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The Films of Greta GarboReview & Appreciation Thread


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#61 bart

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Posted 20 July 2010 - 09:49 AM

I'd actually say that what Brantley is talking about (Garbo's famous aloofness and mystique) is what gives her films a slightly dated quality, whereas the movies of, say, Carole Lombard or Barbara Stanwyck still crackle with vitality. Garbo in most of her movies is sort of static, and always seems like Garbo Playing Christina, or Garbo Playing Marguerite, etc. Her screen persona was based on the idea that in real life, you'd never see someone that beautiful and mysterious. It's like a mannequin came to life. It works well, but there is a distancing effect.

I love that phrase: "a distancing effect." It's what I feel too.

I wonder what directors like Alfred Hitchcock might have been able to do with Garbo, since Hitchcock wrote the mystery and aloofness into his movies.

Intriguing question.

#62 papeetepatrick

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Posted 20 July 2010 - 10:30 AM

I'd actually say that what Brantley is talking about (Garbo's famous aloofness and mystique) is what gives her films a slightly dated quality, whereas the movies of, say, Carole Lombard or Barbara Stanwyck still crackle with vitality. Garbo in most of her movies is sort of static, and always seems like Garbo Playing Christina, or Garbo Playing Marguerite, etc. Her screen persona was based on the idea that in real life, you'd never see someone that beautiful and mysterious. It's like a mannequin came to life. It works well, but there is a distancing effect.
I wonder what directors like Alfred Hitchcock might have been able to do with Garbo, since Hitchcock wrote the mystery and aloofness into his movies.


Agree with some of that, but not that they're more dated--they're all dated. I think Garbo is like Suzanne Farrell, aloof and distant, maybe even sometimes a mannequin come to life, as you say. And although it probably IS based on the idea that in real life you'd never see someone that beautiful and mysterious, that illusion only works if you buy into it: I've seen and known plenty of people in real life that I thought were as beautiful and mysterious (if not more so) than Garbo (yes, onscreen Garbo even), I just think her uniqueness is being suited for these bigger-than-life roles, including her ponderously described '6 decades of documented silence.' I will say that I think that persona after retirement does give the old 'real work' more value in a certain sense. It's not as though it's a miniscule output in any case.

I like your point about 'crackling with vitality', though. While I do think 'Susan Lennox' crackles with vitality, REALLY crackling with vitality is like the opening of 'The Letter', which, when Bette Davis bolts out onto the porch with the gun, is maybe my most enjoyed scene in all 'Golden Age' films. All I have to do is think about it, although I'd rather see it. Plus, you're right about Stanwyck, especially in 'Double Indemnity', when she first comes down the stairs in the platforms, and then later 'you-ah huh-ting me' to McMurray, when they're supposed to be celebrating their vicious plans for crime, but she's more than ever concerned only with the immediate sensation (in this case, minor pain.)

#63 canbelto

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Posted 20 July 2010 - 11:32 AM

I like your point about 'crackling with vitality', though. While I do think 'Susan Lennox' crackles with vitality, REALLY crackling with vitality is like the opening of 'The Letter', which, when Bette Davis bolts out onto the porch with the gun, is maybe my most enjoyed scene in all 'Golden Age' films. All I have to do is think about it, although I'd rather see it. Plus, you're right about Stanwyck, especially in 'Double Indemnity', when she first comes down the stairs in the platforms, and then later 'you-ah huh-ting me' to McMurray, when they're supposed to be celebrating their vicious plans for crime, but she's more than ever concerned only with the immediate sensation (in this case, minor pain.)


I agree with Bette Davis in so many films literally leaping off the screen. My favorite is when she starts screaming at Leslie Howard in "Of Human Bondage." Barbara Stanwyck also, as I said, really just crackles with vitality in so many of her films, as does Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, or even the slightly lesser known screen goddesses as Margaret Sullavan, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, Irene Dunne, etc. All from the same era as Garbo. The difference is that all of these ladies were less beautiful than Garbo and had less mystique. But because they were less beautiful, I often felt like they compensated by creating a very lively, engaging screen presence.
I agree that Garbo maybe wasn't even the most beautiful screen actress of all time (for me, that honor goes to Audrey Hepburn), but she definitely had an aloof, mysterious look and persona that added to her legend but makes her films seem somewhat static and more like star vehicles than truly great films.
Another thing about Garbo was that she was notoriously stubborn with directors. She didn't like listening to their directions, and sometimes barred them when she shot scenes altogether. I do wonder whether this contributed to the "star vehicle" feel of her projects. She worked well with Ernst Lubitsch but then decided never to work with him. A stronger director with less tolerance of star antics might have been able to draw a better ensemble from her films.

