Ep 4: Ninotchka

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Story Analysis & Ratings:

Lucy says: 2 Pops ~ Painful in how good the good parts were, only to be so bad in the bad parts. A classic example of wonderful short game (scenes) and terrible long game (story structure).
Lucy’s rating breakdown: Structure: 1, Comedy: 3, Romance: 2

Jenny says: 2 Pops ~ So many good moments, such a great heroine, such a waste of great scenes than made so little sense together. Jenny’s rating breakdown: Structure: 1, Comedy: 2,  Romance: 2

Blog Poll Rating: 3 Pops

Movie Info

Story: No-nonsense Russian bureaucrat Nina is sent to Paris to shape up some comrades who are selling some jewelry. French playboy count Leon is sent to the comrades to stop the jewelry sale. Opposites attract and Garbo giggles. Release Date: Oct. 6, 1939 Director: Ernst Lubitsch Writers:  Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and Walter Reisch. More info at IMDb.

24 thoughts on “Ep 4: Ninotchka

  1. I always got the impression that they were “friendly” ex’s or, friends w/benefits in more of today’s terms. In fact, in the script the script says that he enters with the “easy air of an old friend”.

    I never got the impression that he was the Countess’s boyfriend. More like someone very useful to her…

  2. And I need more coffee before I hit send.

    To finish, because of the above suppositions, I never felt concerned when Leon was attracted to Ninotchka. My impression is that she showed him a world he hadn’t previously understood and that he became a better man because of her.

  3. I thought that Ninotchka was a good movie to see, had lots of interesting and funny moments, but was very fragmented. I just listened to the podcast which helped me see how the movie could have been made better. I love listening to the two of you, Jenny & Lucy. Your podcast is informative, fun and thought provoking.

  4. A few thoughts based on the first 20 minutes of the podcast:

    1. I think that the Duchess was intent on breaking up the Count and Nin. because she saw this as another incident where she was losing something to the revolutionary element. Someone mentioned that the Duchess and Nin. saw each other as the embodiment of the pre- and post- revolution. So the Duchess refused to lose her boy-toy to that bolshevik– no effing way was her reconstructed life in France going to be overthrown AGAIN by an agent of the revolution. Once she saw that the Count was serious about Nin., the gloves came off, and I don’t think it was because of deep love for him.

    2. Re: infidelity. I think you have to take into context the time period. It is still common thought that the French have lovers when they are married. Their society is considered more amenable to multiple lovers, even in a committed relationship (which I don’t think the count and duchess had). While I think the Count and Duchess cared for each other, it wasn’t a great passion or love. Infidelity was also a common way to demonstrate the sophistication and urbanity of the characters during that time.

    3. Re: the Count’s lame jokes. It was a way to demonstrate how hard he is trying to win her over, and he keeps failing. He isn’t supposed to be funny. But he tries and tries and every time, she beats him to the punch. But we see him fall off his suave horse, and he laughs at himself, which I think makes him so much more likable and gives her and us a way to relate to this guy who is so slick until that point.

    4. Last week, I saw Silk Stockings (a musical remake of Ninotcka starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charrise from 1957) and compared to Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas was a freaking prince. Fred Astaire was such a condescending, patriarchal asshat in that movie that it was truly infuriating. Part of it was the time–Cold War, so he had to dismiss everything she said as ridiculous. This meant that all of those subtle moments when the Count listens to Nin, and comes to see her viewpoint in Ninotchka were tossed out the window and instead Fred Astaire just demeans Nin. over and over. Though the clothes were fantastic, as was Cyd.

  5. I gave it three kernals because it did have some good moments if you looked at each scene as a stand alone. Unfortunately, as a story it didn’t know what it was, and it sure as hell wasn’t comedy and the romance was weak (or maybe that was just the hero). I got the feeling each scene was structured around that one scene where Garbo laughs, and personally I thought it was the weakest scene in the movie. My favorite scene was back in Russia with the apartment, the three guys, the omelette, the censored letter…but I think you guys hit the nail on the head, the story lacked a throughline.

