miliosr

The Films of Greta Garbo

214 posts in this topic

I'm afraid time hasn't been kind to Gilbert. He's not a bad actor by any means but his heartthrob appeal hasn't survived the test of time, although one can guess at what contemporary audiences saw in him.

Now that 83 years have passed since the release of Flesh and the Devil, it's possible to evaluate Gilbert shorn of the hype which surrounded him at the time.

Hype might be a little unfair. Gilbert's popularity was quite genuine, not the product of a publicity machine.

Oh, I didn't mean "hype" in terms of M-G-M's publicity for Gilbert. I meant it more as reflection of how, when a star is at their peak, their fame and general "starriness" can obscure what was good about their work and what wasn't. But eventually (as Arlene Croce noted in a different context), it all sifts down and it becomes possible to judge the work minus all of the distracting trappings of fame and stardom.

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Oh, whatever, as the twinks say. I find Gilbert extremely attractive still, and Garbo herself obviously did too for some extended period of time. They were in love. Later, I believe she said she didn't know what she saw in him, but the feeling could have been mutual. otoh, he was drinking so heavily that he wasn't in his right mind. Just tried to look up his wiki page, but it wouldn't open. Called 'the great lover', acc. to caption, 'rivalling even...' I guess Valentino. He's more charismatic to me than Valentino ever was, I never could quite get what the fuss was about. As for 'heartthrob appeal not lasting the test of time', maybe if one took a survey, but as far as personal taste, I don't find any of the current 'heartthrobs' of Hollywoods to have much appeal, maybe Liam Neesson, so that gets into the subjective areas. Gilbert Roland had some of the same animal appeal, was a gigolo, but not a really serious actor.

Real problem with Gilbert was that he didn't have the voice, and yet made his way into at least a few talkies. He sure made the rounds: Not only nearly married Garbo, but did marry 4 other ladies, including Ina Claire. I hadn't known that. The highish voice reminded me vaguely of that handsome guy Lee Phillips in the movie of 'Peyton Place' opposite Lana Turner. This is a movie I like quite a lot, and Phillips was very nice in it, but his smallish voice may have been what kept him from getting any more big parts--but they were all good in that (including Lana and all the male and female starlets as well), and maybe the voice worked well enough for his part as a small-town principal. But Gilbert had a reputation to live up to and was famous with a reasonable body of work under his belt, and he had some obstacles, obviously, and some of this may have been recklessness and some of it just bad luck. I tend to like him onscreen.

Managed to get it to open: "Known as "the great lover", he rivaled even Rudolph Valentino as a box office draw. Though he was often cited as one of the high profile examples of an actor who was unsuccessful in making the transition to talkies, his decline as a star in fact had to do with studio politics and money and not the sound of his screen voice.[1] According to the actress Eleanor Boardman and others, a fight between Louis B. Mayer and Gilbert erupted at what was to be his marriage to Greta Garbo, for which she failed to turn up, when Mayer made a snide remark. Gilbert promptly knocked his boss down, for which Mayer swore he'd get even. Gilbert's daughter has alleged that Mayer then proceeded to sabotage the recording of his voice by increasing the treble; giving direction of his films to an inexperienced director who was on narcotic pain medication; refusing him good scripts, such as 1930's The Dawn Patrol which directors wanted to star him in; and editing his projects to ruin his films.[2]"

I have no idea how much of this is fact. Anyway, what I said about his voice may be inaccurate.

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Though he was often cited as one of the high profile examples of an actor who was unsuccessful in making the transition to talkies, his decline as a star in fact had to do with studio politics and money and not the sound of his screen voice.

In the Ramon Novarro bio I'm reading, the author, Andre Soares, discusses this very subject as a point of comparison with Novarro. His research shows that the above quotation is indeed correct -- Gilbert's fall was a great deal more complex than is commonly thought (i.e. His voice was too high, Mayer had it out for him, etc.)

I'll write more about this when I'm done with the book!

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From what I've heard from more technical film people, the very primitive early recording techniques were not kind to Gilbert. His voice in actuality was not that high, but his voice did not come across well in recording. For some reason, I think it had to do with trying to record multiple voices onto one track at the same time (and specifically male and female voices), but that may be my memory playing tricks with me.

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The talk has always been that Gilbert was sabotaged by Mayer, who told the sound men to turn up the treble for Gilbert.

