In contrast with many of the films mentioned above, and indeed with the majority of case studies in this book, MGM's late 1930s romantic satire Ninotchka was not designed for political purposes, but rather to entertain and make money. Yet this arguably, if somewhat paradoxically, made it a more effective weapon of propaganda than any anti-communist film made in the United States to that date.
Work on Ninotchka started in 1937, when Bernie Hyman, chief aide to MGM's head Louis B. Mayer, asked screenwriter Salka Viertel to help find a comedy vehicle for one of the studio's prime assets, Greta Garbo. Because Garbo was widely perceived as an aloof and reclusive figure, MGM wanted to display the Swedish star's humorous alter ego. Viertel, a close friend of Garbo's, approached Hungarian screenwriter Melchior Lengyel, who came up with the basic idea for Ninotchka. This was summed up in three sentences: 'Russian girl saturated with Bolshevist ideals goes to fearful, capitalistic, monopolistic Paris. She meets romance and has an uproarious time. Capitalism not so bad after all.'22 Lengyel wrote a full-length script but was then dropped from the project, probably because his story lacked sufficient wit. His place was taken by Gottfried Reinhardt, son of the legendary Austrian theatre director Max, whose script placed a greater emphasis on the ideological differences between Ninotchka (Garbo's character) and Leon, the Parisian playboy with whom she falls in love. A third version was then written in early 1938 by Reinhardt in collaboration with the playwright Jacques Deval and experienced screenwriter S. N. Behrman. Their screenplay was almost a black comedy, and compared with previous treatments depicted Russian politics with a much harder edge. Ninotchka herself was made far surlier and shown positively to hate Leon on discovering he is a count. The screenplay also incorporated a graphic description of the brutality of the Russian aristocracy in order to explain Ninotchka's ideological fervour, together with explicit references to Stalin's purges and Karl Marx.23
At this point, in order to bring the project to completion, Mayer paid a considerable fee to Paramount Pictures to secure a loan-out of their production manager, Ernst Lubitsch. A Berlin-born Jew who had worked successfully in Germany and Hollywood for twenty years, Lubitsch was known as 'the master' of the stylish comedy of manners. As producer and director, and, unusually, given complete control over Ninotchka's screenplay by Mayer, Lubitsch lightened the script and hired MGM contract writer Walter Reisch to add comic panache. Lubitsch then arranged to borrow from Paramount his Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938) writing team, Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, who specialised in sophisticated farce.
In the spring of 1939, the three of them, with Reisch, toned up the dialogue and finalised the film's structure. The end result was a script that had softened many of the most highly charged aspects of the interplay between capitalist and communist philosophies portrayed in earlier versions, but one which still crackled with explicitly ideological barbs and which was bound therefore to generate political controversy.24 Despite this, the Hays Office approved the script, having initially only been worried about its sexual content and, ironically, about whether the film might hurt the French — not Soviet — government's feelings. Since its birth in 1934, the PCA had been consistently opposed to treatments it deemed favourable to the USSR, and Ninotchka was hardly likely to fall into that category. Ardent anti-communists like Joseph Breen and his colleagues cared little if the film irritated the Kremlin anyway, as Hollywood exports to Russia were negligible due to Soviet restrictions.25
Each of the main parties involved in creating Ninotchka could not be unaware of its anti-Soviet stance, but there is no evidence they sought actively to persuade or proselytise. They were, in fact, a mixed bag politically. As befits a man who was the highest salaried employee in America, Louis B. Mayer had arch-conservative views of business and politics. These were reinforced by a strong friendship with the media magnate William Randolph Hearst. Mayer instinctively saw 'Reds' behind union activity in the film industry, and later argued that even the Gene Kelly musical On The Town (1949) was slightly communistic because it had a black woman dancing with one of the sailors.26
Charles Brackett, who was president of the Screen Writers Guild in 1938—9, was also a Republican conservative. By contrast, his long-time writing partner, Billy Wilder, was a Rooseveltian Democrat who had supported the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War and was friendly with many communist writers, some of whom stopped talking to him after Ninotchka's release.27 Lubitsch was something of a naive liberal and very far from being a political filmmaker. His approach towards Ninotchka might have been affected by a disconcerting visit he made to the USSR in 1936, but it is more likely given his roots that Lubitsch saw Nazi anti-Semitism as a greater threat than Soviet communism. (In 1940, the director was targeted personally in Fritz Hippler's infamous 'documentary', The Eternal Jew.) Walter Reisch, a Viennese Jew, and Melchior Lengyel appear not to have held any strong political views. The latter's decision to give the Garbo vehicle a Russian theme can probably be attributed to his liking for stories set in Eastern Europe.28
