making it work. But that only lends an invisible tension to the audience watching him squirm. And he's working off the straightest of "men"—Garbo's communist designate Sergeant Nina Ivanovna Yakushova is almost Vulcan in her lack of emotions (which makes the pay-off that much better and unexpected), laser-like in her concentration, and cruel in her ability to cut some bourgeois capitalist (like Douglas' Count) off at his bottom line. The explosion, when it comes, is a tonic, because in two senses, the mighty fall, and another revolution takes place. And it is all done in character.
This is the "magic" moment in the film where all the transformations take place, the fold where the story and characters turn a corner and completely change, where the film becomes less a comedy and more of a romance, where delicate empathy and grace take the fore from biting satire. The hard work where movie magic comes from.
"Garbo Laughs" doesn't come close to encompassing it.
The Story: Three Russians come to Paris to try and sell heirlooms seized during the Revolution. They may be the jewels of the Grand Duchess Swana, and Count Léon d'Algout (Melvyn Douglas) wines and dines the three to try to get them back by any means necessary. But, before they can be completely corrupted by him, a Russian envoy (Greta Garbo) is sent to oversee the sale and keep her eye on her comrades. The Count must find a way into her confidence, even as she has already made an incursion into his heart.
LEON Oh, Ninotchka, who wants to talk business. If you win the suit, fine. If we win the suit, better. You do me an injustice.
(He moves over to her table, leaving the soup at his table)
LEON When we went to my apartment did I have the slightest idea that you had any connection with this deal?
NINOTCHKA But you have now, and I know now that you are a man who employs business methods which in Russia would be punished by death.
LEON Death! Death! Always so glum! What about life, Ninotchka!
LEON Do Russians never think of life? Of the moment in which we are living? The only moment we really have? Don't take it all so seriously, Ninotchka. Nothing is worth it. Please... relax... I
beg you, Sergeant... smile!
NINOTCHKA (astonished) What?
LEON Will you smile?
LEON Just smile.
NINOTCHKA At what?
LEON At anything. At the whole ludicrous spectacle of life. At people being pompous and taking themselves seriously and exaggerating their own importance. If you can't find anything else to laugh at you can laugh at you and me.
LEON Because we are an odd couple.
NINOTCHKA Then you should go back to your table.
LEON No, I can't leave you. I won't. Not yet. Not until I've made you laugh...at least once.
To get rid of him Ninotchka emits a joyless sound which approximates a laugh.
NINOTCHKA Ha! Ha!
NINOTCHKA Now go back.
LEON That's not a laugh! I mean a laugh from the heart.
LEON Now let's see. I'm going to tell you a funny story.
LEON Just a moment... I've got it! Well, it seems there were a couple of Frenchmen who went to America...
NINOTCHKA On which boat?
LEON (thrown off by her methodical thinking) Well, er... let's drop it.
LEON I don't think you would care for that one.
NINOTCHKA Probably not.
LEON Now, here's a great one... Ha! Ha! Ha!
(he looks at Ninotchka and her expression stops him)
LEON Well, maybe it's not so good. Let's forget it!
LEON Do you like Scotch stories?
NINOTCHKA I have never heard one.
LEON Two Scotchmen met on the street...
LEON ...and I don't know the name of the street and it really doesn't matter.
LEON Well, anyway, one's name was McIntosh and the other's was McGillicuddy. McIntosh says to McGillicuddy, "Hello, Mr. McGillicuddy," and McGillicuddy says to McIntosh, "Hello, Mr. McIntosh," and then McIntosh says to McGillicuddy, "How is Mrs. McGillicuddy?" and then McGillicuddy says to McIntosh, "How is Mrs. McIntosh?"...
NINOTCHKA I wish they had never met.
LEON (disarmed) So do I.
(after a little pause)
LEON How's this? Two men are looking at the moon. One says to the other, "Is it true that a lot of people live on the moon?" "Yes, it is," says the other, "five hundred million." "Whew!" replies the first, "they must get pretty crowded when it's half moon!"
LEON Ha! Ha! Ha!
There is no response from Ninotchka.
LEON (starting to get sore) I suppose you don't think that's funny?
LEON It seemed funny to me when I first heard it.
LEON Maybe the trouble isn't with the joke. Maybe it's with you!
NINOTCHKA I don't think so.
LEON Maybe you haven't any sense of humor. Well, I'll give you one more chance! Now listen!
He gets up and speaks in a threatening voice audible to the entire room.
LEON When I heard this joke for the first time I laughed myself sick.
LEON Here goes!
LEON A man comes into a restaurant and sits down and says, "Waiter! Get me a cup of coffee without cream." After five minutes the waiter comes back and says, "I'm sorry, sir, we're all out of cream, can it be without milk?"
GROUP OF SEVERAL WORKMEN
They have overheard the story and all burst into laughter.
NINOTCHKA AND LEON
Ninotchka continues to eat her soup without a shadow of a laugh.
LEON (furious) Not funny, huh?
LEON So you don't think that's funny? It is funny! Everyone else thinks so! Maybe you didn't get it.
He sits down again.
LEON (threateningly) I'll tell you that joke again. A man comes into a restaurant. Did you get that?
LEON He sits down at the table and says to the waiter... Did you get that too?
LEON Well, so far it isn't funny, but wait.
LEON He says to the waiter, "Waiter! Bring me a cup of coffee." So the waiter comes back five minutes later and says, "I'm sorry, sir, we have no coffee."...
(he realizes he has made a mistake)
LEON Oh, you've got me all mixed up...Wait a minute... wait a minute...That's it!
(he starts over again)
LEON A man comes in a restaurant, he sits down, he calls the waiter and he says, "Waiter! Get me a cup of coffee without cream," and five minutes later the waiter comes back and says, "I'm sorry, sir, we have no cream, can it be a glass of milk!"
He gets up and goes over to his table furiously.
LEON Ah! You have no sense of humor!
LEON That settles it! You have no sense of humor!
LEON Not a grain in you!
LEON Everbody else, but not you...
In his excitement he leans on the shaky table. It topples forward. Simultaneously his feet shoot from under him and he sits violently on the floor, the contents of the table crashing about him, hot soup in his face.
A terrific roar of laughter arises; the whole restaurant is rocking with laughter.
For a split second Ninotchka makes an effort to control the irresistible impulse to laugh but loses the battle and herself roars with laughter.
LEON (indignantly) What's funny about this?
Ninotchka's laughter is uncontrollable.
After a moment Leon gets up and sits next to her.
As he dries himself with his napkin he sees the humor of the situation and starts to howl with laughter too. The ice is broken at last!
On their mutual wild hilarity, we...
Words by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch (Based on a story by Melchior Lengyel)
Pictures by William H. Daniels and Ernst Lubitsch
Ninotchka is available on DVD from Warners Home Video