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The Films of Greta GarboReview & Appreciation Thread


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#1 miliosr

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Posted 27 June 2010 - 10:02 AM

So, for my recent birthday, I treated myself to the 2005 Greta Garbo Signature Collection DVD box set. As I work my way through the 10 films (plus one fragment) contained in the set, I intend to post my musings about Garbo, the films and the evolution of her career at M-G-M. (I could do this in the 'Classic Hollywood/Golden Age of Hollywood' thread but, since this is such a specific thing, I figured I would split it off into its own thread. Plus, it's Garbo we're talking about . . . )

First up . . .

The Temptress (premiere: October 10, 1926)
Cast: Garbo (Elena), Antonio Moreno (Robledo), the Marques (Armand Kaliz), Manos Duras (Roy D'Arcy)
Director: Fred Niblo
Cost: $669,211 Gross: $965,000

The Temptress was Garbo's second feature at M-G-M and, as Garbo scholar Mark Vieira points out in his very informative commentary track, greatly troubled in its making. Garbo's mentor Mauritz Stiller started as the film's director but M-G-M production chief Irving Thalberg fired him for not entirely unjustified reasons (including an inability to speak English, feuding with leading man Moreno and, most importantly, producing incomprehensible [to Thalberg] footage.) Thalberg replaced Stiller with Niblo, who had rescued the very troubled production of Ben-Hur w/ Ramon Novarro earlier in the decade.

Garbo plays Elena, a "temptress" who wreaks havoc on men from Paris to the Argentine before encountering her own downfall at the end of the picture. As this is only her second American film, I found it difficult to assess her performance in terms of a concrete acting technique. Her famous remove and reserve are already there but she doesn't have many set piece scenes to show off any technique and, truth be told, she disappears for stretches of time while the film concentrates on Moreno's character Robledo. What she does show in comparison to all of her co-stars, however, is a naturalism that predicts the changes which would occur in acting technique in the decade to come. (Her naturalism is especially evident next to the hammy overacting of Kaliz and D'Arcy.)

Cinematographer William Daniels films Garbo ravishingly and Vieira, in his audio commentary, points out how M-G-M wasn't interested in naturalistic lighting for its stars. The M-G-M dictate was to bathe stars' faces in light so that they glowed on-screen. Some of this had to do with film and makeup limitations at the time but most of this had to do with creating film dieties for audiences of the time to adore. (The print transfer is fairly good given the age of the film.)

As a whole, the film is an entertaining romp with good work from Moreno and some decent special effects considering the period. The "bad girl who gets punished for her sins" theme is somewhat cringe-inducing to the modern viewer (especially considering that the men whom she ostensibly destroys are mostly weaklings who contribute to their own downfalls.) (I should note that The Temptress DVD contains an alternate "happy" ending that was tacked on to prints of the movie shown in the midwest.)

The Garbo persona wasn't quite in place as of 1926 but it was well on its way with this film.

Film grade: B
Garbo grade: B

#2 papeetepatrick

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Posted 27 June 2010 - 10:29 AM

Cool, miliosr. I haven't seen the Temptress, but she does get more 'goddess-y' in that same year in 'Flesh and the Devil', and definitely by 'Wild Orchids' and 'Woman of Affairs'. She's probably still in that same presence that she had in 'joyless street' (I've heard Marlene has a bit part in that, but I've never watched it again I knew about it). I just noticed at IMDb that I hadn't seen any of those earliest things before Joyless Street, and several after Temptress I haven't seen. Of the silents, I like 'The Kiss' the most, I think it a very subtle film, and I have seen all the talkies, most several times. What other titles are in your set, so that we can get ready to talk about these (some I've seen more recently than others.)

Edited to add: I take that back, I have never seen the second Anna Christie, in German I believe. I always thought it was a silent, so that's the one talkie I haven't seen. I wonder how they compare, I think she's marvelous in the first one.

#3 miliosr

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Posted 27 June 2010 - 11:22 AM

What other titles are in your set, so that we can get ready to talk about these (some I've seen more recently than others.)


In chronological order (after The Temptress): Flesh and the Devil (1926), The Divine Woman (1928 -- 9 minute fragment), The Mysterious Lady (1928), Anna Christie (1930/31 -- both versions), Mata Hari (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), Queen Christina (1933), Anna Karenina (1935), Camille (1936) and Ninotchka (1939).

Edited to add: I take that back, I have never seen the second Anna Christie, in German I believe. I always thought it was a silent, so that's the one talkie I haven't seen. I wonder how they compare, I think she's marvelous in the first one.


I'll let you know how they compare as both versions are included in the set.

