Greta Garbo

What’s on TCM: September 2014

Melvyn Douglas Greta Garbo Ninotchka

Happy September, everyone! Summer Under the Stars is always a tough act to follow, but TCM does an awesome job of doing so. There are two huge things that I am very excited for. The first of which is Melvyn Douglas as Star of the Month. I have always loved Melvyn Douglas and he never seems to quite get as much credit as he deserves. There’s also a ton of his movies I’ve never seen, so I’m really happy to have the chance to see more of his work.

The second thing I am so, so excited to see is that every Friday this month will be a 24-hour marathon of pre-code movies! That’s right, 24 glorious hours of wild, fast-paced, innuendo-laden movies! Friday Night Spotlight isn’t just for prime time this month! With my annual 30 Days of Pre-Codes event, it’s no secret that I adore the pre-code era. If you have yet to explore much of this wild and fascinating era of film making, this is a golden opportunity because you’ll have the chance to see so many of the pre-code essentials (Baby Face, Three on a Match, Red Headed Woman, Design for Living, just to name a few) as well as many other great ones. Don’t miss The Story of Temple Drake on September 12 at 2:30 AM or Call Her Savage September 26 at 2:15 AM. They’re on late at night so it might be easy to overlook those, but they’re a couple of my favorite pre-codes and I don’t see them on TCM very often. If you only know Clara Bow as a silent film star, you’re going to be in for a real treat with Call Her Savage. 

Now, onto the rest of the schedule…

(more…)

Anna Christie (1930)

Anna Christie 1930 PosterWhen shew was five years old, Anna Christie (Greta Garbo) was sent to live with family on a farm in Minnesota.  Fifteen years pass and her father Chris (George F. Marion) has hardly made an effort to stay in touch with her.  Life in Minnesota hasn’t been easy for Anna.  Her family was cruel to her, she was raped by her cousin and she worked as a prostitute.  It’s all left her exhausted and extremely distrustful of men.  Finally she decides to get away from it all and sends her father letting him know that she’s coming to visit.

Chris is a barge captain who spends all his free time drinking and hanging around Marthy (Marie Dressler).  When Anna and Chris are finally reunited, they spend time together on Chris’ barge and begin to rebuild their relationship.  Anna even starts to enjoy living on the barge.  One night, Chris rescues a few sailors in distress and one of them, Matt (Charles Bickford), falls in love with Anna.  For the first time in years, Anna is finally finding a little happiness in her life.  However, Matt doesn’t know about Anna’s sordid past. Not even Chris knows the full extent of her life in Minnesota.  But when they find out the truth, can they still love and accept Anna?

“Give me a whiskey, ginger ale on the side.  And don’t be stingy, baby!” With those fourteen words, Greta Garbo successfully transitioned from the silent film era to the talkie era.  Garbo’s talkie debut in Anna Christie came a bit later than those of most other silent film stars.  She was such an important asset to MGM that it would have been a tremendous loss for them if she didn’t survive the transition to talkies.  The advent of talkies dealt a death blow to the careers of many actors and actresses from other countries because their accents were undesirable and MGM didn’t want Garbo to be one of the casualties.  They kept her in silents as long as possible, holding out for just the right talkie project.  Anna Christie turned out to be the perfect project for Garbo because her role called for a Swedish accent.

Some viewers might find Anna Christie dull because it is a very static movie without a lot of different sets or camera movement.  It’s an adaptation of a stage play and it does feel like a filmed version of a play.  However, Anna Christie is one of my favorite Garbo talkies.  First and foremost, I like the story so I don’t mind the static feel of the movie.  I really like Garbo in it; it’s one of my favorites of her sound films.  Anna is a weary woman and is there anyone who played weary better than Garbo?  And who can forget the wonderful Marie Dressler?  As great as Garbo is, Marie Dressler gave her a run for her money.  Dressler doesn’t get a lot of screen time in Anna Christie, but she sure made the most of the screen time she got.  Her scene with Garbo when Anna first arrives at the bar is one of my favorite scenes of Garbo’s career.

Dynamic Duos: Greta Garbo and John Gilbert

Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in Flesh and the DevilIn 1926, Greta Garbo was just a Hollywood newcomer.  She had signed with MGM and made two movies for them, audiences were liking her, but the studio didn’t quite know what to do with her.  They just couldn’t pin-point her type. She wasn’t a “sweetheart” type like Mary Pickford, she wasn’t a flapper like Colleen Moore or Clara Bow, so MGM tried to turn her into a vamp.  But Garbo was already getting bored with the vamp roles so she was less than thrilled at being cast as Felicitas in Flesh and the Devil, another vamp role.  Not only did the role not interest her, she was tired after having completed The Temptress and desperately wanted to go home to Sweden after her sister’s death and MGM refused to let her.

Little did Garbo know she was about to meet her perfect leading man in Flesh and the Devil.

