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The Films of Greta GarboReview & Appreciation Thread


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#16 miliosr

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Posted 01 July 2010 - 03:19 PM

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.


Keep in mind (as I slowly work my way through these films) that I will be much more lenient in the grades I assign to the silent films than I will be with those I assign to the talkies. A 'B' for a silent Garbo film won't be the same 'B' as a 'B' for a talkie. Unfair perhaps but I hold the talkies to a higher standard.

#17 dirac

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Posted 02 July 2010 - 11:31 AM

Good point. And I don't think it's unfair, rather the reverse.

#18 miliosr

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Posted 03 July 2010 - 05:18 PM

Moving on . . .

Flesh and the Devil (Premiere: January 9, 1927)
Cast: John Gilbert (Leo), Garbo (Felicitas), Lars Hanson (Ulrich), Barbara Kent (Hertha)
Director: Clarence Brown
Cinematographer: William Daniels
Cost: $795,000 Gross: $1,261,000

Garbo's third film at M-G-M is also her first with John Gilbert. (He is actually top-billed in the credits.) The story concerns the friendship between two soldiers in the German military, Leo and Ulrich, and the woman (Felicitas) who nearly destroys that friendship due to her actions.

Although this movie is remembered as the beginning of the celebrated Garbo-Gilbert pairing and for the torrid chemistry between the pair, the actual movie is much more about the close friendship (bordering on homoerotica) between Leo and Ulrich than it is about the machinations of Felicitas. Like The Temptress, Garbo disappears for stretches of time until she's needed again to get the action moving. Inevitably, an uneven quality results as the scenes with Garbo and Gilbert together are dynamite but the scenes without them are often dull and hokey (sometimes at the same time.)

The two best scenes are the cigarette lighting scene and the Communion rail scene. Early in the picture, Garbo and Gilbert (who are guests at a grand ball), alight into a secluded garden. Garbo takes a cigarette and puts it in her mouth. She then turns it around and puts it in Gilbert's mouth. He lights two cigarettes and the resulting glow of the "match" (actually a lamp Gilbert held in the palm of his hand) bathes their faces in a luminous glow. I found this scene incredibly erotic -- I can only imagine what audiences of the time thought!

In the Communion rail scene, Garbo is kneeling to Gilbert's left at the altar. After each person drinks from the chalice, the pastor turns the chalice slightly so the next person at the rail is not drinking from the same spot on the lip of the chalice. But Garbo's character turns the chalice back to the spot where Gilbert had drunk from and then drinks. The look on her face is one of sheer sexual ecstasy! (How did this make it past the censors of the time???)

When Garbo does appear in Flesh and the Devil, she has more opportunities to act than she did in The Temptress, in which she had been a glorified statue. Garbo's acting style is already incredibly naturalistic and, so boldly does it clash with some of what is going on around her, you get the impression that she walked in from another picture (and another, future time). Gilbert is also quite good, although there are times where is he is very much a silent screen actor with the exaggerated expressions. (On a side note, I found it bittersweet seeing Gilbert so full of life in this and knowing that, in a few short years, he would suffer a terrible fall.) Lars Hanson's acting is silent screen acting of the worst kind and dates the picture horribly.

Overall, I would say the Garbo-Gilbert chemistry is every bit as dynamic as advertised but, unfortunately, their scenes represent oases between the rest of the not-so-great material. Garbo biographer Barry Paris provides a reasonably informative audio commentary but I could have lived without his imitating Garbo's voice at times. Save it for the local drag club, buddy. The print transfer is good enough although the source print looks like it is in uneven shape.

(The DVD also contains the alternate ending in which Leo proposes to Hertha.)

Film grade (overall): B+
Film grade (Garbo-Gilbert scenes): A
Garbo: B+ (Better but still not enough of her)

#19 papeetepatrick

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Posted 03 July 2010 - 06:23 PM

Garbo's acting style is already incredibly naturalistic and, so boldly does it clash with some of what is going on around her, you get the impression that she walked in from another picture (and another, future time).


Delightful turns of phrase, and evocative. I haven't seen this in a long time, but it was the first Garbo silent I saw. This was on the PBS series about films from the Museum of Modern Art, and hosted by film scholar Eileen Bowser, who I later discovered to be a neighbor of mine. I talked to her a few years back about Griffith's 'Legend of Happy Valley', which her show also introduced me to (and of which I'm very fond still.)

Gilbert is also quite good, although there are times where is he is very much a silent screen actor with the exaggerated expressions.


She's very much an accomplished silent-screen actor herself, although it was obviously bound to be more subtle than Gilbert's. I mention that because in the first few talkies you see the remnants of gesture that she had mastered in some of the silents, and then they begin to fade away (you'll see a lot of these in the English 'Anna Christie'.)

Her scenes with him are always erotic, including much later in 'Queen Cristina'.

Enjoyed the whole review, miliosr.

#20 dirac

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Posted 03 July 2010 - 08:54 PM

(The DVD also contains the alternate ending in which Leo proposes to Hertha.)


Boy, the world was waiting for that. :)

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.

Her scenes with him are always erotic, including much later in 'Queen Cristina'.