#4 dirac

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Posted 27 June 2010 - 03:41 PM

Good luck. Garbo made a lot of junk, and it's one of the mysteries of her career that she never seems to have fought for better quality material as opposed to more money. However, it looks as if this set contains most of the chief titles and after all, Garbo movies do have Garbo. You should enjoy her exchanges with those two great technicians of the stage, John Barrymore and Ina Claire, and Adrian really goes to town in Mata Hari. Camille is my favorite among these even if in some ways it's no better than the others. Will look forward to your reports!

It's so much easier to be a movie buff than it used to be, I must say.....

#5 papeetepatrick

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Posted 27 June 2010 - 04:49 PM

Yes, we'll have to agree to disagree on these too. I don't think most of it was junk, I love 'grand hotel', 'Camille', 'Anna Karenina', 'Susan Lennox, Her Rise and Fall', 'Conquest', and the 'Anna Christie' I've seen. 'Ninotchka' is well-done if contrived, but is my least favourite--agree about Ina Claire though. 'Romance', with Garbo as opera star Anna Cavallini I thoroughly love, enjoy it's pretty kitschy and predictable. I love 'Queen Christina' too. How much I like these films because it's Garbo I don't know. 'Grand Hotel' is that wonderful formula if you have good stars, I like 'Ship of Fools' too. 'Two-Faced Woman' is usually thought to be trash, but I didn't think it was all that bad, just that the part was too Americanish, and Kate Hepburn would have been better for it. I'm a big Dietrich fan too, but her junk is more obviously awful, as in 'Kismet', which is unbelievable given her stature, 'Garden of Allah' with Boyer which I was expecting to enjoy and thought dreadful, 'The Scarlet Empress', which is sort of putrescent, but I like lots of her things. She's more of an artist when she sings, then she becomes magic, whether 'Blue Angel' or 'Morocco' (click: 'Black Market'), and sometimes is a good actress, but usually campy. Those last two, in particular, aren't junk, but Garbo is always expert at her Thespianism, although I'm not crazy about 'The Painted Veil' and 'As You Desire Me'. I think she's amazing in 'Grand Hotel', though, that's another kind of 'forest creature sensation', when she's facing Barrymore, the stalker. People just look for different things in works, and they find them. But even if I thought all these things were junk, and I don't, there's no stronger screen presence, and there could be no grand-style 'Camille' or 'Anna Karenina' without her (I mean these productions, which I don't find weak, not that nobody else could do the characters, though no one has onscreen so effectively), so they were made for her, making it hard to divorce what's 'the film' and what's 'the Garbo film'.

#6 dirac

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Posted 27 June 2010 - 05:14 PM

I didn't say they weren't enjoyable entertainments, many made with craftmanship and sometimes more than that. I also think Grand Hotel is great fun. My point was that it is unfortunate, however, that such a talent was put to work on mostly inferior material.

#7 bart

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Posted 27 June 2010 - 06:02 PM

I was surprised to find that I have actually seen most of the films mentioned so far on this thread. My first was Gosta Berlings Saga an Swedish silent film in which she was visually stunning.

Certain Garbo images remain in my mind -- Queen Cristina, alone, sailing off to exile is one -- while the details of actual scenes with other actors have slipped away. I've never managed to figure out whether what I was responding to when watching her films was Garbo the actress or "Garbo" the icon.

http://leighsinger.f...n-christina.jpg

Somehow, the experience of Garbo in performance was never quite what I hoped for. Maybe that is why I can hardly remember most of the films on miliosr's list.

I DO remember, however, those rare and always exciting real-life "Garbo sightings" on the streets of the East Side. :wink:

#8 Quiggin

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Posted 27 June 2010 - 10:09 PM

On the whole MGM made less interesting films than RKO, Columbia, Paramount and Warners, so Garbo may not have had the choice she could have elsewhere. I agree that Garbo was a better actress and presence than Dietrich but with Dietrich it's the Sternberg/Dietrich combination you get. Sternberg, imitating Flaubert, somewhere says: Miss Dietrich is me. They made six or sevens films in a row ending with Devil is a Woman (which influenced Bunuel and Guy Maddin).

Looking at James Wong Howe's bio I see this: "In 1949 he was hired for shooting tests for a never made comeback film starring Greta Garbo (La Duchesse de Langeais)."

A version of La Duchesse de Langeais was directed by Jacques Rivette in 2007 with Jeanne Balibar & Guilliame Depardieu & filmed by the late (5/2010) William Lubtchansky.

One can only dream what the Garbo tests were like.

Not Garbo

#9 dirac

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Posted 27 June 2010 - 10:54 PM

Garbo held a special place of prestige at MGM and had she wanted better material it was certainly possible, maybe without even a fight. As far as one can tell she didn't feel the need. (After her early years she didn't need a Svengali, either.)

