Greta Garbo

Box Office Poison: Greta Garbo

Greta Garbo Charles Boyer Conquest

At the peak of Greta Garbo’s career, she occupied a level of stardom that was unmatched by anyone. Not only was she making one acclaimed movie after another, the public was captivated by her elusive, enigmatic image. Norma Shearer may have been Queen of the Lot at MGM, but Greta Garbo was in a league of her own. Other studios tried to find their own versions of Garbo, but as often as she was imitated, she was never quite duplicated.

Greta Garbo came to the United States from Sweden in 1925 after Louis B. Mayer saw her performance in The Saga of Gosta Berling and was struck by her on-screen magnetism. After joining MGM, she quickly made a name for herself playing a series of vamp characters in movies like Torrent and The Temptress. Her rise to stardom took off like a shot when she starred opposite John Gilbert in 1926’s Flesh and the Devil, marking the beginning of an on-screen and off-screen relationship between the two stars.

As the 1920s wore on, her star only continued to rise, but by the end of the decade, the advent of talking pictures posed a threat to her white-hot career. Numerous other stars of the silent era saw their careers come to an end around this time because, like Garbo, they had come to America from Europe and had heavy accents. But Garbo was such a big star that MGM would’ve taken a big financial hit if she didn’t successfully make the transition to sound. So MGM took their time in finding the right vehicle for her to make her talkie debut in. Her big moment came in 1930’s Anna Christie and the wait was worth it. Anna Christie was a success and ushered in a new era in Garbo’s career.

In 1932, the time came for Garbo to negotiate a new contract with MGM. She was often frustrated by the roles MGM cast her in and longed for more creative control. And, of course, her megastar status merited a pay raise. MGM gave her both of those things and her new contract not only allowed her to choose her own projects, she also had say in her co-stars and her directors. By this time, she had also developed a very close friendship with actress/screenwriter Salka Viertel, who was extremely influential in shaping Garbo’s career choices.

Garbo Queen Christina

Not only did Viertel have a hand in writing several of Garbo’s films from that point on, she would give Garbo guidance about which projects she should and shouldn’t do and who she should and shouldn’t work with. The first movie Garbo made under her new contract, Queen Christina, was a commercial success, but it earned more in foreign markets than in the United States. This would become a recurring pattern during this stage of Garbo’s career and unfortunately, it’s one that would be a key factor in the decline of her career a few years later.

Many of the projects Viertel steered Garbo towards had a strong European appeal. Prior to her 1932 contract negotiation, most of Garbo’s movies earned more domestically than they did in foreign markets, or at least the two markets were pretty close. For example, Grand Hotel earned $1,235,000 domestically and $1,359,000 in foreign markets and Anna Christie earned $1,013,000 domestically and $486,000 in foreign distribution. On the other hand, Queen Christina earned $767,000 domestically and $1,843,000 foreign and 1935’s Anna Karenina earned $865,000 domestically compared to $1,439,000 foreign.

In 1936, Garbo had a career triumph starring in Camille opposite Robert Taylor. Producer Irving Thalberg took efforts to prevent the movie from feeling like just another stuffy costume picture and Garbo’s remarkably open performance is still regarded as one of her best. Camille went on to become a big hit both in the States and overseas. It was said to be her personal favorite of her own movies and she earned her a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her work in it. However, Garbo was initially reluctant to make Camille. Thalberg wanted her to do Camille, but she was concerned it would be too similar to Anna Karenina and really wanted to do a movie about Marie Walewska, a mistress of Napoleon’s, instead. She only agreed to do Camille on the condition that she would also get to do the Marie Walewska movie as well. Ironically, this agreement brought her from a career high point to the first real low point of her career: 1937’s Conquest.

Up until 1937, Garbo was anything but Box Office Poison to MGM. 1926’s The Temptress lost $43,000, but that had been the only one and that loss is practically pocket change compared to the $1,397,000 that would be lost on Conquest. To help put that in perspective, when you adjust those amounts for inflation to reflect 2019 dollar values, that’s $604,671 lost on The Temptress compared to $24,939,125 lost on Conquest.

When the Independent Theater Owners Association included Garbo’s name in the Box Office Poison ad in May 1938, Conquest was exactly what they were referring to. It was the only movie she made in 1937 and she did not appear in a movie at all in 1938. Conquest cost $2.7 million to produce and a good portion of that went to paying its stars. Under her contract, Garbo earned $250,000 per movie and MGM had to pay $125,000 to get Charles Boyer for the role of Napoleon. Production also went considerably over schedule and both stars had clauses in their contracts that allowed them to get extra pay when production ran long. Garbo got an extra $100,000 on top of her usual salary and Boyer ended up being paid a total of $450,000.

Charles Boyer earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as Napoleon, but audiences simply couldn’t muster up much enthusiasm for Conquest. Many people found Boyer’s Napoleon more compelling than Garbo’s Marie Walewska, so for the first time, it was a Garbo movie that didn’t really feel like a Garbo movie. Given that the story of Conquest involved adultery and production codes were being enforced in 1937, writers were limited in what could be done with the script. However, what did make it into the final script wasn’t exactly engaging.

Not only was Conquest a major loss for the studio, by the time it was released, World War II was on the horizon and MGM realized they could no longer rely on European markets to pull in the profits Garbo’s movies needed. She needed a movie that would do very well in the United States. After spending much of her time at MGM playing characters like vamps, queens, and spies or starring in lavish costume pictures, it was time for the elusive, untouchable Greta Garbo to be brought down to Earth.