MGM was the biggest and most powerful Hollywood studio in 1939, with reported assets of $144 million. Consequently, the studio could easily absorb Ninotchka's total production costs of $1.3 million, a sum that was roughly three times the cost of an average feature in the late 1930s. Shooting took place in June and July 1939, and production finished in mid-August, three weeks before the outbreak of war in Europe.29 The cast was an impressive one. Melvyn Douglas, one of the most debonair and witty farceurs in Hollywood, was chosen to play Leon. The Broadway star Ina Claire played Ninotchka's chief political enemy and romantic rival, the Grand Duchess Swana, while Hollywood's 'aristocrat of evil', Bela Lugosi, star of Tod Browning's Dracula (1931), played the cruel Commissar Razinin. Unabashed opulence had long been MGM's hallmark, and Ninotchka was no exception in terms of its glossy sets and technical support, thanks in large part to the studio's experienced supervising art director, Cedric Gibbons. Audiences could watch in awe as Ninotchka and Leon drank champagne in a lavish mock-up of the Parisian restaurant frequented by the one-time French premiere George Clemenceau. State-of-the-art back projection made it look as though the lovers really were climbing the steps of the Eiffel Tower and that the filmmakers had gained unprecedented access to Red Square.30
Ninotchka opens in Paris, where Iranoff, Buljanoff and Kopalski, three scatter-brained delegates of the Soviet Board of Trade, have arrived on a mission to sell jewels confiscated during the Bolshevik Revolution in order to raise money for much-needed agricultural machinery. Swana, the rightful owner of the jewels, learns of the mission and instructs her lawyer-boyfriend, Leon, to bring about an injunction forbidding the sale. Leon befriends the three delegates, and proceeds to corrupt them by encouraging a bout of free spending, boozing and womanising. Before long the Russians have begun to dress as aristocrats and have almost forgotten what they were sent to Paris for. Then, one day, a telegram sends shudders down their spines — a special envoy has been despatched from Moscow to expedite matters.
The envoy turns out to be Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, a straitlaced female commissar. 'Ninotchka' and Leon accidentally meet on the street and strike up a friendship without knowing of their mutual involvement in the Swana jewels affair. Slowly, Ninotchka melts under Leon's romantic advances and the consumer delights the West has to offer. When the jealous Swana learns of their attachment, she agrees to relinquish her claim to the jewels in exchange for Ninotchka's return to Russia. Ninotchka is by now hopelessly in love with Leon, but succumbs to Swana's blackmail out of loyalty to her colleagues and the benefits the money will bring the Russian people.
Back in her cramped apartment in Moscow, Ninotchka is haunted by the memories of Leon's affection and the freedom, luxury and privacy she enjoyed in Paris. Her chief, Commissar Razinin, then orders Ninotchka to travel to Constantinople, where Iranoff, Buljanoff and Kopalski are on the point of bungling another job. On catching up with the troublesome trio, however, she finds that their inability to conclude a fur-selling mission is but a ruse to reunite Ninotchka with Leon. The film concludes with Iranoff, Buljanoff and Kopalski deciding to stay in Constantinople, where they open a restaurant with the proceeds of the fur deal. Ninotchka, meanwhile, opts to forsake the rigours of Soviet political life in favour of a new life with Leon.
At the tail end of the Cold War, film historian Jeremy Mindich declared that Ninotchka was 'arguably the most complex American movie ever made about the Soviet Union', and, moreover, 'one of the few American films that suggests that there are lessons that capitalism can learn from communism'.31 Mindich's claims have some validity, but only to a point. It is certainly true that, in contrast with most Hollywood films focusing on Soviet figures produced before and after 1939, in Ninotchka the communists pose no threat to US national security. Indeed, Ninotchka and her sidekicks, who resemble Hollywood's popular Three Stooges comedy team, help give Soviet communism a human face. Their quest to procure foreign currency to help pay for the modernisation of Soviet agriculture also hints at the Kremlin's concern for its citizens' well-being. Added to this, Ninotchka exposes the unacceptable face of capitalism in the shape of the aristocratic Swana, who is vain, greedy and does not work. Finally, because the four Russians abscond in Turkey, half way between East and West, their political defection is less clear cut than it might have been.
