Plot: Three Soviet bureaucrats arrive in Paris to sell some jewels so they can buy tractors. But the former Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), who lives in Paris, is outraged, because they were her jewels confiscated during the Russian revolution. Her beau, Count Leon (Melvyn Douglas), goes to court on her behalf, seeking return of the jewels. More important, he goes to the three Russians and plies them with wine, food, and fun to distract them from their mission.
The Soviets respond by sending a stern and severe senior official, Lena Yakushova (Greta Garbo), to straighten things out. Leon, who calls her by the nickname “Ninotchka,” is unsuccessful in persuading her to enjoy the pleasures of Paris. Finally, he just tries to make her laugh. She is unmoved by even his best jokes, but when he falls over in his chair, she laughs uproariously. From then on, she warms to the pleasures of Paris and the charms of Leon. She dons an elegant little hat and a glamorous gown. She drinks champagne until she is tipsy.
Swana gets the jewels from a hotel employee sympathetic to the exiled Russian nobility. She tells Ninotchka she will give them back if Ninotchka will leave Paris (and Leon) immediately. Given her duty to the Soviet Union, Ninotchka has no choice. But soon, based on the success of their mission, the same three men are dispatched to Constantinople to sell furs, and soon Leon has corrupted them again and Ninotchka is sent to straighten things out. This time Leon is waiting for her, so they can stay together forever.
Discussion: Kids will need some introduction to the issues behind this enchanting romantic comedy. A few words about the state of the Soviet Union following the revolution and the different ideas of the communists and the capitalists will prepare them. The movie is really not about politics; it is about romance, and being open to the pleasures of life. Leon learns as much about this as Ninotchka does. Before she arrives, he is in what looks more like a business partnership than a love affair with Swana. He does not introduce the Soviets to food, drink, and girls in order to teach them about having a good time, but in a calculated attempt to profit. Ninotchka makes an emotionally honest man out of him as he makes an emotionally honest woman out of her. And note that as much as Ninotchka loves Leon, she will not compromise on her duty to her country. She completes her mission, even though she knows it may mean she will never see him again.
In a way, the story is the obverse of “Born Yesterday” and “My Fair Lady.” The women in those stories grow by using their intellect; Ninotchka grows by using her emotions.
Ernst Lubitsch was the master of the sophisticated romantic comedy. Close observers of his films notice that he often uses doors to tell the story. An example in this film is the way the Count’s successful corruption of the Soviet emissaries is shown through a succession of delightful treats being delivered to them through the doors of their hotel suite.
Questions for Kids:
· If they had gone to court, who would have won the jewels? What is the best argument for each side?
· What does Swana try to do when she sees Ninotchka at the nightclub?
· What would you say the “moral” of this little romantic comedy is?
Connections: This movie had one of the most famous ad slogans of all time: “Garbo Laughs.” The mysterious dramatic actress had not made a comedy before. Director Ernst Lubitsch reported that when he was considering her for the part, he asked her if she could laugh, and she said she would let him know, and then came back the next day to say she could, and to show him. “Silk Stockings” is a musical version of this story, with songs by Cole Porter. An odd update made in 1956 with Katharine Hepburn and Bob Hope(!) is called “The Iron Petticoat.”
Compare this movie to “Ball of Fire” by the same screenwriting team, another story of an intellectual who is taught to appreciate the more frivolous pleasures of life.
Activities: Older kids may want to read more about this era in Soviet history, or find out about the fall of the USSR and the current efforts of the former Soviet states at capitalism and democracy.