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Yes, that's always been the rumor, but from what I've heard it's more complex than that, and at least part of the issue is that early sound recording didn't have the capacity to record multiple voices well, especially male and female. Mayer (or whoever was in charge) had the sound technicians set the machines for Garbo's voice, and Gilbert was sacrificed in the process. I doubt we'll ever know the full story (probably elements of all of the rumors floating aorund are true), but Gilbert doesn't sound nearly as bad in later MGM films like Queen Christina.

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Mayer (or whoever was in charge) had the sound technicians set the machines for Garbo's voice, and Gilbert was sacrificed in the process.

Gilbert's first sound pictures weren't made with Garbo, though. Do you mean that the sound technicians set the machines for Garbo and sacrificed other stars?? That's interesting, if true.

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Moving on . . .

The Divine Woman (Premiere: January 14, 1928)

Cast: Garbo (Marianne), Lars Hanson (Lucien), Polly Moran (Mme. Pigonier)

Director: Victor Seastrom

Cinematographer: Oliver Marsh

(Note: William Daniels was unavailable to film Garbo because Norma Shearer [a.k.a. Mrs. Irving Thalberg] wanted him to shoot her on the picture she was filming at the same time, The Latest from Paris.)

Cost: $266,000 Gross: $931,000 Profit: $354,000

(Note: The difference between the gross and the filming cost must be the distribution/promotional costs.)

The Divine Woman was supposed to be a semi-bio of Sarah Bernhardt but, after numerous rewrites, morphed into a conventional romantic drama where Garbo must choose between a soldier (Hanson) and a theatrical producer played by Lowell Sherman. This was Garbo's fifth picture for M-G-M (sixth if you count the scrapped Anna Karenina that occurred between Flesh and the Devil and Love) and found Garbo moving out of strictly vamp territory into more wideranging territory.

Sadly, according to Mark Vieira in his book, Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy:

The Divine Woman is considered a lost film. When M-G-M embarked on a preservation program in the 1960s, both the negative and the vault print of the film were found to have suffered total nitrate decay. One reel was found in Russia in the 1990s, but there is little hope of ever seeing this film as it was originally presented.

The 9 minute section of the film contained on the DVD is the found Russian reel. It contains the original title cards in Russian along with English subtitles. There is a short scene between Hanson and Moran (better known at the time for the lowbrow -- but very popular -- comedies she was making with Marie Dressler) followed by a longer, romantic scene between Garbo and Hanson. Impossible to judge anything based on the shortness of the reel and its general condition, although I can say that there are two cringeworthy kissing scenes where Garbo has to kiss Hanson all over his face.

Film grade: No grade

Garbo grade: No grade

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The talk has always been that Gilbert was sabotaged by Mayer, who told the sound men to turn up the treble for Gilbert.

Yes, that's always been the rumor, but from what I've heard it's more complex than that, and at least part of the issue is that early sound recording didn't have the capacity to record multiple voices well, especially male and female.

In the bio of Ramon Novarro I'm reading, author Andre Soares discusses the changeover on the M-G-M lot from silence to sound and how it impacted all concerned. Here's what he wrote about the recording process:

"The major concern at the time was not so much what a performer sounded like in real life, but how he or she would record. Despite the rapid progress in recording and mixing technology during that crucial period, sound equipment still tended to alter the actors' voices. Rose Hobart, one of the many talents recently imported from Broadway, later remembered going to a show of Liliom, in which she appeared with Fox star Charles Farrell. As Hobart approached the auditorium, she was startled to hear a strong, masculine voice emanating from the screen. She marveled at what the microphone had done for Farrell's high-pitched tones, which she thought sounded too effeminate, until she looked up at the screen and realized that the "strong, masculine voice" was not Farrell's, but her own." (p. 151)

And:

"Among the many tales of performers whose careers were destroyed by talking pictures, the fate of John Gilbert has become legendary. Gilbert, the heir to Valentino as Hollywood's Great Lover, possessed a light tenor voice that clashed with his dashing on-screen image. Worse yet, early microphones made his voice sound more high-pitched than it actually was." (p. 151)