While Garbo was still a new name to movie audiences in 1926, John Gilbert most certainly was not.  John Gilbert had been working in films for over a decade by then and his starring roles in prestige pictures like The Big ParadeThe Merry Widow, and He Who Gets Slapped made him one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.  Like Garbo, he wasn’t particularly wild about his part in Flesh and the Devil, but the idea of working with this new star intrigued him.

Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in Flesh and the DevilThe first scene of Flesh and the Devil Greta Garbo and John Gilbert filmed together was the scene at the train station where their characters meet.  The immense chemistry between the two of them was obvious to everybody on set.  There was no denying there was a very real connection with them and as their scenes got more passionate, they had no problem keeping their performances up.  Clarence Brown, the movie’s director, said of them:

“It was the damnedest thing you ever saw. It was the sort of thing Elinor Glyn used to write about. When they got into that first love scene…nobody else was even there. Those two were alone in a world of their own. It seemed like an intrusion to yell “Cut!” I used to just motion the crew over to another part of the set and let them finish what they were doing. It was embarrassing.”

Before the release of Flesh and the Devil, the Garbo-Gilbert love affair had been getting buzz in the fan magazines, but nothing could have prepared movie goers for the unbridled passion they would actually see when the movie hit theaters in January of 1927.  It was a sensation, completely unlike anything audiences had ever seen at the time.  The New York Herald-Tribune said of it:

“Never before has John Gilbert been so intense in his portrayal of a man in love.  Never before has a woman so alluring, with a seductive grace that is far more potent than mere beauty, appeared on the screen. Greta Garbo is the epitome of pulchritude, the personification of passion. Frankly, we have never in our career seen a seduction scene so perfectly done.”

Suddenly, MGM had a big hit on their hands and they finally knew exactly what to do with Garbo — put her in more movies with John Gilbert.  Her next project was to be an adaptation of Anna Karenina with Ricardo Cortez as her co-star, but Irving Thalberg decided to replace Cortez with Gilbert and change the title to Love, so the theater marquees could read, “Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in Love.”  The couple also starred in A Woman of Affairs in 1928.

The romance between Garbo and Gilbert was just as potent off-screen as it was on-screen.  Shortly after finishing filming on Flesh and the Devil, Garbo moved into Gilbert’s house and he spent thousands of dollars on renovations to make it more to her liking.  He even built a small cabin for her, surrounded by Swedish pine trees and an artificial waterfall, on his property to remind her of home.

Not only was there a romantic connection between Garbo and Gilbert, he was able to offer valuable career advice.  He helped her become a better actress, taught her how to be more sociable off-set, taught her how to get what she wanted at MGM and she even started working with his agent.  Garbo later told journalist Åke Sundborg:

“I don’t know how I should have managed if I had not been cast opposite John Gilbert…Through him I seemed to establish my first real contact with the strange American world.  If he had not come into my life at this time, I should probably have come home to Sweden at once, my American career over.”

However, their relationship was not meant to last.  Gilbert kept pushing marriage and Garbo simply wasn’t interested.  After making several proposals, the idea of Garbo and Gilbert getting married at the same time as director King Vidor and actress Eleanor Boardman came up and Garbo said yes to it.  But on the day of the wedding, Garbo left Gilbert standing at the altar.  Gilbert was understandably angry, but the relationship managed to carry on for a bit longer.

By 1929,  Gilbert was still longing to get married and Garbo still wasn’t interested. That was the final straw for Gilbert, who impulsively got engaged to actress Ina Claire instead and married her on May 9, 1929.  The day before the wedding, Garbo made a tear-filled phone call to Harry Edington, who was to be Gilbert’s best man, begging him to put a stop to the wedding.  He told her that she was the only one who could stop it, but not wanting to cause a scandal, she chose not to.

Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in Queen ChristinaThe couple reunited on screen one last time in 1933’s Queen Christina.  By then, the tables had turned.  Garbo was still one of MGM’s most bankable stars, but Gilbert had fallen on very hard times.  His career had gone downhill, he was depressed, and had become a very heavy drinker, but Garbo insisted that he be cast opposite her in Queen Christina. The chemistry between them was as good as it ever was and the movie was a hit, but it wasn’t enough to revive Gilbert’s career.

Queen Christina was the last hit movie for John Gilbert and he made only one more movie after it, 1934’s The Captain Hates the Sea, before dying at the age of 38 in 1936.  Garbo continued to act until 1941, but never had another co-star who even came close to matching the chemistry she had with John Gilbert.

Dynamic Duos Blogathon

John Gilbert and Greta Garbo are just one of many unforgettable duos being highlighted this weekend in the Dynamic Duos blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen and Classic Film Hub.

Fashion in Film: Berets

If you’re like me, you often find yourself watching films and seeing tons of fashion styles you would love to wear in real life.  I watch movies from so many decades and from so many different genres, if I actually did copy all the styles I like, I’d have one diverse wardrobe.  But if there’s one accessory you could easily get a lot of mileage out of, it’s a beret.  Berets have been a popular hat style for decades, so if you want to go for a Norma Shearer inspired look one day and a Faye Dunaway inspired look the next, a beret could easily work for both styles.

