#128. Ninotchka (1939)

I kinda subverted this essay by already recounting the story on a podcast — but here it is again: the thing that hands me up about Ninotchka, a very funny and charming romantic comedy about a curmudgeonly Russian diplomat (Greta Garbo) who visits Paris on business and ends up falling in love, is something I saw at a bar a few hours after watching it.

What happened is I’d gotten the day off and so I went and wrote a couple essays at Starbucks at around 8:30, watched a movie (this one), and then went for  a seven-mile walk. Got home around dusk, took a shower, and then caught an Uber to the mall near my house. Went to the TGIFridays there and had a corner seat at their square-shaped bar.

ninotchka posterThere was a couple sitting beside me, on the adjacent side of the bar, man and wife in probably their early 50s. They’re drinking, picking at appetizers. It’s Tuesday and the restaurant is mostly empty, the music is pretty low, there’s a Heat game on all the TVs. The husband’s watching basketball, drinking a beer, and his wife, without looking in his direction too often, is talking about flight plans. She’s looking at her phone and saying it’ll cost the same if they fly back on Sunday as it’ll cost if they fly back on Tuesday. Apparently there’s a Monday night show they wanna see. “Only question,” she says, “is whether we wanna pay however much it’s gonna be for two more days in the room. Three hundred-something.”

Without looking at her, still focused on the game, he nods once, raises his beer for a sip, and asks if she’s looked to see about a cheaper room someplace else. Small shrug with one shoulder. “I wouldn’t mind switching.”

She tells him she hasn’t looked but that she can do it right now and then, looking excited, she applies both thumbs to the phone and gets to it.

Meanwhile I’m looking at my notes for Ninotchka, jotting stuff about how it’s wonderful in the first act, charming in the second, and then tedious in the third, and also I’m wondering about the happy ending, and whether I liked it or not, but mostly I just can’t help but hear what this couple beside me is talking about. At first I’m just catching glimpses but after a couple minutes the bar tender stops by to ask if they’d like refills (I like to know what everybody’s drinking) and I just set my pen down and eavesdrop.

They trade a glance, a placid smile, and say yes to the refills. Bar tender asks for a reminder of what they’re having and the husband says Miller draft and the wife, “Um…”, says she forgot to ask about specials. Bar tender says house liquor is $3. She thinks about it. She was apparently already having a vodka cranberry with house vodka, says it tasted fine, and so after a moment’s consideration she goes with more of the same.

ninotchka def

They keep drinking. She talks about how nice Miami’s been and how she’s worried to be away from her sister, who she says would love it here. Husband nods and affords her a glance. She returns to his phone, and he to his drink.

My reason for recounting this is that they look like a perfectly contented middle-age couple who probably love each other just fine. And here they are doing normal couple things: vacationing in the tropics, getting drunk for cheap at a family restaurant, negotiating the costs of an extended stay. It’s nice. It’s normal.

This is what I figure love looks like after the euphoric courtship, the passionate get-to-now-ya conversation and sex. When starcrossed lovers ride off into the sunset — this is what’s on the other side of that sunset: vodka cranberries and idle conversation. It’s not sexy but nor is it necessarily awful. But should we consider this while watching romantic comedies? If we’re to presume that the exceptionally handsome pairing of Greta Garbo and Mervyn Douglas here are truly made for each other, and that they’ll stay together forever, is it so outlandish to imagine them sipping bargain drinks at a Fridays on a Tuesday night in Miami, neither one particularly enchanted by the other?

rocky last shot
The last freeze-frame shot from Rocky (1976)

Probably we should just watch it as though their romance is trapped in amber here at the happy ending. it’s a fantasy, but so is cinema itself. Sylvester Stallone said that the last frame of Rocky, where he’s subject to the adulation of the press and the crowd, he’s holding Adrian in his arms after they’ve professed love for each other, is a freeze frame because — as Stallone sees it — this is the highest point of Rocky’s life. Even the next few seconds won’t be exalted as that one flash of glory. Same idea, I guess, resides behind fading to black over the deep kiss of new lovers in a romantic comedy who, facing persecution or obstacles, have moved mountains to earn that kiss.

ninotchka 2

What’s gonna happen to em down the line?

Doesn’t matter. That’s a different story. This one’s just about how, against adversity, they came together and — if only for a moment — love prevailed.



  • (For the record: I’m behind you, and I wait until after I actually see the films to read each of your reviews.)

    So – does Garbo’s early-film manner weirdly remind you of Mayim Byalik’s character in BIG BANG THEORY, or am I totally out of my mind?….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Holy shit, yeah, kinda. The parody of Russian stoicism is kinda on the same page as Byalik’s portrayal of brainy social stiltedness.

      What an acute analogy!


      • More like a gut feeling than an analogy. I went through three really intense years of drama school so nuances of performance are just things that jump out at me.


      • Oooooh, that’s interesting. I’m reading the 3rd volume of an Orson Welles memoir and he was OVER THE MOON about Cagney. Says Cagney was the most powerful, wholehearted, immersed and genuine presence to grace the screen. I’m about to post about a Cagney pic from ’49, WHITE HEAT, and I…think(?) I see it?


      • I really, really have been realizing I had the wrong idea about Jimmy Cagney all these years. Literally the only impression I had of him was based on clips of him from YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, and not flattering clips at that; I am learning that i was really wrong.


      • Haven’t read the Welles book you’re talking about…the only clips I saw had him doing this sing-speaking thing, kind of like how Rex Harrison did in MY FAIR LADY, which in my head always meant “actor who can’t sing but is a box office draw so the producers insisted he be cast anyway” or “actor doing a vanity project”, so I had a cynical idea about him that I am realizing was grossly misinformed. I’m actually chuffed to be getting proved wrong.


      • Hahaha, haven’t heard “chuffed” in a while, that was a great use of it. Well yeah, sounds like you’re seeing what Welles reported. His whole thing was about authenticity and that Cagney never rested on his laurels or phoned it in.


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