Maybe L.B. Mayer had the technicians screw around with recordings of Gilbert. But maybe it was just a case of bad luck on Gilbert's part -- making the transition relatively early before the technicians had gotten a handle on the recording process. In addition, consider this (also from Soares) regarding Mayer's alleged supernatural malevolence:

"Mayer allegedly vowed to destroy Gilbert after the star punched him because of a disparaging remark [Mayer made] about Greta Garbo. In revenge, Mayer [allegedly] sabotaged the recording of Gilbert's voice for his first released talkie, His Glorious Night, and then cast the irascible star in a succession of inferior vehicles. One major problem with [this tale] is that even if Mayer was happy to see Gilbert go -- and he surely was -- he would have been unable to single-handedly ruin [one] of the studio's major box-office attractions, while [irving] Thalberg and Nicholas Schenck [Note: head of M-G-M's parent company, Loew's], neither of whom was on good terms with Mayer, did nothing to stop him. (p. 349)

We'll never really know if L.B. Mayer sabotaged Gilbert or not. I tend to agree with sidwich, though, that the events precipitating Gilbert's career collapse are a great deal more complicated than are commonly presented.

More on these "complicated events" in another post!

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I think we all agree that Gilbert's decline and fall was the result of more than one issue, don't we? Reposting from an earlier post of mine in this thread:

Hype might be a little unfair. Gilbert's popularity was quite genuine, not the product of a publicity machine. In the one or two Gilbert sound pictures I've seen, he isn't bad in them and I would not say his was an acting problem per se. Probably he was done in by a combination of studio politics and changing styles in male stars.
Rose Hobart, one of the many talents recently imported from Broadway, later remembered going to a show of Liliom, in which she appeared with Fox star Charles Farrell. As Hobart approached the auditorium, she was startled to hear a strong, masculine voice emanating from the screen. She marveled at what the microphone had done for Farrell's high-pitched tones, which she thought sounded too effeminate, until she looked up at the screen and realized that the "strong, masculine voice" was not Farrell's, but her own."

Shades of "Singin' in the Rain. " :)

One major problem with [this tale] is that even if Mayer was happy to see Gilbert go -- and he surely was -- he would have been unable to single-handedly ruin [one] of the studio's major box-office attractions, while [irving] Thalberg and Nicholas Schenck [Note: head of M-G-M's parent company, Loew's], neither of whom was on good terms with Mayer, did nothing to stop him.

The story was that Thalberg, who was often on sick leave, was not always there to step in and also Gilbert did not always mind Thalberg's advice to a) steer clear of Mayer and b) behave. It's true that the real power and final say lay with the money men in New York, but Mayer was still the man on the spot. Jeanette MacDonald was once one of Mayer's favorite stars, but when she went over his head to New York on the matter of dubbing her own voice, she believed he never forgave her and her career suffered for it thereafter. The studios do seem to have used the transition to sound to do a little housecleaning. Could he get rid of a star at the top of his game? Most likely not, but he could take advantage of an opening, and it seems that Gilbert unwisely gave him plenty.

(In regard to "His Glorious Night," the dialogue seems to have been at least as much the problem as Gilbert's voice.)

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I think we all agree that Gilbert's decline and fall was the result of more than one issue, don't we?

Yes, but it's so much more fun when we argue things to death! :wink:

(In regard to "His Glorious Night," the dialogue seems to have been at least as much the problem as Gilbert's voice.)

Agreed. His Glorious Night was a silent film which had been insufficiently modified, in terms of its story and dialogue, into a talkie.

Even if His Glorious Night had been better than it was, Gilbert's days were still probably numbered. Soares again:

"One major problem for Gilbert and [William] Haines was that they looked well beyond their years soon after they reached thirty: Gilbert because of alcohol abuse and Haines because of a fast-receding hairline matched by a fast-increasing waistline." (p. 189)

Also:

"Another problem was financial: Gilbert's exorbitant $250,000-per-picture salary had made it nearly impossible for the studio to pair him with a costly leading lady or director in the talking era. Without the backup of an important female lead or an expensive production, Gilbert's films did not perform as well at home or, especially, abroad. Thus, as the costs of all but two of Gilbert's talkies skyrocketed to more than $500,000 (only three of his silent films had reached that mark), his formerly profitable picture suddenly became huge money-losers." (pp. 189-190)

L.B. Mayer may have been scheming behind-the-scenes to get rid of Gilbert. But he may also have been shrewd enough to realize that he didn't have to do the dirty work -- Gilbert's pricing himself out of the market and his increasingly manic episodes would cause the same result.