#64 sidwich

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Posted 20 July 2010 - 12:50 PM

I wonder what directors like Alfred Hitchcock might have been able to do with Garbo, since Hitchcock wrote the mystery and aloofness into his movies.


I can't see Garbo as a Hitchcock heroine. Hitchcock had a strong misogynistic streak in most of his films, and his heroines are virtually always humiliated and/or tortured in some way. Besides the icy sensuality that they are famous for, the actresses most closely identified with Hitchcock tend to be able to project a vulnerability that I don't see in the same way with Garbo. Garbo's screen persona tends to project a towering strength in the face of adversity that I don't see integrating well into Hitchcock.

I'd actually say that what Brantley is talking about (Garbo's famous aloofness and mystique) is what gives her films a slightly dated quality, whereas the movies of, say, Carole Lombard or Barbara Stanwyck still crackle with vitality. Garbo in most of her movies is sort of static, and always seems like Garbo Playing Christina, or Garbo Playing Marguerite, etc. Her screen persona was based on the idea that in real life, you'd never see someone that beautiful and mysterious. It's like a mannequin came to life. It works well, but there is a distancing effect.


I think most of those actresses really came into their own in the Sound Era. Garbo bridged the period between silent and sound, but there is something about her that for me, always telegraphs that she started as a silent film icon. She really had the perfect face for silent film, and by that, I don't mean because of her beauty. There's the scene in "Sunset Boulevard" where Norma Desmond complains about the sound acting, and how the silent film stars didn't need sounds, "We had FACES!"

Garbo has that kind of face that in some ways doesn't convey feeling and emotion itself, but is perfect for allowing audiences to project their own feelings onto. Mamoulian's final shot in "Queen Christina" is almost a perfect example of it. Is Christina looking forward to the unknown? Still mourning John Gilbert's death? Regretting her abdication? It's whatever the audience wants it to be. Dreiser describes something similar at the end of "Sister Carrie" about why Carrie becomes such a star, but I've always thought Garbo is the perfect example.

#65 dirac

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Posted 20 July 2010 - 02:02 PM

I agree that Garbo would not have made a good match for Hitchcock. She was too powerful a presence for most of his leading lady roles although she alone might have made "Marnie" watchable. (Garbo and Sean Connery - what a matchup.)

Dreiser describes something similar at the end of "Sister Carrie" about why Carrie becomes such a star, but I've always thought Garbo is the perfect example.


I think I see what you mean, sidwich, but I don't think Dreiser ever intended to suggest that Carrie became a star of Garbo's caliber (Carrie's not big enough for that.)

"Dated" can be in the eye of the beholder. As papeetepatrick says, all these movies are dated in a sense. The question is whether the culture has changed so much that the style, content, and perspective have become too remote for genuine audience identification (as is the case with many silent pictures and some from the golden age). The expensive prestige vehicles that Garbo made in the 30s tend to have less zip than many of the comedies and melodramas of the era, but her "Anna Karenina" is as decent an adaptation as we've seen and screen Annas have been compared to her unfavorably ever since, much as her Marguerite Gauthier became the standard for the role.

A stronger director with less tolerance of star antics might have been able to draw a better ensemble from her films.


If the players surrounding her were not always up to par she's not necessarily responsible for that, unless you count her loyalty to Gilbert at the time of Queen Christina. She was often at her best when playing opposite actors who really gave her something to play against, as in her scenes with Barrymore in Grand Hotel and Henry Daniell in Camille. (It would have been nice if she'd nixed Robert Taylor, oh well.)

It works well, but there is a distancing effect.


Godhead is a distancing effect. :) But when I first saw Camille years ago in an art house revival, when Garbo died the audience snuffles were highly audible and some were barking like seals. miliosr has mentioned her expressive and fluid acting in her silent pictures. When sound arrived she became a different kind of presence but she was hardly Old Stone Face.

miliosr, where's the next report? Waiting eagerly.