Nevertheless to argue, as some have, that Ninotchka is ideologically neutral would be absurd.32 Though advertised as harmless entertainment largely on the basis that it was a romantic comedy, 'The Picture That Kids The Commissars'33 delivered a trenchant, unambiguous message about the nature of Soviet communism. The very fact that it was in light-hearted comedy form, and therefore less likely to tax the audience's intellect or offend apolitical sensibilities, arguably made that message all the more persuasive.
From the very first scene, in which Buljanoff fears being sent to Siberia for checking into an expensive Parisian hotel, the Soviet Union's repressive, even murderous regime is made abundantly clear. Later, this comes across verbally and visually. 'The last mass trials were a great success — there are going to be fewer but better Russians', Ninotchka tells her colleagues soon after her arrival in Paris. When Ninotchka feels guilty for having betrayed the Soviet Union by falling in love with a Westerner, she drunkenly simulates her execution. Several gags — when the Russian trio mistake Ninotchka for a heel-clicking Nazi at the railway station, for instance — imply that communism and fascism are indistinguishable.
The third act of the film, set in Moscow, allows the viewer to see the reality of life under communism through scenes that would become stereotypical in countless Cold War movies. For example, burly uniformed Russians in Red Square are shown flanked by overbearing posters of Lenin and Stalin, while the common people are small and unidentifiable, like cogs in a machine. Ninotchka feels fortunate because she has to share a room with only two people. She has no privacy, as the partitioned walls are curtains so that people involuntarily share everybody else's noises and snoring. Worse than the lack of comforts, though, is the communist system's tendency to encourage people's inferior qualities. Some work as spies, such as one of Ninotchka's neighbours, while others begrudge each other anything they do not have themselves. Thus Anna, roommate and friend, warns Ninotchka not to dry her Parisian slip in the laundry yard — 'All you have to do is wear a pair of silk stockings and they suspect you of counterrevolution.' Equally sad is the state's interference with people's letters, and the drab, colourless existence everyone leads. To top it all, despite Stalin's Five Year Plans, communism simply is not working economically. Ninotchka can only make an omelette if her guests bring their own egg. Variety, the entertainment industry's most important trade paper, applauded Ninotchka for being 'smart, exhilarating and penetrating', adding that its 'punchy and humorous jabs directed at the Russian political system and representatives are the most direct so far presented in an American film'.34
If Ninotchka's frank lampooning of Soviet officialdom and spoofing of Marxist ideology helped set it apart from earlier Hollywood material, it was what the film said of the West — consciously and subconsciously — that is perhaps more significant. Ninotchka is no communist automaton: unlike her colleagues, she has convictions and integrity. Yet even she ultimately opts for the Western 'way of life' because it is portrayed as precisely that — organic and natural — rather than an artificially imposed communist 'system'. Her awakening takes several stages. First, she discovers the true meaning of love, something which Marxism had taught her was a mere 'chemical process'. In so doing, she learns that some things are more important than politics and that the heart should at times rule the head. 'Lovers of the world, unite!' exclaims Leon, as they embrace. Having realised how emotionally barren communism is, Ninotchka then realises that capitalism is the only route to happiness.
Early on in the film, Ninotchka constantly talks of the West being a doomed culture, but this is consistently contradicted by even poor Parisians' ability to live and even to laugh at their problems. When Ninotchka's regimented facade eventually breaks in the heavily trailed 'Garbo Laughs' café scene, as she cackles out loud at Leon's pratfall, the huge weight of ideological baggage is
A glimpse of the workers' paradise: reunited over an omelette in Moscow, Ninotchka (Greta Garbo), Kopalski (Alexander Granach), Iranoff (Sig Rumann) andBuljanoff (Felix Bressart) sing of their longing for Paris. Ninotchka (1939). MGM/The Kobal Collection.
seen to lift from her shoulders. Later, caught giggling by her comrades, she confesses: 'I always felt a little hurt when our swallows deserted us in the winter for capitalistic countries. Now I know why. We have the high ideals, but they have the climate.'
