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.
Continue reading “GARBO TALKS”
“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 “GARBO: CINEMA’S COOL AND IMMORTAL SPHINX”
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 Ingmar Bergman. After the coming of sound Sjostrom retired from directing to return to his first love of acting, but he still served as mentor … Continue reading VICTOR SJOSTROM’S HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924) STARRING LON CHANEY
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, … Continue reading ERICH VON STROHEIM’S THE MERRY WIDOW (1925)
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.
Continue reading “TOD BROWNING’S THE SHOW 1927”
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.
Continue reading “TOD BROWNING’S THE SHOW (1927)”