#66 papeetepatrick

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Posted 20 July 2010 - 02:05 PM

I can't see Garbo as a Hitchcock heroine. Hitchcock had a strong misogynistic streak in most of his films, and his heroines are virtually always humiliated and/or tortured in some way. Besides the icy sensuality that they are famous for, the actresses most closely identified with Hitchcock tend to be able to project a vulnerability that I don't see in the same way with Garbo. Garbo's screen persona tends to project a towering strength in the face of adversity that I don't see integrating well into Hitchcock.


Yes, she always does have that strength in the face of adversity. I'm not sure she couldn't convey vulnerability, but she probably didn't spend much time on it. Kim Novak was a tough cookie too, but didn't have what is also a somewhat asexual aura, or of course, Garbo's streak of masculinity, Novak has 'been around', but she's basically pretty feminine in a traditional (although very cool) sense, without being silly or flouncy. Garbo can be sexy in her screen scenes with any number of leading men, but she's not often soft. There is one scene early on with Gable in 'Susan Lennox' which is very exceptional that way: She's the one who ratchets up the 'embrace decibels', not Gable, and it's quite arresting--looks a little as if she's climbing a tree. (I'm a big fan of this film, but most aren't, even big Garbo buffs. It's episodie, but very colorful and full of exotic whiffs.)

She really had the perfect face for silent film, and by that, I don't mean because of her beauty.

Garbo has that kind of face that in some ways doesn't convey feeling and emotion itself, but is perfect for allowing audiences to project their own feelings onto. Mamoulian's final shot in "Queen Christina" is almost a perfect example of it. Is Christina looking forward to the unknown? Still mourning John Gilbert's death? Regretting her abdication? It's whatever the audience wants it to be.


or just getting the perfect Garbo 'still photo' in a film? That's cool, and it sure works. And I agree with the rest of what you say about the kind of face, that it still registers 'silent film', and I think it does this to some degree throughout the films, although it's certainly not very noticeable in the last two. I find her famous laughter in 'Ninotchka' rather sad, frankly, it's a bit painful. Her funny little guttural chuckle in the earlier films is much more the real thing, short and staccato.

#67 dirac

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Posted 20 July 2010 - 08:01 PM

Yes, she always does have that strength in the face of adversity. I'm not sure she couldn't convey vulnerability, but she probably didn't spend much time on it. Kim Novak was a tough cookie too, but didn't have what is also a somewhat asexual aura, or of course, Garbo's streak of masculinity,


What I meant was that Hitchcock's leading ladies, by and large, tend to be just that - leading ladies, with all existing exceptions noted. Not so much in the size of the part but where the story is focused. Rear Window and Vertigo are centered on the James Stewart character; Cary Grant is the protagonist of To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest. You could put Garbo in such a role, but there wouldn't be much point and she'd probably swamp it. Similar to what sidwich said about her being too strong for such parts (although Garbo's strength never precludes vulnerability).

#68 papeetepatrick

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Posted 21 July 2010 - 08:24 AM

What I meant was that Hitchcock's leading ladies, by and large, tend to be just that - leading ladies, with all existing exceptions noted. Not so much in the size of the part but where the story is focused. Rear Window and Vertigo are centered on the James Stewart character; Cary Grant is the protagonist of To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest. You could put Garbo in such a role, but there wouldn't be much point and she'd probably swamp it. Similar to what sidwich said about her being too strong for such parts (although Garbo's strength never precludes vulnerability).


Yes, that's well said. To revert to some casting preferences you brought up, I really would have liked to see Olivier instead of Robert Taylor more than replacing Gilbert (I remember when she was not going to discuss the Queen Christina matter with him from his autobio, it's funny, because he's good with phonetics and was amused with it, she apparently said 'Oh vell, live'sh a pain'. He does a House of Lords phonetic in that same volume which is equally funny.) And Olivier would have been ready for that at that point, although I suppose it never even came up.

Not quite as convinced of your Sean Connery/Garbo Fantasy. She has a singular elegance, but it's not really the social elegance other high-toned types have. Csn't see her too easily with Cary Grant either. I think the major omission in leading men is with Gary Cooper (had it been possible), they'd have made much more than sparks together, and she couldn't have 'swamped him', he's the type that, as they say, doesn't have to do anything but stand there. Not that she didn't have that attitude down pat herself, but I think he'd have been able to handle her just as he did Ingrid Bergman, tough and gentle and not at all apologetic about being all-american (I loved that stuff in the movie with Bergman when he kept telling her to 'talk American'.) But I do agree she would have been great with Olivier.

