Monday, May 20, 2024

Garbo and everyone laughs in Ernst Lubitsch's "Ninotchka"

Ninotchka (1939) was the movie that proclaimed, “Garbo laughs!” The great Great Garbo is Ninotchka is a sophisticated delight. The supporting cast includes, Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach, and Bela (Dracular) Lugosi. Ninotchka, a special Russian envoy tasked with completing a deal to sell some jewelry that once belonged to an exiled member of Russian royalty (Ina Claire) now living in Paris. Ninotchka is all business and refuses to be taken in by the luxury and romance of the city of lights until she meets Count Leon d’ Algout (Melvin Douglas). Leon flirts with Ninotchka and shows her what a wonderful city Paris is and what it’s like living in a free society. Does Ninotchka hold fast to the tenets of Stalin and the Soviet Union or does she give in to the lure of democracy and capitalism? Directed by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch and written by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch,

Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas

Ninotchka was a radical departure for Garbo. It was her first full-blown comedy film and it remains one of her most popular. Her performance garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (she lost out, of course, to Vivian Leigh in Gone with the Wind). The film was also Oscar-nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Story, and Best Screenplay.

Backstory: By 1939, Great Garbo’s popularity was beginning to wane. Under the direction of Ernst Lubitsch, Garbo gives a wonderfully shaded performance as a woman whose life changes under the spell and romance of Paris. Garbo’s next film, Two-Faced Woman, also costarring Melvyn Douglas, was supposed to capitalize on Ninotchka’s success, but turned out to be a critical and commercial failure. It was Garbo’s last film. After the film was completed, she retired from the movies and acting altogether. Attempts to bring her out of retirement—and there were many—were unsuccessful.

The movie which pokes fun at Stalin and the Soviet Union was banned in that country, but was enormously popular in Europe.


Ernst Lubitsch (1892 – 1947) was a German-born film director who became famous for his sophisticated comedies during the pre-code era. Silent film star Mary Pickford lured Lubitsch to Hollywood in 1922. He directed Pickford in Rosita, which was a huge, hit and cemented his reputation in Hollywood. Lubitsch’s films were so unique that they were described as having the “Lubitsch touch.” Some of Lubitsch’s classic films include Trouble in Paradise (1932), Design for Living (1933), Ninotchka (1939), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Heaven Can Wait (1943), and Cluny Brown (1946). Lubitsch was awarded an Honorary Academy Award for his work in film.

Ernst Lubitsch directs Garbo

Greta Garbo (1905 – 1990) was a Swedish-American actress. Greta Garbo was a major star during the silent and golden eras of Hollywood. She was famous for playing tragic figures in films like Mata Hari (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), Queen Christina (1933), and Anna Karenna (1935). With the beginning of World War II in Europe, Garbo’s career began to decline. Partly due to the fact that her films weren’t distributed in Europe during the war, where she was enormously popular. When she received terrible notices and poor box office with Two-Faced Woman, Garbo retired from acting and never looked back.

Melvyn Douglas (1901 – 1981) was an American actor. Douglas was a popular leading man during the 1930s working with some of Hollywood’s most famous leading ladies including Greta Garbo, Claudette Colbert, Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert, Marlene Dietrich, Myrna Loy, and Merle Oberon. He won two Best Supporting Actor Academy Awards late in his career for Hud (1963) and Being There (1979). Douglas’s last film role was in Ghost Story (1981) co-starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Fred Astair.

Click HERE to watch the movie on YouTube.


Click HERE to join the discussion online on May 27, 2024 at 6:30 p.m. Central Time. Once you RSVP, you will receive an invitation and a link to join the discussion on Zoom.


Discussion questions

  1. What did you think of Greta Garbo in a comedic role?
  2. Do you think there was some seriousness between the laughs?
  3. Did Garbo and Melvyn Douglas have good chemistry?
  4. A big part of the success of this movie is the character actors in the film. Did you have a favorite?
  5. Garbo retired from acting in 1940 after the failure of Two-Faced Woman. Do you think she made a mistake in retiring so young?



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