Arguably the definitive Greta Garbo film—the epitome of her lush melodramas, made by inventive visual artist Rouben Mamoulian and costarring John Gilbert, Garbo’s old love, whose floundering talkie career Garbo tried to boost. The couple’s rueful circumstances alone make Queen Christina a swoon-worthy prize (Gilbert, an alcoholic whom Garbo had left literally standing at the altar years before, died of heart failure three years after making this film). But the story is a tragic daydream version of the eponymous Swedish monarch, resisting arranged international marriage and falling for Gilbert’s Spanish emissary. Surprisingly sexy, poetic, and, in the end, devastating.
This Ernst Lubitsch comedy is pure bliss, and a paean to Parisian mad love and fun, which hedonistic American expat Melvyn Douglas pitches to steely, humorless Soviet comrade Greta Garbo, who’s in town on a matter of state business (to reel in a few goofy Soviet agents who have become distracted by the Gallic pleasure principle). Of course, Garbo is masterful as the comically grim maiden in a gray suit, barely disguising a warm heart and yearning for love that we can always see beating beneath the Marxist-Leninist ideology. A little champagne, a little Paris skyline, a little woo from the rather satyric Douglas, and she opens like a lily (figuratively speaking, at least; this is 1939). It doesn’t hurt that Lubitsch had the subtlety and timing of a Hollywood Mozart, or that Ninotchka’s screenplay, penned mostly by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, is one of the wittiest and gentlest of Hollywood’s entire golden age.