“Garbo laughs!” It’s a slogan that is as fascinating today as it was 70 years ago.
In Ninotchka, the legendary Greta Garbo plays Nina Yakushova Ivanoff, a no-nonsense Russian Comrade doing Soviet business in Paris. But very soon, this stern and dutiful woman begins to be enchanted by Paris and a charming count played by Melvyn Douglas.
What amazes most when watching Ninotchka is how this could have been Greta Garbo’s first comedy. For years, she was Hollywood’s queen of drama and suffering, but here she shows that she was just as perfectly cast in a charming, light and romantic comedy.
The most hilarious parts of her performance are the early scenes when Nina is that humorless, grim and stone-faced Comrade, praising the Soviet Union and putting down the West.
Greta Garbo has such a perfect comedy timing that she can get laughs out of almost every line she is saying without even moving one muscle in her face. In fact, that static face is maybe the best thing about her.
She can deliver so many lines in the most amusing way without emphasizing the comedy but rather playing her part as natural as possible and that way making Nina totally funny. That’s the real talent of a great comedian! Garbo’s deadpan delivery of lines like “There are going to be fewer but better Russians” or “Who am I to cost the Russian people seven cows?” or that totally stone-faced expression on her face when she is watching Paris from the Eiffel Tower are just unforgettable.
Garbo also has wonderful chemistry with Melvyn Douglas and their first scenes together, when Nina is trying to resist him and asks him with her deep voice “Must you flirt?,” are just as sweet as funny. The way Garbo keeps her strict behavior while kissing Douglas is wonderful and the ways she orders kim to kiss her with a decisive “Again!” is too good! And who can forget the scene when she first meets Douglas’s butler and says “This man is very old. You shouldn’t make him work. Do you whip him?” and tells the butler “Go to bed, little father.” Garbo’s total seriousness in all these scenes turns them into comedy gold. The legendary “Garbo laughs!” scene doesn’t disappoint. It’s not just a laugh, it seems like something that has been inside of Nina for all her life and is finally allowed to get out. With this laugh, Nina becomes a new person.
Unfortunately, the movie now focuses more on the romantic part of the story and loses some of its comedy but romance (and later a little suffering) is nothing new to Garbo and so she also handles these scenes beautifully. All her later parts with Melvyn Douglas are just hopelessly romantic and it’s a joy to watch these two together! Her process of “blossoming up” is played very naturally and very charmingly and makes Ninotchka one of the all-time classics. Garbo laughs and so do we!
Now enjoy Garbo at her best in the theatrical trailer for Ninotchka from 1939:
For more information, visit Fritz and the Oscars.