  6. Can’t wait to listen to the podcast- tomorrow, though, today was too busy. Just had to say that my eleven-year-old found this movie hysterically funny, and Leon charming. I also laughed a ton- who can not laugh when a kid is practically falling off the couch giggling?

  7. I agree w. SaraB and KatrinaG regarding the count and duchess. They were friends w. benefits and that’s all, and I never thought they were exclusive for one moment. I had no problem with that. It’s set up from the line about not having to listen. It’s reinforced when he admits he fell in love and never thought it could happen. Her giving away the jewels for him is weak, I’ll admit that. But it’s also set up. The Duchess knows she really doesn’t have a claim, and that’s mentioned several times. She is not going to win the jewels back in court. Perhaps they should have tied in her theft somehow to make her vulnerable and afraid of prosecution. Maybe they did origionally, and it was cut for time?
    I also think the phone call with the lawyer in the beginning is the film’s attempt to show the count as compassionate. He goes to bluff the Russians on his own, knowing that the duchess will lose in court.

    As for the beginning, I have to wonder, do you two hate the beginning of Psycho? I thought the Russian’s part could have been shortened, but while it surprised me that the movie opened with them, I wouldn’t say I was bothered by it. I’m not sure we could have started with her in Russia. We need to see her talk about the cow to understand that this is life and death for her. (I think that’s why she plods though in the USSR later) We enjoy and are amused by the Marxist brothers, but they are a foil for her convictions.

    As for the count, as I said, I wasn’t worried about him in a vested romance with the duchess, I thought he showed his sympathetic side after the phone call, and I think Lucy was too harsh on the jokes. Yes, they stank, but we weren’t supposed to be listening to the jokes — we were supposed to focus on the brilliant blocking with the chair. The whole scene is for him to come out of the clouds and land on his rump, which he does. Then he laughs at himself. It was endearing IMO.

    I had never heard of this movie before we did this list. I’m glad we watched it, and I did think that it was long, but I didn’t regret watching it when I was done. Instead, I was overall happy with so many of the bits. I really didn’t mind, even, the parts in the USSR, since I thought it was well done.

    The Russians were prologues and epilogues. 🙂 My take on the final shot was this: I think the picketer was the first guy in the hotel to push for the royal suite. I think that showing him picketing was showing just how far he’d come — he could picket/strike, just as Americans could. Remember, this followed a very intense time in the US with the struggle for unions and fair practices. I think the reference may be lost today, but I think it was a very political nod.

    Overall, I enjoyed the movie. I was not as put off by it as you were regarding the structure. I would have trimmed some time off probably, but even despite the fact that it was long, I kind of admire it’s ambitions, and I thought that all the scenes may have not added up to a whole, but “not worth losing minutes of your life to watch” is too harsh IMO. I’ll rate it a 3 pops, even though we agree it won’t make a “RomCom” list.

  8. Ninotchka poll is up! I figured it out! Yay!

    Okay, in my defense on this, my problem wasn’t with his bad jokes. It was with the fact that he said something was wrong with her because she didn’t laugh. He was bullying her, and it annoyed me. So that’s where I stand on that.

    As to the nature of the relationship with the Duchess – they kiss; she says, “Isn’t our relationship grand? You don’t even have to listen to me,” which indicates they’ve been together for a long time; when he’s with someone else, she gets jealous enough to give away her family jewels to keep him with her. I’m sorry, none of that says, “Open, casual relationship,” to me. And their having a relationship served nothing in the story, there was no point to it, really, except it motivated her to give up the jewels to keep him, which was ridiculous. So I remain unswayed; I still think he’s a skeezball. 😉

    Again, I’ll say – great moments, horrible story.

  9. I think I looked at their relationship as more of a friends with benefits thing, too, except that the Duchess obviously cared. Whether she cared because she wanted him herself or because she didn’t want a Bolshevik to have him, she cared a lot. I don’t buy that she loved him because if she did, she’d want him to be happy, so it’s more about possession.

