Ninotchka (1939)

Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas and Ina Claire

''Ninotchka' is a romantic comedy film made in 1939 by producer and director Ernst Lubitsch, starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas. The screenplay is witty and sharp and was written by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch. The story is based on the book of the same title by Melchior Lengyel.

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'Ninotchka' is about the clash of ideologies between Soviet Russia and the capitalist West and was one of the first Hollywood movies to be critical of Stalin's Soviet Union, depicting it as drab and rigidly conformist, in contrast to the sparkling and free lifestyle of Paris. For this reason the movie was banned in the Soviet Union and its satellites, which did not prevent it becoming a major box-office success throughout the rest of Europe.

The movie was brought out in 1939, and in that wonderful year of 'Gone With the Wind', 'Wuthering Heights', 'Mr Smith Goes To Washington' and other classic movies, it won no Academy Awards. It received four nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress (Greta Garbo with her fourth nomination), Best Original Story (Melchior Lengyel), and Best Screenplay (Billy Wilder). In 1990 'Ninotchka' was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. It is also featured on two lists of the American Film Institute : at number 40 on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Passions and at number 52 on their list of 100 Years... 100 Laughs.


The action of the movie takes place in Paris, where, in the wake of the Russian revolution, three Russian emissaries are sent in order to raise money for the Communist cause by selling the Imperial jewels. Moscow sends a trusted loyalist to watch over the emissaries to make sure they are not won over by the decadent delights of the West. She is Comrade Ninotchka, played by Greta Garbo, a cold, dour Soviet stereotype who is eventually transformed by a loving playboy, Count Leon, played by Melvyn Douglas, into a carefree, romantic figure who laughs for the first time in her life.


The original storyline for 'Ninotchka' was by Hungarian writer, Melchior Lengyel who also assisted with the script. The main screenplay was created by the future all star team of Billy Wilder, in his pre-directing days, and Charles Brackett, with collaborator, Walter Reisch who was a specialist in tailoring promising stories for specific stars, like Garbo.

MGM considered several working titles including 'A Kiss from Moscow' and 'Give Us This Day' but eventually the name of the principal character was used. The studio was nervous about some of the more controversial aspects of Lengyel's original story and some aspects were changed, such as moving the action from Moscow to Paris.

Ernst Lubitsch had made his Hollywood reputation as a director of sophisticated comedies and musicals such as 'The Smiling Lieutenant' in 1931. 'Ninotchka' was his first movie as producer and director for MGM.

MGM's original choice for the male lead was Cary Grant and they also considered William Powell. When filming began, no male lead had been cast. Melvyn Douglas had starred with Garbo once before in 1932 in 'As You Desire Me' and proved to be the ideal choice as the suave Count Léon d'Algout.

Ina Claire, who played the Grand Duchess Swana had been married from 1929 to 1931 to John Gilbert, who had previously had a highly public affair with Greta Garbo during the filming of the 1926 'Flesh and the Devil'.

Main Cast

Greta Garbo ... Lena Yakushova, "Ninotchka"
Melvyn Douglas ... Count Leon Dolga
Ina Claire ... Grand Duchess Swana
Sig Rumann ... Michael Ironoff
Felix Bressart ... Buljanoff
Alexander Granach ... Kopalski
Bela Lugosi ... Commissar Razinin
Gregory Gaye ... Count Alexis Rakonin
Richard Carle ... Vaston
Rolfe Sedan ... Hotel Manager
Edwin Maxwell ... Mercier
Rolfe Sedan ... Hotel Manager
George Tobias ... Russian Visa Official
Dorothy Adams ... Jacqueline, Swana's Maid
Lawrence Grant ... Gen. Savitsky

Greta Garbo (1905-1990)
"Ninotchka" is one of Garbo's few comic roles and she certainly shows a beguiling, much warmer and more human image than in her previous movies like 'Anna Karenina' in 1935 and 'Camille' in 1937 when her roles were much heavier and more dramatic. The slogan "Garbo Laughs!" was actually used to publicise the movie.
Melvyn Douglas (1901-81)
Douglas had a long career as a leading actor in theatre, film and television beginning with his first Broadway role in 1930 in 'Tonight or Never'. He twice won Best Supporting Actor Oscars for 'Hud' in 1963 and 'Being There' in 1979. He was also nominated for the Best Actor Award in 1970 for 'I Never Sang for My Father'.
Ina Claire (1893-1985)
Ina made her stage debut in 1911, and became well known during the 1920's for appearances in hugely successful sophisticated Broadway comedies. For most of her career she concentrated on the stage and her role as the Grand Duchess in 'Ninotchka' is her best known screen work.


Director ... Ernst Lubitsch
Producer ... Ernst Lubitsch, Sidney Franklin
Production Company ... Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Screenplay ... Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch
Original Story ... Melchior Lengyel
Cinematographer ... William Daniels
Music ... Werner R. Heymann
Release Date ... October 6, 1939
Format ... B & W
Running Time ... 110 minutes

Academy Awards

No Wins:
4 Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Picture ... Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Best Actress ... Greta Garbo
Best Original Story ... Melchior Lengyel
Best Screenplay ... Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch