Friday, November 3, 2017

Garbo Laughs Over Lunch

When Russian representatives Iranoff (Sig Rumann), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart), and Kopalski (Alexander Granach) are sent to Paris to sell the jewels of the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), the negotiations do not go smoothly. The Grand Duchess, now living in Paris, initiates a lawsuit, and the three agents find themselves seduced by the entrancing Parisian lifestyle. Enter Nina Ivanovna Yakushova - or Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) - a stern Communist envoy, sent to find out the reason for the delay. Determined to not fall into the same pit as her predecessors, Ninotchka (1939) instead finds herself succumbing to the wooing of Count Leon d'Algout (Melvyn Douglas), a ne'er-do-well playboy, and Swana's latest lover.

In conjunction with the Food in Film Blogathon, we'll look at Ninotchka though the lens of food and beverage. Ernst Lubitsch's film sparkles like the champagne that intoxicates Ninotchka and Leon and satisfies like Ninotchka's workman's lunch. A nominee for the 1939 Best Picture Oscar, it marked a redemption for Greta Garbo who had been labeled as "Box Office Poison" in 1938. This was her first comedy, and resulted in the last of her 3 nominations for the Best Actress Oscar. (She'd already been nominated for Anna Christie (1930) and Camille (1938)). In 1955, she was awarded an Honorary Oscar. Not surprisingly, she did not attend the ceremony.
Food represents a corrupting influence in Ninotchka.  Among the initial temptations that seduce Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski is the readily available room service in their luxurious hotel. Ninotchka tries to resist the temptation by eating lunch where working men eat, but even there she is expected to relish her food and care about what she is eating. Leon cautions her that she has insulted the restaurant owner and must apologize "by eating everything that he brings you with relish, by drinking everything with gusto, by having a good time for the first time in your natural life!"  Ninotchka's ultimate downfall is represented when she is drunk on champagne. She's been raised on goat's milk and vodka. Champagne is a new, heady experience for her.

In comparison, the lack of food in Russia is constant theme. The jewels that the ambassadors are in Paris to sell will provide food for the citizens. Grand Duchess Swana convinces Ninotchka to leave Paris by pointing out the number of people who will starve while their court case if fought. When the quartet return to Russia, they pool their ration of a single egg apiece to make an omelet. Finally,when Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski again leave Russia - never to return - it is to open a restaurant in Turkey.
Greta Garbo is amazing in the film. Yet, her two most intriguing scenes were ones she did not want to play.  According to this TCM article, Garbo was reluctant to play the drunk scene - finding it "unbecoming".  Co-star Melvyn Douglas also stated that she "was unable to articulate so much as a titter during the shooting of the restaurant scene." Yet, somehow in the film, laugh she did, and legend was born.

Bela Lugosi has almost a cameo appearance as Commissar Razinin. With his beard and scowl, he is properly menacing (he's been mentioned prior to his appearance as someone with whom you do not want to tangle).  It's a good role, and makes for an interesting break from the horror films that would dominate his career. 
Both Cary Grant and William Powell were considered for the role of Leon (AFI Catalog); Melvyn Douglas is excellent in the role. You believe him both as a wastrel and as a man who is sincerely in love for the first time. A stage actor with Broadway experience, Mr. Douglas came to film with the advent of sound. He continued to work in both mediums, adding radio and television to his resume, until his death in 1981 - 14 months after the death of his wife of nearly 50 years Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas.  The pair met while appearing in the Broadway production of Tonight or Never (Mr. Douglas had been previously married and had a son). They had two children; their grand-daughter is actress Illeana Douglas.

The story was redone as a play on the Paris stage in 1950, as well as a radio play (part of the Screen Guild Theater) with Joan Fontaine and William Powell in the leads.  A musical followed in 1954. Silk Stockings, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, and starring Hildegarde Neff and Don Ameche (and with a very young Julie Newmar in a minor role) ran for 478 performances.  The film version, starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse was released in 1957. Then, in 1960, a television version of Ninotchka was aired on ABC, with Maria Schell and Gig Young in the leads.
There were, not surprisingly, censorship issues. The Russians didn't like the film (and threatened theater owners in Vienna with reprisals if they exhibited the film!). As this New Yorker article points out, it won no love from the Germans either - the German couple at the railroad station issuing their salute to the Fuhrer is a clear barb at the Nazis. Lubitsch was no fan of the German Reich - three years later, he would release his biting comedy, To Be or Not To Be (1942).  Regardless, the New York Times was in heaven, calling Ninotchka "one of the sprightliest comedies of the year." Besides the awards mentioned above, it was also nominated for Best Writing (Original Story) and Best Writing (Screenplay). It ranks at #52 on AFI 100 Years, 100 Laughs.

We'll leave you with this scene, of Garbo laughing (and eating - and she's not eating "raw beets and carrots"). Enjoy!


  1. Ninotchka is a fabulous screenplay, and you wrote a wonderful article highlighting of the importance of food that grounds the actions of the characters.

  2. Great choice for the blogathon. The three scenes in this film that I remember best have to do with food: the scene where "Garbo Laughs", the scene where she cooks an egg in her dreary Moscow apartment, and the scene where she gets a little, er, tipsy from champagne. (I love the part where Melvyn Douglas pops the cork on the champagne and she drops to the floor, thinking she's been shot.)

    I also love the early scene where the three Russian envoys are in the swanky hotel room, ordering all kinds of food, drink and cigars.

    Thank you for joining the blogathon and for featuring this wonderful film!

    1. Thanks so much. We had just watched the film when I learned of the Blogathon, and it seemed an excellent fit. I too am a big fan of the "champagne shotgun"!

  3. Very interesting read. I need now to give it a watch through the lens of food. Great entry!

  4. This is such a good food movie! Not the first one most would think of, but as you point out so many important scenes revolve around food or alcohol. That "drunk scene" is still probably my favorite--I didn't know she was reluctant to do it, I'm so glad she still did because it really is a wonderful scene :)

  5. Excellent choice, food as an almost impossible luxury and sign of class status, good for comedy in this case. Thanks for being part of the blogathon!


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