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I don't think we're really arguing, miliosr, at least I'm not. ;) There is plenty of evidence to indicate that Mayer disliked Gilbert enough to want to get rid of him, and less conclusive but not-entirely-dismissible evidence that he actively worked to do so. We also know that Gilbert was not helping himself. Soares (and you) makes a good point about Gilbert's salary; Garbo and her vehicles, too, eventually became too expensive without the European market. (You'll have to tell us what he says about Novarro's career - please start a thread when you're ready. :))

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Was interested to hear Gilbert made that much per picture, I wouldn't have thought it. Here are two paragraphs from the NYTimes obituary of Garbo:

"Garbo's movies earned her more than $3 million, a record at a time of low income taxes, and her frugality and astute investments, particularly in Manhattan real estate, increased her wealth. Her life had begun in virtual poverty."

"In only two years, Garbo became a superstar. By shrewd negotiating, threatening to return to Sweden and staging a strike, she also won unheard-of raises. In only three years, her weekly salary soared from $350 to $5,000, and six years later she won a record $270,000 per movie."

I would have thought she was making much more than Gilbert, but I've never researched old star salaries. That's $20,000 more, but she's still the bigger name, or maybe we just think that now. He was obviously hugely popular in a way I hadn't realized, since he's not well-known to non-movie-buffs.

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(You'll have to tell us what he says about Novarro's career - please start a thread when you're ready. :))

I will. It's just that I'm having trouble finishing the book. The first half of Novarro's life was an American success story but the second half was the success story in reverse. It's hard keeping up my motivation to read when I know the spectacular comeback would never happen and, especially, how it would all end.

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Moving on . . .

The Mysterious Lady (Premiere: August 4, 1928)

Cast: Garbo (Tania Fedorova), Conrad Nagel (Karl von Raden), Gustav von Seyffertitz (General Boris Alexandroff)

Director: Fred Niblo

Cinematographer: William Daniels

Cost: $336,973 Gross: ?

The Mysterious Lady started life as a John Gilbert picture but morphed into a Garbo vehicle. This was Garbo's sixth movie for M-G-M (or, again, seventh depending on how you're counting) and the first one where she was difficult to the point of extreme rudeness on the set. In particular, both Mark Vieira's Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy and the audio commentary by Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta recount her terrible treatment of Marion Davies when she visited Garbo on the Mysterious Lady set.

The opening intertitle sets the stage for the action:

"Vienna before the war -- city of love and laughter -- living gayly [Note: Indeed!] to the music of the waltz and the opera!!

(The action is supposed to be taking place before 1914 but the costumes are definitely 1928-flapper in inspiration.)

Garbo plays Tania, a Russian spy, who steals important military papers from Austrian soldier Karl, with whom she is also in love [Note: Of course!] At 89 minutes, this proto-Mata Hari spy story is considerably shorter than the other two full-length silents contained in the box set and, even then, the story feels padded and paper thin. Still, the movie is not without its good things. There is a beautiful sequence in the first act where Garbo, during a power outage caused by a rain storm, lights several candles. Suddenly, she gives the camera a look (she is ostensibly looking at Karl) that is heartstopping for its sheer beauty. Later on, in the second act , Nagel has a marvelous scene where, having been accused of being a traitor, the Austrian military strips him of his sword, his medals and even his uniform buttons (!) before sending him to prison.

Garbo's acting is very strong in this. Her performance here is better than her performances in The Temptress and Flesh and the Devil. No longer is she the awkward Swedish ingenue finding her way. Here, she has taken charge and is in full command. With her acting, you also get to see the continuing evolution of screen acting (which she was in the forefront of at that time.) The silent mannerisms are mostly gone at this point and the cool, less showy style of the future has already manifested itself.

Nagel is quite good as a John Gilbert stand-in and Gustav von Seyffertitz, as Tania's boss/lover, is even better. Blessedly, all three performers are free of silent film excesses.

The audio commentary is adequate with the occasional good story added to the mix. One of the commentators relates how, in 1990, he was riding up in an elevator with Rex Harrison in Harrison's apartment building, when an elderly woman and her nurse got on the elevator. Harrison said "Hello" and the commentator, not recognizing the woman, also said "Hello". The woman, rather stiffly, replied "Hello". Harrison and the commentator got off the elevator and only then did Harrison explain who the woman was!