The tests for the proposed Duchess of Langeais do exist and they show a ravishing Garbo in her early forties. It's a shame it didn't happen.
(I don't know that MGM pictures were less interesting than those of other studios...less quirky, certainly, more geared to beauty and glamor, but not necessarily duller.)

Certain Garbo images remain in my mind -- Queen Cristina, alone, sailing off to exile is one -- while the details of actual scenes with other actors have slipped away. I've never managed to figure out whether what I was responding to when watching her films was Garbo the actress or "Garbo" the icon.


I have a cinema-literate friend who feels much the same way, bart.

#10 bart

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Posted 28 June 2010 - 03:38 AM

Thanks, Quiggin, for that Link.

The tests for the proposed Duchess of Langeais do exist and they show a ravishing Garbo in her early forties. It's a shame it didn't happen.

That would be worth seeing. Garbo, especially at that age (the age of the duchesse herself) is perfect casting.

I have seen the French (tv?) film linked by Quiggin and was deeply disappointed. The strength of the novel (actually a long story) comes from style, pace, texture, tone. In contrast, he filmmakers chose to focus on
-- (a) plot (never Balzac's strong point, I think) and
-- (b) costume-drama art direction that is too naturalistic, constricted and cluttered in the Paris scenes for Balzac's own aesthetic.

Poorly cast, dragged down by a lugubrious musical score, and clearly made on a shoestring, this film is a real turkey.

Quiggin's phrase "Not Garbo" sums it up pretty well. A major Hollywood studio in the old black-and-white days -- and with Garbo's compelling, mysterious presence at the center -- would have done it far better.

P.S. Just checked the NY Times review, which is contrary to my own feelings about this film as it is possible to be.

“Duchess of Langeais” seems to me a nearly impeccable work of art — beautiful, true, profound.

:wink:
http://movies.nytime...ies/22duch.html

#11 MakarovaFan

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Posted 28 June 2010 - 05:08 AM

It's a shame that A Woman of Affairs isn't on dvd. It's my favorite Garbo silent with a deeply nuanced performance by the great lady herself with her best leading man, John Gilbert.

#12 papeetepatrick

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Posted 28 June 2010 - 06:06 AM

Certain Garbo images remain in my mind -- Queen Cristina, alone, sailing off to exile is one -- while the details of actual scenes with other actors have slipped away. I've never managed to figure out whether what I was responding to when watching her films was Garbo the actress or "Garbo" the icon.


In 'Queen Cristina', there are marvelous scenes with John Gilbert, when he finds he's not giving into homoerotic drives after all. It's a delight, especially when you remember that their aborted wedding had come some 3-6 (or so) years before.

Garbo the actress + Garbo the icon is why she is so peerless, but the reason why she didn't get 'better material' is primarily just because she didn't want to keep working, and there's no reason to imagine she didn't like the 'goddess status' either, no matter what she said. She wasn't the most agreeable person in the world and she was definitely aware of who she was and determined to remain even more so. She was a highly trained actress (like Bette Davis) and that's very different from most of the big Hollywood names (although I think the uniqueness of the long period of Hollywood glory has an especial charm for having many 'naturals' that didn't take lots of classes, they are perhaps more 'pure Hollywood', although many of these are mediocre.) So it's according to what film you're watching. The more obvious icon is in 'Romance', 'Camille', 'Conquest', 'Mata Hari', and 'Grand Hotel', even when these IMO contain great acting. Some films, like 'Susan Lennox, Her Rise and Fall' and the English 'Anna Christie' show her more unvarnished, and it was the latter in which I first recognized the subtlety of her acting: that one is early enough that a lot of the silent film techniques are still evident, and quite exquisite with gesture--there's some relation to ballet in some of the silent acting, esp. Garbo's and Lillian Gish's. There's that early scene in the bar with her old father and Marie Dressler, who are squalid and adorable and well into their cups, but she really is not happy with the scene, and out bursts 'I cahnt stahnd eet!' Here you get both Anna and Garbo, because Anna is pretty plain, but a real-life Anna might not have expressed such total disdain. This was a very influential delivery for me, and when I was in my temp-work period, I would sometimes call upon the memory of it and would have the strength to say, more or less, as in the country song 'You Can Take This Job and Shove It'. And although she plays an over-the-top ballerina in 'Grand Hotel', there's very delicate acting in the hotel room with Gilbert (I have a friend who's more of a fan than even I am, used to follow her around till he scared her, that thinks she goes too far in that one, but I think Russian ballerinas are de trop by their nature.)

