This is the second part of a two-part series on Garbo: her silent film work was covered last week in “Garbo, Cinema’s Cool and Immortal Sphinx.” As successful as Greta Garbo’s pre-talkie films were in the States, they were even more popular in Europe, where sound was not a barrier. Louis B. Mayer, nervous about Garbo’s American market in the coming sound era, spared no expense and devised a simple campaign slogan for her first speaking role: “Garbo Talks.” In Anna Christie (1930) she takes half of forever to appear and when she does, she delivers a classic line in her inimitable, husky, accented voice: “Gif me a visky, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.” Unfortunately, it is the only classic thing about the film. Based on one of Eugene O’ Neil’s most mediocre seafaring plays, Anna Christie is hopelessly stagebound and static. Worse, Garbo is cast as an earthy, as opposed to exotic, prostitute, which was a misstep. By this time, Clarence Brown’s directing had shifted to autopilot. The film is, naturally, beautifully photographed. Marie Dressler, through hammy acting, does the impossible and steals the film from Garbo. Still, 1930 audiences, unsurprisingly, bought into the publicity and made it a huge hit. Garbo received an Oscar nomination for this film. It was the first of four nominations, none of which she won.
Garbo’s second talkie, Romance (1930) is an even more stilted affair, directed again by Brown. She is an opera star in love with a priest (a miscast Gavin Gordon). Things go south when he discovers she is not a virgin (the Hays production code was not yet being enforced). There is a lot of chatter, and Garbo looks ravishing, but her performance was hardly one of her best, despite a second Oscar nomination. As Cornelius, Lewis Stone steals everything but the camera.
Inspiration (1931) finds Brown again asleep in the director’s chair in a film that, amazingly, seems a pale imitation of her previous film, which wasn’t good to begin with. Garbo and Lewis Stone are refreshing, despite clunky dialogue. Robert Montgomery looks bored.
Garbo’s was still MGM’S hottest foreign commodity, but her last few films had shown a steady decline in the homegrown market. Under pressure, Garbo requested the up-and-coming Clark Gable as her co-star for Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1931). She lived to regret it. By all accounts, the two did not hit it off. Her European aloofness was not to his liking and she though him crass. Susan Lenox is one of Garbo’s oddest films and a definite pre-coder. She stars as an illegitimate Cinderella type, but she is hardly Snow White. Garbo goes through an entire smorgasbord of men, most of whom she leaves in ruins, and when macho suitor Gable discovers she is “fallen” (i.e. not a virgin) he dumps her, then is tormented by her. Naturally, he seeks her out again, although we are never quite convinced of his yearning. Garbo and Gable’s lack of chemistry is apparent, even though each conveys the qualities that made them sex symbols. Director Robert Z. Leonard was a prolific veteran of silents, and his discomfort with the sound medium is all too apparent. However, Leonard also gives the film a surreal, silent film like milieu with expressionistic camera angles and sets, some of which were later used for Tod Browning‘s Freaks (1933). Gable, on the other hand, seems like he is stuck in the wrong film, and his character gives the film a misogynistic sheen. The 76 minute film was based on David Graham’s epic novel, and a slew of script writers make it seem like a highlight reel of the original narrative. Despite its flaws, Susan Lenox is a compelling early talkie that should be sought out. It did well at the American box office, but was not quite the hit hoped for.
Since Hollywood in the thirties did not yet subscribe to the maxim “you are only as big as your last film,” Garbo was rushed into the sexy potboiler, Mata Hari (1932). The film itself is not good, mainly due to George Fitzmaurce’s unimaginative direction. That aside, Garbo sizzles. Audiences of the 30s did not go to see Garbo as a character in a narrative. Rather, they went to see films which catered to her personality. Mata Hari does (it is more about Garbo than a spy) and the gamble paid off; this was the star’s biggest box office hit. Undoubtedly, much of the credit goes to the famous costume designer Adrian, who adorns Garbo in her sexiest and most revealing outfits. Even though Mata Hari was a pre-code film, the censors took the scissors to it, jettisoning several extended seduction scenes. The scenes still exit, yet, oddly, have not been restored in any of the DVD releases. Like the film itself, Garbo is alternately campy and erotic. She worked even better playing off the effete Ramon Novarro, the lead from 1925’s silent Ben Hur who, in 1968, was the victim of one of Hollywood’s grisliest homicides. As campy as Garbo is in this, Novarro’s acting is even campier and his presence is even more dated. It is easy to see why his stardom did not extend into the sound era. Still, he is better than Lionel Barrymore, who is at his worst here, nearly wrecking the film. Garbo takes forever to kill him.
Barrymore fared better in the all-star Grand Hotel (1932), opposite his brother John. Garbo, as a ballerina being courted by that “Great Profile,” convincingly exudes fatigue. The two stars had genuine chemistry on and off screen. It is one of her most extraordinary performances, rightfully earning her a third best Actress nomination. The film itself could serve as a reference for 30s art deco Hollywood glamor and is as artificial as one expects. A young Joan Crawford, who is shockingly beautiful, and even human, shines. In contrast, Wallace Beery and the remaining cast are awful. Fortunately, Edmund Goulding directed this soaper with style. Irving Thalberg promoted the extravaganza with the tagline “Grand Hotel has more stars than there are in Heaven.” It paid off, and the movie took Continue reading GARBO TALKS