(more…)

1928-1929: Oscar’s Most Awkward Year

Mary Pickford Oscar

Mary Pickford with her Oscar.

As popular as the Academy Awards are, they can be a very controversial topic amongst movie lovers.  I think virtually every cinephile has their own list of movies that they think got robbed at the Oscars.  Some may even have their favorite and least favorite Academy Award years.  But one thing I think we can all agree on is that the nominees for the second Academy Award ceremony (covering 1928-1929) definitely weren’t the strongest group of movies ever nominated.

It’s not so much that 1928-1929 was a completely terrible year for movies, but the film industry had been turned completely upside down that year.  During the first Academy Award ceremony, The Jazz Singer was given an honorary award for revolutionizing the film industry.  By the following year, the impact of The Jazz Singer was undeniable.  The movies eligible for the 1928-1929 Oscars were part of the first wave of movies to come out in the wake of The Jazz Singer and the nominees that year are a better reflection of how in flux the industry was at the time than what the best movies really were.

Even though studios were scrambling to hop on the talkie bandwagon, the production of silent films didn’t come to an immediate halt.  Some truly excellent silent films were produced that year, but you’d never know it by looking at the list of nominees.  However, if some of those silent films had been nominated, that year would probably now be looked back upon more favorably.

(more…)

Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1931)

Born out of wedlock to a mother who died in childbirth, Helga (Greta Garbo) is left to be raised by her strict uncle Karl (Jean Hersholt). When Karl tries to force Helga into marrying Jeb Mondstrom (Alan Hale), she runs away in the middle of a thunderstorm.  She makes her way to a house where architect Rodney Spencer (Clark Gable) is staying.  Rodney invites her in, gives her something dry to wear, and lets her stay with him for the night.

The next day, Helga repays Rodney’s kindness by making breakfast for him before continuing to run away.  But Rodney really likes her and persuades her to stay with him.  They fall madly in love with each other, Rodney even proposes to her, but then Karl and Jeb track her down and she has to leave town immediately.  She hops the next train out, which happens to be a train full of circus performers. Madame Panoramia (Cecil Cunningham), the tattooed lady, sympathizes with Helga’s plight and helps her get a job with the circus as a dancer.

Helga changes her name to Susan Lenox and keeps in touch with Rodney, hoping to meet with him again. But when Karl and Jeb track her down, she has to start having an affair with the circus’ owner in exchange for helping her hide from them.  Eventually, Susan and Rodney are reunited, but their happiness is short lived. Rodney finds out about Susan and the circus owner, but he doesn’t understand why she’s done it and leaves her.

A heartbroken Rodney falls into a deep depression while Susan goes from man to man, eventually winding up as the girlfriend of Mike Kelly (Hale Hamilton),a prominent but crooked politician. When Mike and Susan throw a fancy dinner party, Susan makes a point of inviting Rodney for the sole purpose of degrading him in front of all her high society friends.  But in the end, it only makes her realize that she still loves him.  She travels from city to city looking for him, taking any job she can get along the way.  Eventually, she makes her way to South America where she meets up with Rodney again while singing in a bar.  At first, Rodney is too drunk to be open to reconciling the way she wants to. But when he sobers up the next day, he and Susan are finally able to put the past behind them once and for all.

If you like melodrama, you’re in luck because Susan Lenox has got melodrama to spare!  Considering this was an adaptation of a nearly six hundred page book by David Graham Phillips, it’s safe to say that the movie is an extremely condensed version of the story.  The movie could have benefited from a slower pace, but Garbo is fantastic in it.  Even though she and Gable didn’t get along off screen, they worked pretty well together on screen.

Susan Lenox also features some very beautiful, atmospheric cinematography.  Some of the scenes in the beginning of the movie look straight out of a German expressionist film. I’d say this is one of Garbo’s more underrated films.  It’s not in the same league as Queen Christina or Ninotchka, but it is still a pretty enjoyable movie.

What’s on TCM: September 2012

Happy September, everyone!  I hope you all enjoyed this year’s edition of Summer Under the Stars.  One good thing may be coming to an end, but fear not, there are some very, very cool things to look forward to in September.

Silent film fans, rejoice!  Every Thursday night this month, TCM will be spotlighting movies produced at Mack Sennett studios, which means there will be tons of silent films being played during prime time.  83 short films will be included in this tribute, the vast majority of which have never been shown in TCM before, and will feature stars  such as Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Fatty Arbuckle, and Gloria Swanson.  I, for one, am very excited for this!

Lauren Bacall is the Star of the Month and every Wednesday night in September will be full of her movies.  September 3rd will be TCM’s annual tribute to the Telluride Film Festival

(more…)