If humour is as natural as the weather, then so too is the desire to buy and to choose. Having loosened her ideological straitjacket, Ninotchka cannot wait to swap her ugly asexual uniform for an elegant suit she earlier condemned as 'decadent'. Her butterfly-like transformation suggests that all 'real' women would benefit from capitalist good-living. That a cash-strapped Soviet official could afford the latest in high fashion also implies that luxury is available to all in the West. With its lavish sets showing glamorous hotel interiors and Parisian working-class cafés brimming with contented, well-fed customers, Ninotchka's whole look is indeed a showcase for Western prosperity.
Finally, in singling out the royal Swana as the 'people's enemy', Ninotchka eventually realises it is not capitalism per se that produces social injustice but its old world, European hangers-on. Here, Ninotchka strikes a blow for American meritocracy, which, with its modern, democratic checks and balances, creates a fairer society. An earlier script by Wilder, Brackett and Reisch
'It's only human to kiss': drunk on champagne, French gowns and love, a blindfolded Ninotchkaprepares to be 'executed' for betraying Russia's communist ideals. Leon (Melvyn Douglas) offers her the warm embrace of Western joie de vivre. Ninotchka (1939). MGM/The Kobal Collection.
had in fact blurred this distinction between the 'old' and 'new' worlds, by alluding to America's commercialisation and the pernicious role of its tabloid press, but these points were dropped during shooting.35
Ninotchka had its world premiere at Los Angeles' famous Grauman's Chinese Theatre in October 1939. Normally averse to political films, the American trade press showered this one with accolades. Part of the reason for this was the momentous diplomatic changes that had taken place after production work on Ninotchka had finished in mid-August. The shock of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of late August 1939, followed by the Red Army's invasion of eastern Poland in September, had swept away any liberal opposition there might have been to the film's portrayal of an anti-fascist ally. Soviet perfidy was now on everyone's lips.36 Except for the few on the far left, popular journals and newspapers also loved the movie. Most of these, tellingly, felt there was nothing remotely hostile or propagandistic about the picture. Typical of this was the New York Times, whose critic thought the film was just 'a humorist's view of the sober-sided folk who have read Marx but never the funny page'. Some on the political right saw it differently. William
Randolph Hearst's New York Daily Mirror quickly appropriated Ninotchka, arguing that Garbo had done 'more in one line to debunk Soviet Russia than we have been able to do in a hundred editorials'. Enraged, the Communist Party's Sunday Worker called it a 'malicious' film for 'ridiculing - and not too subtly - 180,000 people off the face of the earth', while the Daily Worker gave the lie to Ninotchka's claim that Soviet people did not enjoy themselves by stating that 22 million Russians had attended circus performances in 1939.37 In 1940, Ninotchka was nominated for four Academy Awards, only to be overshadowed at the Oscars by Victor Fleming's Civil War saga Gone with the Wind. Ninotchka eventually grossed $2.2 million at the box office in 1939-40, with half of that earned overseas, making it one of the highest-earning Hollywood films of the year. Foreign takings would have been higher had the film not been banned in countries where governments were fearful of incurring Stalin's wrath, such as Bulgaria, Estonia and Lithuania. In Mexico, the film was not shown due to preventative action taken by communist-dominated trade unions.38 Notwithstanding such problems, the 'defection story' soon caught on in Hollywood. Spin-offs of Ninotchka in 1940 alone included MGM's ComradeX, in which Clark Gable played an American reporter covering the Moscow purge trials of the 1930s, and Columbia's He Stayed for Breakfast, which saw Melvyn Douglas switch to the role of a communist waiter in Paris. Both movies portrayed communists abandoning their faith after falling in love with capitalists.39
Was this article helpful?
If you have ever wanted the secrets to making your own film, here it is: Indy Film Insider Tips And Basics To Film Making. Have you ever wanted to make your own film? Is there a story you want to tell? You might even think that this is impossible. Studios make films, not the little guy. This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay.