Garbo Anna Christie Garbo talks Anna Christie

As successful as Greta Garbo’s pre-talkie films were in the states, they were even more popular in Europe where sound was not a barrier. Louis B. Mayer, nervous about Garbo’s American market in the coming sound era, spared no expense and devised a simple campaign slogan for her first speaking role: “Garbo Talks.” In Anna Christie (1930) she takes half of forever to appear and when she does, she delivers a classic line in her inimitable, husky, accented voice: “Gif me a visky, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.” Unfortunately, it is the only classic thing about the film. Based on one of Eugene O’ Neil’s most mediocre seafaring plays, Anna Christie is hopelessly stagebound and static. Worse, Garbo is cast as an earthy, as opposed to exotic, prostitute, which was a misstep. By this time, Clarence Brown’s directing had shifted to autopilot. The film is, naturally, beautifully photographed. Marie Dressler, through hammy acting, does the impossible and steals the film from Garbo. Still, 193o audiences, unsurprisingly, bought into the publicity and made it a huge hit. Garbo received an Oscar nomination for this film. It was the first of four nominations, none of which she won.


Garbo’s second talkie, Romance (1930) is an even more stilted affair, directed again by Brown. She is an opera star in love with a priest (a miscast Gavin Gordon). Things go south when he discovers she is not a virgin (the Hays production code was not yet being enforced). There is a lot of chatter, and Garbo looks ravishing, but her performance was hardly one of her best, despite a second Oscar nomination. As Cornelius, Lewis Stone steals everything but the camera.


Inspiration (1931) finds Brown again asleep in the director’s chair in a film that, amazingly, seems a pale imitation of her previous film, which wasn’t good to begin with. Garbo and Lewis Stone are refreshing, despite clunky dialogue. Robert Montgomery looks bored.



“What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober.”–Kenneth Tynan.


As many critics have pointed out, the films of Greta Garbo (1905-1990) have dated considerably, and few are actually good. Yet, Garbo remains pure cinema, an idea created through light, mirrors, and form for the celluloid dreams of her audience, who waxed ecstatic over her face alone.


Garbo came from poverty and started modeling at an early age before breaking into Swedish film. Among her early supporting roles was G.W. Pabst‘s The Joyless Street (1925) (with sets by Edgar G. ULmer). Despite sounding like a hidden treasure, it is an unremarkable film. After catching her performance in Mauritz Stiller’s The Saga of Gosta Berling (1925), Louis B. Mayer was struck with the actress’ star magnetism and wasted no time bringing her to Hollywood. Garbo was actually part of a package deal, as Mayer had originally wanted the brilliant Stiller as well. Mayer sent Garbo to the dentist, put her on a diet, and gave her English lessons to help her with taking direction. Her first assignment was Torrent (1926), directed by Monta Bell. Garbo had hoped for Stiller to direct. Disappointed, she accepted the assignment and worked on her lines at night. Bell was involved with actress Norma Shearer at the time, and antagonized Garbo. Yet, despite the tension, from her first frame, Garbo exuded an air of exoticism and European pathos. She burned up the screen in an otherwise unmemorable American debut.


Stiller was assigned to direct his protege in The Temptress (1926). Unfortunately the director was unable to adapt to studio methods and was fired. Crushed, Stiller headed back to Sweden. Garbo wanted to leave with him, but he convinced her to remain in Hollywood. Within two years, Stiller was dead at 45. Garbo was devastated, and a pattern developed. Fred Niblo took over direction of the movie. The Temptress secured Garbo’s stardom. Seen today, it is, undeniably, a dated melodrama. She does not elicit sympathy, yet the 21-year-old star still commands our attention. Mayer was reportedly bewitched by her eyes; they gush torpid sex. She is a silent man-eater here, without ever resorting to vamp cliches. The only thing one remembers about it is her and the way she physically laid into her leading men as no other actress has before or since. Understandably, The Temptress made her a star. Continue reading


