Though romantic comedies have largely fallen out of respect in mainstream cinema today, there was a time—as has been proved repeatedly throughout the Romantic Comedy Blogathon—when romantic comedies were popular with both critics and audiences. Ninotchka is a fantastic example of these converging interests, as Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas make one of cinema’s most classic and celebrated pairings, and the film itself was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in that most storied year of 1939.
Ninotchka (Garbo) is a no-nonsense Russian envoy sent to supervise the sale of some jewels after her three bumbling male comrades get a little too caught up in the pleasures of Paris to close the deal. The previous owner of the jewels, Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), has attempted legal action to forbid the sale, using playboy Leon (Douglas) as her representative in the matter. Ninotchka and Leon meet (meet-cute in fact) and, as opposites will do, become smitten before realizing that their differences span more than just personality and nationality, and veer into the legal conflict of interest. Regardless, we see that they complement each other, and become better versions of themselves when they are together: Ninotchka reins in Leon’s rakish ways, while Leon begins to melt Ninotchka’s icy exterior, drawing them both in towards a more happy medium. In classic romantic comedy style, of course, they must defend their relationship from a series of misunderstandings and supposed dalliances, but in the end, we learn that it takes more than bureaucracy, mileage, and lawsuits to take down true love.
Ninotchka plays well within the confines of the romantic comedy as we understand them today, but it also pushes boundaries we commonly accept as set in stone, even 75 years later. While today’s rom-com heroines tend to be on the clumsy, hopeful romantic side, Ninotchka is a stern, serious character, initially intent on doing her job—almost to the potential detriment of their love story. In the middle of their meet-cute, she classically deadpans: “Must you flirt?” Ninotchka is especially charming as a romantic comedy lead because she doesn’t start out the movie looking for love, or really, harboring even the slightest of romantic notions. She has to be convinced. The film too, delays the love story in a way that somewhat masks the eventual importance of Ninotchka and Leon’s relationship; we spend quite a bit of time with the silly exploits of the three Russian envoys and the legal proceedings before we even meet Ninotchka. Maybe that’s what makes Nintochka feel so universal; in real life, love doesn’t usually come when you’re expecting it, but rather offers itself in more inconvenient situations.
Ninotchka is also everlasting because, ironically, it’s so completely of its time—and almost problematically so, as World War 2 broke out before the film’s release, thus potentially negating much of the humor and plot points. The filmmakers quickly added a title card emphasizing that this was set in the not-so-distant prewar period—”when a siren was a brunette and not an alarm”—to avoid the outdated effect, but it’s in this unique setting that a modern audience can find inherent historical value. Humor is such an important way of experiencing the world—seeing what about their world was funny to folks at the time—and the political humor in Ninotchka is a fascinating lesson in history. Alongside The Great Dictator, which came out the following year, it’s hard to imagine any other period being able to reveal a man’s mistaken identity by using a “Heil Hitler!” punchline. And while that’s a bit startling for a modern viewer, it also immediately signals a very specific context, and a unique setting—perhaps more so than a title card telling us the date and the city.
I hesitate to say that Ninotchka is more than a romantic comedy, because though it does involve political, historical, and dramatic elements, that would also be admitting that “romantic comedy” is something of a dirty word. Somewhere along the way, the romantic comedy got shoved into the “chick flick” ghetto, as though men don’t enjoy falling in love/laughing, or as though movies intended for a primarily female audience are worth less. Ninotchka, and pretty much all of the entries we’ve seen discussed as part of the Romantic Comedy Blogathon, prove that the genre really is universally enjoyable, and that any attempts of division are the false results of modern movie marketing. It’s a shame… but at least we have movies like these to provide laughs, swoons, and comfort no matter what.