SPOTLIGHT: Gorgeous Pre-Code Garbo (I)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the start of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the divine Greta Garbo (1905-1990). We’ve already covered two of this Queen’s Pre-Codes: Susan Lenox (Her Fall And Rise) (1931) and Grand Hotel (1932), but we’ll be featuring five more in the upcoming weeks. Today, we begin with Garbo’s first talkie…

 

Anna Christie (1930)

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Eugene O’Neill’s classic about a romantic prostitute trying to run away from her past. Starring Greta Garo, Charles Bickford, George F. Marion, and Marie Dressler. Adapted by Frances Marion. Based on the play by Eugene O’Neill. Directed by Clarence Brown.

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GARBO TALKS in her long anticipated first talkie! A glossy (but fairly faithful) adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s highly lauded play about a prostitute who returns home, Anna Christie is a typical early talkie with static shots and unimpressive visuals. But this isn’t a victory of cinematography — it’s a victory of screen acting — and the divine Garbo is leading the way.

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“When she was a child, Anna Christie’s sailor father left her with cruel and abusive relatives on a farm. Leaving the place as a young woman, Anna drifted into prostitution in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her father, Chris, now captain of a coal barge based in New York, receives a letter from her indicating that she is coming to New York. Anna has been in a hospital and resents the fact that, over the years, her father has not attempted to locate and help her. Anna finds Chris in a waterfront bar where he has been keeping company with Marthy, an old souse. Although they have not seen each other for many years, Anna and her father eventually reconcile and she takes care of him on the barge. During a trip up the coast, they rescue a young sailor, Matt, who falls in love with Anna. Although she has grown to hate men, she is very attracted to Matt, but is unable to keep her previous life a secret. After she confesses her past to Matt and to her father, Matt leaves her. However, realising that he cannot live without her, Matt returns. Anna swears on his mother’s crucifix that she loves only him and they are reunited. Anna is then content with the prospect of becoming Matt’s wife and looking after her father.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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It’s been a while since I’ve read O’Neill’s excellent play, but, as someone who HAS, trust me when I say that this is a moderately successful adaptation. (Or rather: I’ve seen stage to screen adaptations that are far less faithful and contain much fewer triumphs.) The story is solid, and the film does little to improve on the characters and their emotional journeys. Rather, the aforementioned triumphs belong to the company of actors. And I’m not just speaking of Garbo, who radiates in every single frame and manages to be probably the most photogenic actress of her era, but her co-stars as well. Bickford and Marion are completely believable (and far more truthful and refined than most performers of the era) in their roles as love interest and father, respectively.

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Meanwhile, Marie Dressler is, as one would expect, superb in her role as a lush that bonds with Anna at the start, only to show back up and embarrass her in front of her new beau. An actress capable of simultaneous humor and pathos — chillingly, I might add — Dressler takes ahold of her role and her scenes in a way that is truly invigorating to watch. What a wonderful performer!

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And that brings us to Miss Garbo, who makes a fluid transition from silence to sound with her portrayal of a fallen woman who fights to regain a relationship with her father and earn (and deserve) the love of the sailor to whom she’s become attracted. Like the company she keeps, everything Garbo’s Anna does is completely truthful, without stiltedness or artifice. When she and Dressler share the screen together, it’s celluloid magic — two strong presences with a remarkable craft. However, the best moment in the film is Garbo’s angry confrontation with the two men in her life. See a clip below.

This film, unfortunately, is unremarkable in its photography. Too many of the shots are stationary and uninviting. Many scenes play with minimal blocking and few cuts, and while this theatrical feeling is not unwelcome for this piece (or to a viewer who appreciates the theatre), the emotional connection to the story could be stronger if the cinematography was more evocative. But such is the case with early talkies! And, though I can’t simply recommend this picture to classic film lovers, I absolutely can recommend it to both Garbophiles and actors who want to learn their craft from some of the greats. This is old school acting, but it is scintillatingly riveting.

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Come back next Friday for more Garbo! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment! 

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