    I’m still thinking about this. Hectic, hectic weekend. Good to be home.

  10. Got the movie watched last night; will listen to the podcast as soon as I get a free hour. To tell the truth, I enjoyed this movie a lot. (-: It was MUCH better than I remember Silk Stockings being — like Sarah B said, Silk Stockings was filmed during the Cold War, and aside from Fred Astaire being a better dancer than an actor, there was this huge, condescending vibe. Ninotchka was filmed when Russia was an ally, and I think that uneasy, love/hate relationship with the country came through in the film.

    Love when the world is on the brink of war . . . all romance today is being written in the same kind of world — recession, war in far-off countries, and the threat that it may be hitting closer to home one of these days.

    The movie was a lot of fun, but thinking back on it, it was a terrible tragedy for Ninotchka. Sure, Russia wasn’t a fun country to live in, but she had a job that she was respected for, and she gave it up for a debt-ridden playboy!

    I didn’t find it all that fragmented, but I’m not a real writer yet. I need Remedial Plotting . . . it seemed to me a very fairy-tale sort of plot. Maybe my brain filled in the missing bits.

    The first half was very hit and miss, but somewhere along the line, I did invest in these characters. Unbelievable as the falling-in-love part was, sometime after the cafe scene, I felt that they were in love. So, was this a triumph of acting over bad writing?

    Soooo much better than Silk Stockings, though. And Garbo made that fugly hat look like something (-:.

    Maybe more, after I listen to the podcast.

  11. You’ve sold me that the structure was flawed, but again, I didn’t think it was so flawed that I didn’t know what was going on, or that it didn’t take me out of the movie totally, so these are my votes, which put me at a 3 pops in the poll.
    Structure: **
    Comedy: ***
    Romance: ***
    Also, I’ve made my case on the romance, even though I can’t convince Lucy it wasn’t a big deal for him to fall in love. Oh, one more point on that, I didn’t mind that he did fall in love because the duchess said something to the effect of “Oh, look, there’s the count — he’s playing the Russian for a fool — let’s all watch.” So IMO, she sees relationships merely in terms of power, and she lost any last sympathyfrom me for her right there at the club.

  12. Ernst Lubitsch! sophisticated, Euro worldliness. Difference between moral and moralistic. Just back from visit with a midwest cousin, and now I know moralistic.

    So perhaps a half sentence of historic framework?

    Critiques for 1930 films seem a bit tightly wound. Perhaps start looser and tauten the strings of analysis the nearer we approach 2010? Give those ’30s a break!

  13. We don’t give breaks.
    The basic plot analysis we’re doing goes back to Aristotle. If a film deliberately breaks those conventions–say Pulp Fiction or Out of Sight–then clearly they don’t apply. But if a film is working within the framework of traditional screenplay and then just wanders all over the place, it’s going down.
    Also, I don’t think it’s really helpful for us as analyst/teachers to say, “Well, it was the 30s.” I think story has to be universal and timeless.
    Having said that, the whole bit with the duchess didn’t bother me that much, so I’ll go along with you on the moral judgments. Different society, and the duchess didn’t seem broken-hearted as much as mad as hell.
    Good point about Ninotchka leaving her friends and a job she liked where she was respected to live with a debt-ridden playboy. I’m sure within the year he was out of debt and saving up for retirement and she was wearing great lingerie again. Life is a trade-off.

  14. OK, as Ms. Average reader/movie-goer, I have to say of the three we’ve watched, I like Ninotchka the best. I think for me, the heroine is most important part of the movie, and I think it’s fair to say that Ninotchka is wonderful.

    Structure is important, but if it comes down to a race between characterization and structure, characterization is what stays with the reader the longest. Rarely will someone say, “And the best part of the movie was when the plot circled back around to the beginning, and left us with a full circle.”

    (-: Of course, it’s best if a movie has great characterization AND great structure, and that’s what I’m here to learn . . . structure just doesn’t cross my radar, and it should.

