The tagline for Ninotchka, released in 1939, was simply “Garbo laughs!” That’s all they needed to sell the movie: the novelty of the solemn dramatic actress in a comedy. Even today, the famous scene in which Greta Garbo’s stern character finally breaks down is incandescent. She doesn’t giggle in a ladylike manner. She howls, her body bent double, her eyes squeezed shut, her hand pounding the table in appreciation. I don’t know how anyone could watch that scene and not laugh along with her.
Garbo plays Nina “Ninotchka” Yakushova, a Soviet emissary sent to Paris to ensure the sale of jewels seized during the Communist revolution. The jewels originally belonged to the exiled Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), who sends her friend and occasional lover Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas) to reclaim them for her. Leon finds himself taken with the no-nonsense Ninotchka, who gradually unbends enough to fall in love with him, too.
The premise sounds suspiciously pedestrian, just another lazily offensive story of an independent woman who discards her values and professionalism and turns into a giddy teenager when she falls in love. But the screenwriters (among them Billy Wilder), director Ernst Lubitsch and Garbo herself refuse to treat Ninotchka so shabbily. She learns to laugh, to appreciate champagne, and to enjoy the simple pleasure of a foolish hat, but she doesn’t abandon her principles. Even when she’s out with Leon, dancing and drinking, she takes the opportunity to pass out propaganda in the powder room and inspire the attendants to strike.
And Ninotchka isn’t the only one who grows over the course of the film. Leon, too, adopts some of the better traits of the person he loves. In one surprisingly serious scene, he ends things with the Grand Duchess by calmly telling her that he’s fallen in love, that he might not have been able to say that a week ago for fear of looking foolish or unsophisticated but that now he’s not ashamed. It’s a beautiful moment — Douglas gives Leon such dignity and sincerity — and it typifies the way Lubitsch comedies can be both howlingly funny and deeply emotional without seeming forced or trite.
Ninotchka is all the funnier for the high-wire act it’s pulling off, skating around terribly grim subjects with a determined resolve to see the best in life. The opening titles tell us that the film takes place in Paris when “a siren was a brunette,” an arch acknowledgment of the hardships France and the rest of Europe were facing when the movie was released. Yet even in the course of the movie, the characters allude to the ugly political realities around them: a darkly bitter joke about the Nazi salute, ongoing gags about the repression of the Soviet regime, biting quips about the violence perpetrated by the deposed Russian aristocracy. The humor is clever and witty — truly laugh-out-loud funny — but it is also cathartic, like a small but brilliant light pushing back looming darkness.