We can talk a lot (and we probably will) about the subject of NINOTCHKA. I suppose we could say all kinds about totalitarianism and freedom and love and romance, and we'll probably do that too.
But make no mistake, the subject of NINOTCHKA is Garbo. The settings, the story, the supporting players - are all there to best display Garbo - powerful, brilliant, an endlessly fascinating screen subject. Everyone involved, especially Ernst Lubitsch, is fully engaged in the effort - and what an effortless-looking effort it is - to show these new and different facets of Garbo, whom audiences of the time had known for the better part of two decades by the time NINOTCHKA appeared. She was indisputably the greatest female star in the golden age of actresses, at MGM, the studio known for it's superior star wattage. She was the queen and prototype of movie stars.
In a way, Garbo is to movie stars as Elvis is to rock stars. Both appeared in the relative infancy of their art, both achieved the finality of perfection in their fields. Sure, after Elvis we still have rock stars, but they can't be as good. And even though he floundered around in terrible pop arrangements most of the time, he was always Elvis and, in his way, always great. Garbo was as beloved by the public in her time as Elvis was in his. Many of her films, though well made, slumped a bit towards kitsch, but like Elvis singing the otherwise pedestrian "Suspicious Minds", she always elevated her material. And if the material happened to be of a high level, as NINOTCHKA certainly is, she sent it into orbit.
My advice to viewers of NINOTCHKA is to watch Garbo, as simple as that. Not that you could do otherwise. As an actress she is an artist of genius. She plays with a subtlety that's a little larger than you're expecting. It's star-acting of the highest caliber.
Star-acting is different from acting-acting. A star displays her facets for the audience, as a model displays a dress to its best advantage. The great star knows exactly what she looks like from every angle, she knows all too well what every lifted eyebrow or moistened lip will do to the darkened masses. She's in control of it all. In most cases she drags the movie along with her. But when a great star meets a great director - as in NINOTCHKA - he is able to guide and channel her power (maybe the other way around too) - and we get the kind of movie that's still on screen long after everyone who made it has died.
This film was effectively Garbo's swan song. She made one more film, TWO FACED WOMAN, that was not up to her standards and faded out legendarily. Her performance here is a defining stroke of genius and the fact that she played comedy so brilliantly is a further grace note on a career synonymous with grace.
As an object lesson in skilled star-acting and support-playing, watch the scene in the workingman's bistro, where Melvyn Douglas tries desperately to make Garbo laugh, finally succeeding. It's no stretch to call this art. Note that Garbo had never played comedy before. That bears repeating.
And for a rare and priceless example of the collision of two kinds of star-acting, peerlessly executed by both performers, watch Garbo's nightclub encounter with Ina Claire, an exceptional stage actress (an entirely different craft from movie acting, the contrast in their styles has its own dramatic resonance in the context of the story). The antipathy of the two is more than just the icy dagger-wielding of rival divas. In real life, Claire had married Garbo's star-crossed true love John Gilbert a decade earlier. One suspects that Ernst Lubitsch was aware of this when he cast the role. Their face-off resembles a vicious rumble between two flamingos over mating privileges.
The pleasures of NINOTCHKA are so numerous and rich that attempting to capture them here in words is impossible. Garbo's eyebrows are far more eloquent. Enjoy this film, and savor it. (Lars)