    A couple of notes: I think the Comte is a gigolo from France, and the relationship is one of those French things, where playing around is OK, and it’s understood that if either partner gets a better deal s/he should go for it.

    I also thought the reason Ninotchka doesn’t want to go to Constantinople is because she’ll have to discipline her three guys . . . a position she doesn’t want to be put into. I don’t think she’s thinking of Leon at all — I think she’s given that up as a silly dream and an impossibility.

    But hormones are weird, and when she sees him again, it overcomes her reason (again).

    The whole communism representing human rationality, and the French representing human emotion and passion is very interesting, I think. The Russian should win, but there are such profound flaws in human rationality. (-: And of course, passion and emotion are not logical, but they overcome all in the end, and make people happy about it . . . at least, that’s what the songwriters and romance keepers would like us to think about the matter.

    V. interesting! Thanks! And, I really love that there are these “flawed” movies on the list; because I really think Ninotchka is great, and I would watch it again — and that also teaches me about the kind of fiction I eventually want to write.

  15. You’re absolutely right, if you’re sold on a character, you can overlook a lot of flaws just to spend time with her.
    Just not this many flaws.
    I think we’re due for a lot more flawed movies, so you’re in luck!

  16. I loved Ninotchka the character, and Micki and Lucy together have mentioned some of what REALLY bugged me about this movie: Leon is That Guy. The one who tells women who are trying to get something done to just lighten up already, jeez, what are you, frigid? In the cafe scene, that’s basically what he’s doing: she has this job, she’s obviously good at it and respected and trusted by her superiors, she deals with him just as she deals with any other obstacle she encounters, and in response he’s put out because she’s not paying attention to HIM, and so he belittles her work tells her not to be so serious (grrrrr) and to just smile.

    I just can’t root for him as a romantic hero after that; he’s just being that dude who tells women on the street to “smile, honey, it can’t be that bad” — because women aren’t people with lives and worries and thoughts, we’re just supposed to be decorative. And it’s not just that one scene: it carries through to the end. The “happy” ending is her throwing over her job, home, country, convictions, and all the respect she’s earned to go off with him to a world where no one will value her or her experience. We’re supposed to be happy that she THROWS IT AWAY to be with Count Weaksauce (who did admittedly have that one great line at the end, but that was it). All that stuff about what a great character Ninotchka is — it all gets undermined when she chucks it all for love, the same way the Duchess’s anger and strength are undermined when she says “take the jewels, leave me the man.” Whoever wrote this could come up with great, strong female characters, but they couldn’t let them remain strong female characters.

    And the romance…yeah. Once they were established as in love they acted like they were in love, pretty much, and that was believable, but their falling in love was not convincing.

    I think the structure critiques really hit the nail on the head: there were so many things I liked, but I spent most of the movie saying alternately “What the hell?” and “This is weird.” Adorable Russian trio and strong (though undermined!) heroine were not enough to save it.

  17. Yeah! During the movie, it didn’t bother me much . . . total suspension of disbelief, 30s style. But after, yeah, they had to “cut the bitches off at the knees” so to speak.

    (-: And you know what’s even more depressing? Germany invaded France in 1940 (Ninotchka was filmed in 1939), so by choosing France and Leon the Loser, she was probably one of the first ones put up against the wall . . . . Talk about bad choices.

    Unless, of course, she and Leon joined the French Resistance and something good came out of that.

    @Jenny: (-: The flawed movies will be as much fun as the love-fests.

  18. Maybe they stayed in Constantinople. It had one good restaurant.

    The thing is, she lost her job, but she also lost the crappy room, the KGB guy who kept walking through, the rationed eggs, and the lack of nice underwear. And I have enough faith in that woman that I bet she organized the Count and had a terrific life. She would have rocked the Resistance. And to be fair, he’d probably be good, too. He was great at ignoring rules and thumbing his nose at authority.

    Actually They Might Be Giants ruined the last scene for me. All I could think of was “Istanbul, Not Constantinople” and “She’ll be waiting in Istanbul.”

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