It's simply that she didn't have more ambition as an actress, since she'd have had carte blanche with that, in theater just as she would have had with the screen (even though she and Dietrich and K. Hepburn and Crawford had all once been 'box office poison'). In that way, she did choose the icon herself. In an old Rolling Stone inteview, I recall K. Hepburn saying 'what a tragic shame she stopped making pictures'. But it was not her life, it was not really her business, and she wouldn't have been interested in hearing she had somehow not 'lived up to her potential'. Typical of her natural bossiness, although it's because she did stay in the business that she was able to realize great things as an older actress, like 'Long Day's Journey' and 'Lion in Winter', among others. On the other hand, the idea of K. Hepburn as Camille or Anna Karenina just doesn't play, but it's not 'tragic' that she couldn't. Nobody can do everything, both of these made huge artistic contributions. Garbo was very solipsistic and expected to be catered to at all times, and was (there are always types that like to do that sort of thing for divas, I find it unimaginable). Liked to have friends in high places, was occasionally kind and generous, but knew her status and didn't disagree with it.

I DO remember, however, those rare and always exciting real-life "Garbo sightings" on the streets of the East Side. :wink:


Yes, those were popular. I saw her once in 1979 after going to the Met. Another friend claimed she chased him, but I don't believe a word of it. That old gay porno filmmaker Peter De Rome even put real footage of her on one of her perambulations in his film 'Adam and Yves'. It was so absurd. You couldn't quite make her out, and i thought they were talking about Martha Graham at first.

Quiggin, yes, the Dietrich/Sternberg package is special, and those films are exotic things, I love 'Blonde Venus', even though it's so campy with the voodoo song and the ending as a Paris nightclub star. I think David Thomson complained everything after Sternberg, but there was still a lot of good stuff, I like her in 'Destry Rides Again', 'Morocco', and much later in 'Witness for the Prosecution' and her bit in 'Touch of Evil'.

Makarova Fan, I think 'Woman of Affairs' is on vhs, that must be how I saw it. You could probably find it on eBay.

#13 MakarovaFan

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Posted 28 June 2010 - 08:06 AM

Makarova Fan, I think 'Woman of Affairs' is on vhs, that must be how I saw it. You could probably find it on eBay.


Yes, patrick, I have it on VHS. I'm so afraid one of these days the tape will snap. :wink:

#14 dirac

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Posted 28 June 2010 - 10:12 AM

It's a shame that A Woman of Affairs isn't on dvd. It's my favorite Garbo silent with a deeply nuanced performance by the great lady herself with her best leading man, John Gilbert.


I also like A Woman of Affairs, MakarovaFan. I saw it in a revival house. It's a bowdlerized version of the old Michael Arlen barn-burner The Green Hat. The vicious double standard imposed on women back when is much in evidence but Garbo makes the hoariest scenes moving even as various men sit in judgment on her. I also like a very young Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as her brother. They match up well together.

It's simply that she didn't have more ambition as an actress, since she'd have had carte blanche with that, in theater just as she would have had with the screen (even though she and Dietrich and K. Hepburn and Crawford had all once been 'box office poison').


Garbo was on the infamous box office poison list, but her case was slightly different from that of the others, most of whom had for one reason or another worn out their welcome with the public. Garbo was still very popular in Europe and valuable also as a credit to her studio. But the closing of the European market with the coming of the war and the expense involved with a Garbo vehicle meant the studio could no longer swallow the costs (hence the turn to comedy in Ninotchka and Two-Faced Woman, with the goal of making her persona more accessible). Her departure was not intended to be permanent, but that's how it turned out. I remember reading that she waived the money owed on her contract, which she certainly didn't have to do.

She was a highly trained actress (like Bette Davis) and that's very different from most of the big Hollywood names


Garbo had a couple of years in drama school but Davis had more extensive theatrical experience and training. In many ways she was a "natural" by which I don't mean unskilled but with an instinct for the camera that probably no training can give.

#15 dirac

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Posted 30 June 2010 - 09:53 PM

As a whole, the film is an entertaining romp with good work from Moreno and some decent special effects considering the period. The "bad girl who gets punished for her sins" theme is somewhat cringe-inducing to the modern viewer (especially considering that the men whom she ostensibly destroys are mostly weaklings who contribute to their own downfalls.) The Garbo persona wasn't quite in place as of 1926 but it was well on its way with this film.

Film grade: B
Garbo grade: B


I forgot to thank you for this detailed review, miliosr. I would respectfully grade The Temptress lower than you do - it's mainly of interest to buffs, people with a pre-existing interest in Garbo, and Ricardo Moreno fans if there are any out there, but I wouldn't give it more than a C. (I wouldn't bother grading Garbo; she was sometimes miscast or less than her best but never actually bad or not worth watching IMO.) Garbo would spend most of her years in the silents as that bad girl who comes to a bad end. It's a long way from the sexy young thing with baby fat to the almost marmoreal presence of the later years.


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