Three Russian emissaries (Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach) are in Paris on official business, hoping to get top dollar for some diamonds confiscated during the Russian Revolution. Out of the discriminating eye of the commissar, they decide to stay at Paris' most opulent hotel--the better to attract the interest of capitalist speculators, comrade. Of course. As luck would have it, it's also the domicile of the Russian Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), in exile, and shy a few diamonds due to the Revolution. When her "kept man," the Count Leon D'Algout (Melvyn Douglas) encounters them, he plies them with the finest life Paris has to offer, stringing them along while the gears of the authorities grind slowly to take back the diamonds before they can be sold.
The delays in retrieving money for the Soviet State puts the Reds on high alert, and a by-the-book-politburo-crat, Nina Ivanova Yakushova (Greta Garbo) is dispatched to investigate.
She does not like what she sees.
Her humorless buttinski attitude might put things on the right track, and that's the last thing Count D'Algout wants, but he finds his and Paris' charms are lost on "Ninotchka." She is so gray and humorless, with a suspicious look in her eye and expressionless of face, she is more than ideologically committed to the Socialist state, she is practically Vulcan (emphasis on "practical"). The Count must work overtime to beguile her, and overtime is something this representative of the Worker cannot abide. Like it matters. The Count becomes intrigued with her, and decides to make time on his own time.
Ninotchka is political satire as fairy-tale, complete with the converted princess and the pixieish subservients (all thing being equal, comrade, but some are more equal than others—or is that "fairest of them all?"). The conceit is charming, and add the star-power of Greta Garbo as "Ninotchka" and the thing practically fizzes. Garbo has always been a legendary presence, somewhat unapproachable. But her work in this film, with Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett's words and buoyed in its interpretation by "The Lubitsch Touch," is the effervescence that pops the film's cork. Again, the structure of the story helps. Garbo's no-bolshevik attitude at the beginning sets up a magical transformation from mugly ducklink to beautiful swana-be. That she is funny in both aspects and possessed of a comic timing with the accuracy of a Swiss watch, while still radiating the sex appeal that made her a box-office queen, is a bit of a miracle. It's my prejudice to think that such a lionized star couldn't possibly be such a fine actress. You learn something new every day.
Which is exactly the point. You might as well enjoy it. One can't help it when the lesson is so delightful.