He Who Gets Slapped (1924) is part of the 2011 Warner Archive Lon Chaney collection, and in this film Chaney gives one of his most natural, assured performances—in no small part due to director Victor Sjostrom,  who also directed Chaney, with Norma Shearer, in the following year’s Tower Of  Lies (unfortunately, yet another lost film).  Victor Sjostrom is something of an icon.  He was a favorite director of stars Greta Garbo and Lillian Gish, and his masterpiece,The Phantom Carriage (1921), was a considerable influence on .  After the coming of sound Sjostrom retired from directing to return to his first love of acting, but he still served as mentor to the young Bergman; Bergman repaid the favor by casting Sjostrom in the extraordinarily beautiful role of Dr. Isak Borg  for Wild Strawberries (1957, possibly Bergman’s greatest film).


After seeing the films Sjostrom had made in Sweden, Producer Irving Thalberg  recruited Sjostrom to Hollywood.  He Who Gets Slapped was the first film the director made at MGM, and it proved to be a lucrative endeavor for all concerned.  Sjostrom was one of the few directors respected by both Louis B. Mayer and Thalberg.  He Who Gets Slapped is based off the 1914 play by Leonid Andreyev.  The resulting film looks, thinks and acts far more European than anything Hollywood studios had produced at that time.

It is a tale of degradation, humiliation, pathos, and sacrifice.  Thankfully, it is a film in which we do not find ourselves rooting for the Donald Trumps or Paris Hiltons of the world.  Chaney is the destitute but prolific scientist Paul Beaumont, so dedicated in his work that he, inevitably, is rendered the oblivious fool.  Beaumont’s filthy rich patron is the Baron de Regnard (Marc McDermott).  Regnard has been helping himself to Beaumont’s selfish wife Maria (Ruth King) and additionally plans to steal the fruit of Beaumont’s scientific labors.

Still from He Who Gets Slapped (1924)The world of Paul Beaumont comes crashing down when Regnard presents Beaumont’s work, as his own, to the Academy.  Beaumont tries, in vain, to convince the Academy of the theft, but they take the side of the affluent Regnard as opposed to the unknown, poverty stricken Beaumont.  Beaumont is belittled  by his patron’s betrayal, by the mocking laughter of the academy, by the discovery of his wife’s infidelity, and, finally, by Regnard’s humiliating slap to his face.  It is a slap which Beaumont now obsessively echoes in repetition every night.  On the road to the discovery of his Magnificat, Paul becomes ‘HE.’

The clown He Who Gets Slapped (HE) is soon the rage of the Paris circus.  Underneath HE’s face paint is the former Paul Beaumont, who repeats that cruel moment of humiliation again and again and again, every night, in performance.  Audiences make a star of the clown who gets slapped one hundred times a night.  HE is in love with Consuelo (Norma Shearer- who soon became Mrs. Irving Thalberg), the beautiful bareback rider, but she is in love with Bezano (John Gilbert, the original inspiration for the doomed star of  A Star is Born ) which, of course, means unrequited love for HE.

HE expresses his love for Consuelo, who, in believing HE is joking, laughs at him.  HE takes the laugh, but HE cannot take the return of the Regnard, who has conspired with Consuelo’s father, Count Mancini (Tully Marshall) to take Consuelo’s hand in marriage.  To lift the lowly and scatter the elite calls for nothing less than Biblical justice, in the form of the animal kingdom.

Chaney’s HE is one of his most masterful portrayals.  Chaney resembles a character straight out of a Flannery O’ Connor narrative.  His pathetic desperation, dementia, humility, and redemptive dignity are fully intact.  Oddly, Chaney is best known for his roles in two Universal features, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and Phantom of the Opera(1925).  While Chaney’s acting was indisputably superb in both of those epic films, the movies themselves are flawed by unimaginative directing, leaving one to wonder how much better they might have been if Chaney had been under the helm of a director like Sjostrom or Tod Browning.

He Who Gets Slapped is not without its flaws.  The intrusive vignettes focusing on the romance between Gilbert and Shearer (no doubt the result of producer Thalberg, who wanted to highlight the sex appeal of his soon to be wife and matinee idol Gilbert) are of considerably less interest than the main story.  Despite being saddled with THE Hollywood studio, Sjostrom’s work here is innovative and often surreal, making him a superb collaborator for Chaney.  This makes the loss of their second collaboration, Tower of Lies (1925), all the more tragic.  Still, the official release of the long-buried He Who Gets Slapped is one of the most welcome of the year.


