Ninotchka – kidding the commissars

Kevin Brianton,

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

A small cycle of films with anti-communist themes began with the most famous and popular of these films being Ninotchka, which was made in 1939.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Against the background of the Stalinist show trials and the Nazi-Soviet pact, there were strong anti-communist and anti-Russian sympathies in the United States.  A small cycle of films with anti-communist themes began with the most famous and popular of these films being Ninotchka, which was made in 1939.  Communist emissary Ninotchka was given some vicious lines by screenwriters Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch.  She spoke of the recent show trials in Russia.  ‘The last mass trials were a great success.  There are going to be fewer but better Russians’.[1]  Played by Greta Garbo, Ninotchka was a humorless Soviet emissary sent to Paris to check up on three bungling bureaucrats who were doing little to negotiate the return of the Russian Royal jewelry.  She found the bureaucrats were enjoying the high life and she fell for the charms of the American Melvyn Douglas.  After returning to Russia, she found that her mail was censored, and she was unhappy with the communist system.  She was later sent to Constantinople where she was reunited with Douglas and true love triumphed.

The depiction of Russian life in Ninotchka was hard and bitter.  In her small room, she talked to her friend Anna:

ANNA: Are you expecting someone?
NINOTCHKA: A few friends … just a little dinner party.
ANNA: What are you serving?
NINOTCHKA: An omelet.
ANNA (puzzled): An omelet!  Aren’t you living a little above your ration?
NINOTCHKA: Well, I have saved up two eggs and each of my friends is bringing his own so we’ll manage.
ANNA: It just goes to prove the theory of our State.  If you stand alone it means a boiled egg but if you’re true to the collective spirit and stick together you’ve got an omelet.  (Devilishly) That reminds me … have you heard that latest they’re telling about the Kremlin?
  At this moment a door to one of the adjourning rooms opens and GURGANOV, a middle-aged man with sour stool pigeon expression, walks quietly through the room to another door, talking in the girls with one sly glance and giving the impression that not only his eyes but ears are open.  ANNA breaks off her remark.
ANNA (whispering): I’ll tell you later.  (after GURGANOV has disappeared into the other room she continues)  That Gurganov, you never know whether he is on his way to the washroom or the Secret Police.[2]

Ninotchka was a gentle satire on the Russians and it was clear that they were not regarded as a serious threat.The cinema of the period reflected a society which was anti-communist but did not regard communism as more than a remote foreign tyranny.  Ninotchka kicked off a minor cycle of anti-communist films which included He Stayed For Breakfast (1940), Comrade X (1940), and Public Deb Number One (1940).  In Comrade X, directed by conservative King Vidor, a communist woman was forced to flee from Russia because she was too idealistic for the Stalinist powers.  The power game within the Russian administration was one police chief knocking off another police chief.  The Russians were depicted as nothing more than bumbling fools.  When Hollywood again targeted the Russians in the late 40s, the films would tell a far different story. When Studio head Louis B. Mayer was interviewed by HUAC, he used Ninotchka as an example of the fine anti-communist cinema produced by his studio.  He claimed that the film greatly annoyed communists by kidding them.

[1] Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch, Ninotchka, The MGM Library of Film Scripts, Viking, New York, 1972, p.24.

[2] Brackett, Ninotchka, p. 98.

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