The source print for the transfer was in very mixed condition (due to nitrate decay) at the time of the transfer so the resulting viewing experience is uneven.

Film grade: B-

Garbo grade: A-

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The Mysterious Lady is the last of the silents contained in the box set (although she would make four more silents in 1928-29.) The next film in the set, of course, is one of her most famous . . . Anna Christie.

Stay tuned!

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http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/18/fashion/18mystery.html?8dpc

In case you didn't see this, miliosr. Brantley uses Garbo as the 'ultimate unattainable'. I think it's a thoroughly pedestrian article, he wants 'silence', but could have started with himself, it seems. It's not even especially perspicacious, but he throws out all the cliches at once, which must be something, I guess. Mainly, just more diva worship parading as journalism, and as if it were original, rather than common knowledge.

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Thanks for the link, papeetepatrick. I don't think it's a bad article by any means, even if some of his points are easy shots and disputable ones at that. Keeping only to his discussion of Garbo, it's quite true that her particular kind of stardom was only possible in that era, although that in itself doesn't necessarily tell us much. However, his points about the vanishing of mystery aren't off the mark. It is too bad, in a way.

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Moving on . . .

Anna Christie (Premiere: January 22, 1930)

Cast: Garbo (Anna), Charles Bickford (Matt), George F. Marion (Chris), Marie Dressler (Marthy)

Director: Clarence Brown

Cinematographer: William Daniels

Costumes by: Adrian

Cost: ? Combined Gross - English&German versions: $1,500,000

Anna Christie was Garbo's eleventh picture for M-G-M and first "talkie". The pre-release speculation for this picture was immense -- how would Garbo fare under the microphone when it had destroyed so many of her contemporaries? (Anna Christie would also generate one of the all-time greatest promotional tag-lines in movie history: "Garbo Talks!")

Now that we are at an 80-year remove from the drama and excitement surrounding the transition of silent film stars to sound, it is possible to evaluate the early talkies (and the performances contained within them) on their own merits. First off, let me say that Garbo's voice is wonderful -- deep and rich and perfect for the part. Where I was less convinced, surprisingly, was with her acting. There are strong moments in her performance, particulary her revalatory speech toward the end of the picture. But, bafflingly, there are other moments where her acting is more "silent-filmy-acting" than in any of her silent films -- melodramatic clutching of her head, contorting her body until she looks like a pretzel, etc. I don't know if she was directed to do this or this is in the source material (Eugene O'Neill's play) but it is shame to see this most subtle of early sound actresses acting so unsubtley. Not a bad performance by any stretch but an uneven one.

Charles Bickford shouts his was through the movie at the sailor Matt and George F. Marion's performance as Anna's father Chris is a trial. The combination of his "Swedish" accent and his mannered acting is lethal. The real acting honors go to Marie Dressler, who steals every single scene she is in (including the ones she's in with Garbo.) (I think Garbo knew Dressler had gotten the better of her, too. After Garbo saw the picture, she drove to Marie Dressler's home and presented her with a bouquet of chrysanthemums.)

Director Clarence Brown was Oscar-nominated for his direction but I can't see why unless the nomination was reward for getting Garbo through her first talkie. The direction (like the movie itself) is horribly static and made this viewer feel like he was watching a filmed version of a stage performance. (This may not be entirely Brown's fault as the source material doesn't strike me as terribly cinematic.)

William Daniels was also Oscar-nominated for his cinematography and the film does look marvelous considering the story takes place by a wharf and is populated by sailors and bar rats. The transfer to DVD looked good on my TV. There is no commentary track.

In any event, Anna Christie made a tremendous amount of money for M-G-M. I couldn't find the movie's cost but the gross was in excess of $1.5 million. Mark Vieira, in Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy, reports that Anna Christie was the,"highest-grossing film of 1930." (I don't know if he meant the highest-grossing M-G-M film or the highest-grossing film -- period.)

Film grade: B- (Bumped up from a C+ because of Marie Dressler.)

Garbo grade: B

Dressler grade: A

Direction grade: C- (Bumped up from a D because the source material may resist film.)