#69 DanceActress

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Posted 21 July 2010 - 11:58 AM

Hitchcock apparently wanted Garbo for "The Paradine Case", according to a PBS documentary narrated by Glenn Close that aired some years back. I can't quite picture that working out to anyone's advantage.

On the subject of Garbo's leading men, I wish she had been paired with Charles Boyer again. He, along with Henry Daniell and Clark Gable, matched her talent and wasn't obliterated by her presence.

#70 dirac

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Posted 21 July 2010 - 01:45 PM

Thank you for mentioning that, DanceActress. I do recall some mention of Garbo for the role played by Alida Valli. I agree, I don't think it would have improved matters any. That movie is chloroform, for this viewer anyway. (

On the subject of Garbo's leading men, I wish she had been paired with Charles Boyer again. He, along with Henry Daniell and Clark Gable, matched her talent and wasn't obliterated by her presence.


Agreed here as well. It's too bad that she wasn't in top form for Conquest.

Gable and she were an interesting pair. The love scenes are surprisingly hot but in others they appear not to have been properly introduced, as I think I've said before. But certainly he's got screen presence to match hers.

Can't see her too easily with Cary Grant either.


No - Grant had a lightness of touch even in drama that would have made him a bad match for the Big Emotional Ladies.

#71 miliosr

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Posted 21 July 2010 - 04:17 PM

miliosr, where's the next report? Waiting eagerly.

I'll be watching the German version of Anna Christie soon with a report to follow!

#72 miliosr

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Posted 22 July 2010 - 05:16 PM

Moving on . . .

Anna Christie -- German-language version (Premiere: December 22, 1930)
Cast: Garbo (Anna), Theo Small (Matt), Hans Junkermann (Chris), Salka Steuermann a.k.a. Salka Viertel (Marthy)
Director: Jacques Feyder
Cinematographer: William Daniels
Costumes by: Adrian
Cost: ? Combined Gross - English&German versions: $1,500,000

The German-language version of Anna Christie was Garbo's thirteenth picture for M-G-M. (Romance intervened between the two productions of Anna Christie.) Filming a German version of Anna Christie was part of M-G-M's early talkie policy of filming multiple versions of a film in different languages. (Around the same time, Ramon Novarro made French and Spanish-language versions of his English-language film, Call Of the Flesh.)

Everyone's going to read what I have to write and say, "miliosr is being deliberately contradictory again" but, wow, what a difference a year made! The German version is so far superior to the English version that you almost can't believe the source material is the same. Even though the same limitations applied to the German version as did to the English version -- static source material, microphone-related constraints -- the German version came to life in a way the English version never did.

The biggest and most positive changes are the different actors playing Matt and Chris. They are so much more subtle than their two predecessors that they change the movie. Matt is no longer a brute and Chris is no longer a simpleton. Suddenly, the viewer goes from wondering why Anna would want to be around these two bozos to becoming invested in her predicament.

Garbo herself is immeasurably better in the second version than she was in the first. The stronger leading men may have been part of it and having a better director may have helped as well. Or, perhaps, having the opportunity to take the measure of the role again led her to give a better performance the second time around. Regardless of the reason(s), she is masterful in this and the silent screen excesses from the English version are completely absent. (Again, this may warrant a tip of the hat to the director.)

The only letdown for me was Salka Viertel as Marthy. After Marie Dressler's exemplary performance in the English version, anything would have come as a letdown. But Viertel's performance is hammy in the worst silent manner, as if she hadn't gotten the memo that she was appearing in a sound film. Still, Viertel would become a very important part of the Garbo camp in the 30s.

The print on the DVD comes with subtitles and I could only wish that the English-language version came with them as well -- better to understand Charles Bickford's barking of his lines and George F. Marion's incomprehensible "Swedish" accent. The source print is OK but definitely is showing its age. There is no commentary track.

Film grade: A- (Bumped down from an A because Viertel is no Marie Dressler.)
Garbo grade: A

#73 miliosr

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Posted 25 July 2010 - 05:08 PM

I just finished watching Mata Hari -- oh brother! Review to follow later this week . . .