The bedroom scene in Queen Christina is amazing. No thanks to him, though.

#21 miliosr

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Posted 04 July 2010 - 03:41 AM

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. I would say say that he was a handsome and charismatic guy who excelled in a number of popular movies of the time based on those qualities. In comparison to Garbo (even the not-fully-formed Garbo of Flesh and the Devil), though, I would say that Gilbert was a silent films actor, pure and simple, whereas Garbo was a talking films actress biding her time, however unknowingly, in silent films.

#22 papeetepatrick

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Posted 04 July 2010 - 08:16 AM

I would say that Gilbert was a silent films actor, pure and simple, whereas Garbo was a talking films actress biding her time, however unknowingly, in silent films.


Maybe you're right about Gilbert primarily being a 'silent films actor', but I probably do disagree about Garbo, in that I think she was good at both. They're just different, in terms of the techniques that are necessitated, and there is much in the movement of silent film acting that proves that the acting is just as much an art as that of talkies--and Lillian Gish is not the only one who proves that, but she's probably the most exemplary. There's Joseph Schildkraut, there's Richard Barthelmess, there's Buster Keaton and all sorts of comedians, there's Valentino (effective and fantastically popular to say the least, whatever you may think of his Thespian virtuosities or the lack thereof.) You can grade talkies more severely than silents if you want to, of course, although I don't see it that way, and there are many who think the greatest films ever made are silents (and some silents are among the greatest, and don't need a more lenient grading--Griffith again, who is incomparable, and Fritz Lang's German silents are generally considered to be far greater than his Hollywood talkies (I'd agree), although some of those are fine, too.)

If you can, see if you can find a vhs or dvd of 'The Kiss'. There's Anders Randolph instead of Lewis Stone again getting cheated on (although I tend to enjoy his recurrence in her films) and the weaving in of the complicated affairs with two other men is quite skillfully handled (those are Conrad Nagel and Lew Ayres, so you have a blue ribbon cast). I believe that, although it's not the last silent film ever made, of course, it was the last MGM silent, or studio silent, or something like that. Dirac or Quiggin will know, and it had to do with fear of her voice not working in talkies (which were already very popular and widespread by then), so they keep the $$$$ signs going all the way until the last sou is collected before they take a chance. And that gives one example of how you may now, in hindsight, see Garbo as a 'talkie actress', but they weren't sure it was going to work till she said 'Gimme a whiskey'.

#23 miliosr

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Posted 04 July 2010 - 09:02 AM


I would say that Gilbert was a silent films actor, pure and simple, whereas Garbo was a talking films actress biding her time, however unknowingly, in silent films.

Maybe you're right about Gilbert primarily being a 'silent films actor', but I probably do disagree about Garbo, in that I think she was good at both.


patrick -- I wouldn't disagree with you that Garbo excelled in both mediums. I think what I'm trying to say, however inarticulately, is that when you see Garbo in these silents, you see her revealing the future direction of acting technique on film. There's a spareness to her performances that you don't see in those she's working with onscreen. Gilbert is better than the rest in this regard but even he seems more rooted in what was rather than what would be. I don't know if that is a good thing or a bad thing (Norma Desmond would have said it was a good thing) but it's what I see when I'm watching these films.

#24 papeetepatrick

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Posted 04 July 2010 - 09:06 AM

Yes, that makes perfect sense, much like the 'future' and the 'other picture' she 'walked in' from. So her potential was indeed a nice bit of timing, since we couldn't have got the full-blown Garbo in silents. And there she was ready to take them in full stride and did so, unlike many others (the Talmadges come to mind, and said they weren't too worried about, they had enough money, etc., it was pretty funny.)

Some say most (or all) of the silent techniques disappeared after a few years, but I think some of the facial expressions that were especially effective in many of the early silents were still to be seen all the way through her career, especially this particular frown she'd do. (maybe not in Two-Faced Womand and Ninotchka, but it's been awhile since I've seen those.)

#25 dirac

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Posted 04 July 2010 - 03:42 PM


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. I would say say that he was a handsome and charismatic guy who excelled in a number of popular movies of the time based on those qualities. In comparison to Garbo (even the not-fully-formed Garbo of Flesh and the Devil), though, I would say that Gilbert was a silent films actor, pure and simple, whereas Garbo was a talking films actress biding her time, however unknowingly, in silent films.


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.

You can grade talkies more severely than silents if you want to,


This viewer certainly wants to. There is no denying that there are some classic silent movies and some great performers, given the handicap of no sound and acting conventions which look sometimes painfully dated today. But movies made a great step forward with the increased technical and creative sophistication that arrived - eventually - with the sound era. Garbo became a star in silent pictures and she doesn't need to speak. But she became greater when she could.

#26 miliosr

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Posted 04 July 2010 - 04:49 PM



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.

#27 papeetepatrick

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Posted 04 July 2010 - 04:57 PM

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.

#28 miliosr

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Posted 05 July 2010 - 09:52 AM

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!

#29 sidwich

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Posted 05 July 2010 - 03:05 PM

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.

#30 dirac

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Posted 05 July 2010 - 03:37 PM

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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