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There are strong moments in her performance, particulary her revalatory speech toward the end of the picture. But, bafflingly, there are other moments where her acting is more "silent-filmy-acting" than in any of her silent films -- melodramatic clutching of her head, contorting her body until she looks like a pretzel, etc. I don't know if she was directed to do this or this is in the source material (Eugene O'Neill's play) but it is shame to see this most subtle of early sounf actresses acting so unsubtley.

I found this to be what was so subtle, it makes sense to me to see some 'silent film acting' in her talkies, even though there's less of it in subsequent films. I'm not talking about what was appropriate for the source material, since I'm not especially concerned with it in a purist sense, so I probably see it as a Garbo performance, and this is one I particularly like. I like seeing the remnants of the earlier style, but that again is probably because the movie only interests me because of Garbo and the early scene with Marion and Dressler. I'm sure I'd feel differently had I seen it onstage first (or even ever, which I haven't.) I didn't think anybody stole scenes from her, although I thought they were all good.

Anna Christie would be a turning-point for Dressler who would go on (until her death in 1934) to become the biggest female star in America.

Do you mean in terms of box office? There were Garbo herself, and Dietrich was setting the woods on fire, Joan Crawford was also just in from silents, I don't know how famous Bette Davis was yet, from that amusing role as the Southern girl who'd 'kiss ya, but I just washed my hair'. There was also Jean Harlow and even Loretta Young (although not of great interest to me, and I don't know if she was box office or not), and certainly Claudette Colbert. Iguess Mae west didn't really get started till 1933, with 'She Done Him Wrong', and Barbara Stanwyck was already working, but not a household word. So you'd be saying that a character actress was the 'biggest female star in America'. I guess that's possible, I never thought about it, so I'm just asking. I didn't know anybody but old-movie buffs knew who Dressler was, although I agree she's good, esp. in 'Dinner at Eight'.

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In his book, Mark Vieira has a funny story about the hysteria that ensued after the release of Anna Christie and Garbo's reaction to it:

Riding one day in [a friend's] secondhand Buick convertible, Garbo saw Joan Crawford drive by in her chauffeur-driven limousine. Garbo turned to [her friend] and laughed: "I read last night that I was the queen of the movies, and look at me now, riding around in this old car. Gott! What a funny joke!"

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Cute story.

Dressler was hugely popular for a time and although I don't know off the top of my head it would not surprise me if she was the most popular actress then. I do remember reading that somewhere.

Not a bad performance by any stretch but an uneven one.

Nerves, perhaps? It was a very tense time and the actors had to get used to a completely different way of filming.

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Anna Christie would be a turning-point for Dressler who would go on (until her death in 1934) to become the biggest female star in America.

Do you mean in terms of box office? There were Garbo herself, and Dietrich was setting the woods on fire, Joan Crawford was also just in from silents, I don't know how famous Bette Davis was yet, from that amusing role as the Southern girl who'd 'kiss ya, but I just washed my hair'. There was also Jean Harlow and even Loretta Young (although not of great interest to me, and I don't know if she was box office or not), and certainly Claudette Colbert. Iguess Mae west didn't really get started till 1933, with 'She Done Him Wrong', and Barbara Stanwyck was already working, but not a household word. So you'd be saying that a character actress was the 'biggest female star in America'. I guess that's possible, I never thought about it, so I'm just asking. I didn't know anybody but old-movie buffs knew who Dressler was, although I agree she's good, esp. in 'Dinner at Eight'.

Most of the actresses you cited hit their box office stride around the time Dressler took ill and died. But between, say, 1931 to 1933, Dressler was HUGE. She's semi-forgotten now but, back then, movies like Min and Bill were major box office. (Dressler was no longer a character actress per se in these.) I specified "America" in my original post because I do believe Garbo was much bigger in the foreign box office.

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"In an era of Harlow, Garbo and Crawford, it was homely old Marie Dressler that won the coveted exhibitor's poll as the most popular actress for three consecutive years"

That was what was on IMDb. I don't know what 'the exhibitor's poll' is, though.

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I like seeing the remnants of the earlier style,

But this is what puzzles me. In the earlier films I've seen and reviewed -- The Temptress, Flesh and the Devil and The Mysterious Lady -- I didn't see Garbo utilize silent film acting conventions. And yet they show up here . . .

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