With this 2011 Warner Archive Release, most of Erich von Stroheim’s “personally directed” films have been released with the inexplicable, frustrating exclusion of his legendary, mutilatedGreed (1924).   Only von Stroheim could have taken Franz Lehar’s 1905 giddy operetta “The Merry Widow” and turned it into a silent fetishistic melodrama.  The Merry Widow stars Mae Murray and John Gilbert.  Murray’s screen persona alternated between virgin and vamp . Here, she is the virgin who becomes the much sought after prize.  Despite having unique on-screen charisma, Murray, one of early cinema’s true divas, was among those who could not make the transition to sound, and her off-screen life was not afforded a happy ending.  She married a real-life Prince who forced her to leave MGM, then divorced her, and took custody of their children.  Years later, Murray, homeless, was arrested for sleeping on park bench in NYC.  She died, forgotten and in poverty, in a nursing home in 1965.  Gilbert’s decline into alcoholism is, of course, far better documented.

Still from The Merry Widow (1925)Quite surprisingly, The Merry Widowwas a critical and box office success for von Stroheim.  The film was so successful that it was remade in 1934 by Ernst Lubitsch (as a musical, replete with the Lubitsch touch, starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald) and in a best-forgotten 1952 version starring Lana Turner.  Despite a studio mandated, ill-fitting happy ending, von Stroheim’s silent version is, predictably, the most bizarre.  The director added much to the story, stamping it with his idiosyncratic touch and causing the film to go considerably over schedule and over budget. The previous year’s Greed had nearly bankrupted the studio and sent producer Irving Thalberg to the hospital.  After The Merry Widow, von Stroheim would not direct a film for three years.

The story is aptly set in the fairy tale kingdom of Monteblanco (visually realized by the lush cinematography of Oliver Marsh and surrealistic mattes).  Prince Mirko (Roy D’Arcy) is heir to the throne . Second in line is Mirko’s womanizing cousin, Prince Danilo (Gilbert).  Enter the American chorus dancer Sally O’ Hara (Murray) whose legs are immediately noticed by all the attending males.  It is the first of many such scenes with burning gazes.  Baron Sadoja (Tully Marshall) is the elderly perv who bankrolls the kingdom.  Sadoja’s gaze focuses on O’Hara’s feet, and von Stroheim takes the route of delirious excess in visualizing the Baron’s foot fetish (one orgy-like fantasy sequence glides over rows of shoes, a scene that outraged Thalberg.  The director nonchalantly explained that the character had a foot fetish, to which the producer replied, “And you have a footage fetish.”)  Mirko envisions O’Hara as a Venus de Milo torso and, he will only home to her arms when,  they are adorned with jewels.  Danilo’s leer fixates instead upon O’Hara’s bee-stung lips.  He objectifies her, but after pulling a bit of prankster deception on her he later feels guilty for his lust for a sincere maiden.  He quickly proposes to her, and then he cowardly jilts her after the King and Queen persuade him not to marry a commoner.  Devastated, O’Hara rebounds by marring Sadoja who, after merely kissing his wife’s shoulder in the bridal chamber, falls in the ultimate climax of death.  Now widowed and the wealthiest woman in the kingdom, O’Hara becomes the booty.  Mirko and Danilo duel over her.  Danilo loses, but survives with a minor wound (!) Of course, being an MGM production, a happy ending is called for, and it nearly wrecks the film.

Mirko is von Stroheim’s sadistic Prussian antagonist, a part the director relished and understandably wanted to play himself.  Unfortunately for von Stroheim, Thalberg rejected the director as actor, prompting the casting of D’Arcy.  D’Arcy’s florid portrayal reaped praise aplenty from critics and audiences, turning him into a villainous star.  Unlike his co-stars, D’Arcy survived sound but his acting style was stylistically baroque and dated quickly, relegating him to “B” films and serials, such as Shadow of the Eagle (1932) opposite John Wayne and Whispering Shadow (1933) opposite.  Contemporary audiences may find D’ Arcy’s acting dated, but appealing in its otherworldly expressions (overt leering, a seemingly frozen, malevolent grin).  It is easy to see how he walked away with the film.