#74 bart

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Posted 26 July 2010 - 06:50 AM

Mata Hari is one of those Garbo films I've actually seen. My memories are dim, but I think that "oh. brother" did figure in my original response.

As so often, the Garbo icon has replaced all memory of the Garbo performance.

http://www.google.co...=1t:429,r:5,s:0

http://www.google.co...%26tbs%3Disch:1

I'm really looking forward to your take on this particular film, miliosr.

#75 miliosr

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Posted 26 July 2010 - 03:53 PM

Moving on . . .

Mata Hari (1931/32) (Premiere: 12/31/31)
Cast: Garbo (Mata Hari), Ramon Novarro (Lt. Alexis Rosanoff), Lionel Barrymore (General Shubin), Lewis Stone (Andriani)
Director: George Fitzmaurice
Cinematographer: William Daniels
Gowns by: Adrian
Cost: $558,000 US Gross: $931,000 Foreign Gross: $1,296,000 Profit: $879,000 (Andre Soares), $1,000,000+ (Mark Viera)

Mata Hari was Garbo's sixteenth picture for M-G-M and sixth talkie. She had had a good year in 1931 with Inspiration (w/ Robert Montgomery) and Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (w/ Clark Gable). There is some dispute about how the Garbo-Novarro pairing came about as various sources report that (alternately) Garbo wanted it, Novarro wanted it and/or Thalberg wanted it. Regardless of who wanted what, the combination of Garbo and Novarro proved to be dynamite at the box office, especially overseas, where Garbo and Novarro were M-G-M's #1 and #2 earners respectively, and proved to be the most profitable film in both of their careers.

As for the picture itself, I'm reminded of Andrew McCarthy's words to Demi Moore in St. Elmo's Fire: There is the edge of insanity and then there is the abyss. Truly, this is a ludicrous movie -- it lurches from implausible plot development to implausible plot development over the course of 89 minutes. From the get-go, you never believe that any of this is really happening. Obviously, the script is the main culprit here as it strands the performers in one bizarre situation after another until the picture lurches to a semi-respectable conclusion.

Garbo looks like she was having a ball making this movie and no wonder: She got to vamp it up as the (heavily fictionalized) spy Mata Hari. Unfortunately, she may have had too much fun on the set because she never quite gets a handle on the character. There are times where she plays things deadly seriously. But then there are an equal number of times where she drifts perilously close to camp and even self-parody.

Adrian's costumes for her are ludicrous (except for the final, simple one in the prison) and defeat her at every turn. Far from looking like a seductive temptress who can make men fall in love with her at the drop of a hat, Adrian's gowns and costumes make her look unattractive and even oafish. (The costume for her big dance number at the start of the picture is particularly bad.)

I have to give Novarro a pass as Rosanoff because the part as written is so implausible. Depending on the necessities of the plot at any given moment, Rosanoff is either a tough Russian aviator or a childlike simpleton. I am hard-pressed to name anyone working in Hollywood at that time who could have made this part work. (Strangely enough, I could envision Sergei Polunin of the Royal Ballet playing this part if Mata Hari was a ballet.)

The rest of the performances are as overbroad as you would expect given the overripe script with the exception of that wily veteran Lewis Stone as Mata Hari's cunning "boss" Andriani. Stone brings real menace and heft to a movie badly in need of some.

William Daniels works his magic here and I must say that there are some marvelous set pieces. In particular, the seduction scene in Rosanoff's darkened quarters where Rosanoff has to choose between an illuminated Garbo and illuminated Russian Orthodox icon (the Madonna of Kazan) is stunning. (It helps that Garbo and Novarro are both at their best in this sequence.) Sadly, another of Daniels' set piece effects -- Mata Hari and Rosanoff smoking in bed together where only the flames of the ciagerettes can be seen -- was cut on orders from the Hayes Office before the picture was rereleased in 1940 and is now lost.

The source print must be in excellent condition because the transfer was very strong. There is no commentary track.

If you come to this movie expecting art, you will be gravely disappointed (except, perhaps, for Daniels' contributions.) If you come to it expecting a diverting B-movie with A-level production values, then it will pass the time agreeably enough.

Film grade: C+
Garbo grade: B-
Novarro grade: No grade (The part is hopeless.)
Stone grade: A
Daniels grade: A
Adrian grade: C-


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