Part of von Stroheim’s excesses in the filming included costly Prussian underwear, worn by D’ Arcy underneath his costume (and therefore never seen) merely to get the actor in the right mood.  Still, it’s hard to sympathize with Thalberg’s sense of frustration.  Having worked with von Stroheim numerous times, Thalberg knew the his penchant for opulence and, rightly, felt the film needed this director’s brand of genius.  Von Stroheim’s own comment, comparing his Merry Widow to Lubitch’s more conventional remake, is telling: “Lubitsch shows the king on the throne first, then in the bedroom.  I show him in the bedroom first so you know what he is when you see him on the throne.”

Years later, upon meeting von Stroheim, Orson Welles complimented him by assuring the director that he was “ten years ahead of his time.”  Von Stroheim retorted, “twenty.”  Seen today, von Stroheim’s films certainly stem from silent film stylization.  However, his uncompromising sense of vision and aesthetic commitment show von Stroheim as stillbeing ahead of his time.  Of all von Stroheim’s films, the director liked this one least, feeling that he had compromised too much with Thalberg.  In a way, he was right, but regardless, the director’s surreal hedonism personally soaks the film, albeit in a subdued light.  No serious film student should bypass the works of Erich von Stroheim, and The Merry Widow is the essential starting point to a richly unique oeuvre.


Tod Browning The Show John Gilbert

The screenplay for The Show (1927) was written by frequent  Tod
Browning collaborator Waldemer Young (with uncredited help from Browning). It
is (very loosely) based on Charles Tenney Jackson’s novel, “The Day of
Souls.” Originally titled “Cock O’ the Walk,” The Show is one of the
most bizarre productions to emerge from silent cinema, nearly on par with the
director’s The Unknown from the same year.

Tod Browning The Show poster

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Tod Browning's The Show poster

The screenplay  for The Show (1927) was written by  frequent Browning collaborator Waldemer Young (with uncredited help from Browning). It is  (very loosely) based  on Charles Tenney Jackson’s novel, “The Day of Souls.”  Originally titled  “Cock O’ the Walk”, The Show is one of the most bizarre productions to emerge from  silent cinema, nearly on par with the director’s The Unknown from the same year.

John Gilbert plays Cock Robin, the ballyhoo man at the Palace of Illusions.  A frequent Browning trademark is a character with the name of an animal and Gilbert’s Robin is a proud Cock indeed, both in character and in the actor playing the character. The Show amounted to punishment for star Gilbert who had made what turned out to be a fatal error. When co-star and fiancee Greta Garbo failed to show up at their planned wedding, Gilbert was left humiliated at the alter when boss Louis B. Mayer made a rather loud derogatory remark for all to hear. Gilbert responded by thrashing Mayer. Mayer swore revenge, vowing to destroy Gilbert’s career, regardless of cost (at the time Gilbert was the highest paid star in Hollywood).  Mayer’s revenge began here and climaxed with the coming of sound when Mayer reportedly had sound recording manipulated in order to wreck Gilbert’s voice and career.  Whether Mayer’s tinkering with Gilbert’s voice is legendary or not, Mayer did intentionally  set out to give Gilbert increasingly unflattering roles and the consequences were devastating for Gilbert. Having fallen so far, so fast, Gilbert took to excessive drink. He actually had a  fine voice and starred in a few sound films, including Tod Browning’s Fast Workers (1933) and with Garbo in Queen Christina (1933. She insisted on Gilbert, over Mayer’s strenuous objections). Gilbert died forgotten at 37 in 1936, and became the inspiration for the Norman Maine character in a Star is Born (1937). The Show was the first film after Gilbert’s aborted wedding incident and instead of playing his usual role of swashbuckling matinee idol, Gilbert is cast as a cocky lecher.

Mermaid from Tod Browning's %22The Show.%22


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