Just as thoughtful planning helped Garbo transition to sound films, it helped Garbo transition into comedy. Ninotchka was released in November 1939 and the delightful comedy helped bring Garbo back to the top of the box office. She had a great director in Ernst Lubitsch, a wonderful screenplay written by a team of writers that included Billy Wilder, and a perfect leading man in Melvyn Douglas. When Oscar season came around, it was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress. When people talk about 1939 being Hollywood’s golden year, Ninotchka is one of the most widely cited examples supporting that claim.

Unfortunately, Garbo’s comeback would prove to be short lived. With the success of Ninotchka, MGM was eager to get her into another romantic comedy with Melvyn Douglas. Two-Faced Woman was released in 1941 and was a critical disaster. The plot, in which Garbo’s character pretends to be her fictional twin sister in an attempt to save her marriage, is sheer nonsense and many critics and moviegoers were appalled to see Garbo in such a ridiculous movie. It wasn’t Garbo’s finest performance, nor was it Melvyn Douglas’s, although Constance Bennett has some good moments in it. One critic described it as being as shocking as seeing your mother drunk. Other critics liked Garbo’s performance but hated the writing.

The reviews for Two-Faced Woman were the worst of her career. Garbo’s close friend Mercedes de Acosta later wrote that Garbo was humiliated by the reviews, but added, “I think Greta’s greatest regret was more in her own soul for having allowed herself to be influenced into lowering her own high standards.”

Two-Faced Woman also had the disadvantage of being released very shortly before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. With the United States officially heading into World War II, Garbo knew it was time for her to take a break. She understood how important the European market was to her films and volunteered to bow out of films for the duration of the war. Louis B. Mayer agreed, but she never returned to MGM and Two-Faced Woman ended up being the final movie of her career.

Garbo hadn’t intended to fully retire from films after Two-Faced Woman, but any plans for films after that point never materialized. She continued to receive offers and in 1948, she filmed screen tests for what would have been an adaptation of La Duchess de Langelais co-starring James Mason and directed by Max Ophuls. However, funding couldn’t be secured and the project never happened, much to Garbo’s disappointment. Investors were concerned that she would no longer draw crowds at the box office. So while Garbo did briefly beat the Box Office Poison label, she never really escaped it, even after leaving Hollywood.

Simpson Sundays: Gabbo Laughs

Garbo Mata Hari

Season 4, Episode 22: Krusty Gets Kancelled

In this episode, the residents of Springfield suddenly start seeing advertisements for something called Gabbo. Nobody knows exactly what it is, but people are constantly seeing commercials, headlines, and other advertisements letting them know it’s coming soon. While out driving, Mr. Burns and Smithers pass a “GABBO is Coming” billboard, which Mr. Burns misreads.

Simpsons Gabbo is Coming

Smithers Garbo is Coming

I’m sure Mr. Burns was very disappointed to find out Gabbo was actually just a ventriloquist dummy.

The Mysterious Lady (1928)

The Mysterious Lady 1928

On the night of a sold-out opera, Captain Karl von Raden (Conrad Nagel) is only able to get a seat when another patron returns their ticket at the last minute. When he finds his way to his seat, he discovers his seat is next to the beautiful Tania Fedorova (Greta Garbo). The patron who had returned their ticket at the last minute was her cousin. They’re very attracted to each other and when Karl offers to take her home after the show, she hesitates at first but reluctantly agrees. Before they know it, they’re having a blissful day together out in the country.

When Karl has to leave for duty, his uncle Colonel Eric von Raden (Edward Connelly) tells him Tania is actually a top Russian spy. He boards his train absolutely furious at Tania for betraying him. Tania follows him onto the train to apologize and tries to tell her that she really does love him, but he won’t have any of it. In a fit of anger, she steals the plans he was carrying and sneaks off the train during the night.

Once Karl’s train reaches its destination, he has to pay dearly for his fling with Tania. He’s publicly degraded by his officers and spends some time in jail, but his uncle has a plan for how he can redeem himself by exposing a real traitor. As part of the plan, Karl has to pose as a piano player in Warsaw, but as fate would have it, he ends up playing at a party being thrown for Tania. They both still have feelings for each other and when they get to spend a brief moment together, it’s enough to put both of them in danger.

I love The Mysterious Lady. Is there any more perfect title for a Greta Garbo movie than that? This is, in my opinion, one of Garbo’s most underrated movies. She and Conrad Nagel had good chemistry together and the story is really entertaining and fascinating. This is the kind of movie that’s really good at grabbing your attention at the very beginning and holding onto it at the very last second with lots of twists and turns along the way. My only complaint about it is that the ending feels a bit forced and tacked on. But otherwise, it’s fantastic. I’d love to see this movie on the big screen some day because Garbo is so stunning in it, seeing it in a theater must be absolutely breathtaking to see.

A Woman of Affairs (1928)

A Woman of Affairs Garbo Gilbert

Diana Merrick (Greta Garbo) and Neville Holderness (John Gilbert) have been friends since childhood and ever since they were very young, Diana has been madly in love with Neville. They want to get married, but Neville’s father doesn’t approve and sends him to work in Egypt for a few years, where he will be able to make a lot of money. Diana wants to wait for him, but after a couple of years, she marries David Furness (John Mack Brown), someone Diana’s brother Jeffry (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) adores. It isn’t that Diana doesn’t like David, it’s that her heart will always belong to Neville. On their wedding night, David and Diana are visited by the police and David suddenly commits suicide.

Diana knows why he killed himself, but won’t say, and Jeffry believes David did it because of her. David’s death drives a huge wedge between Jeffry and Diana. Jeffry, already a heavy drinker, keeps drinking his way down a path of self-destruction while Diana becomes a woman notorious for having lots of affairs. The years go by and Neville comes home, but he’s engaged to marry Constance (Dorothy Sebastian). Just before their wedding, Diana calls for a doctor friend of theirs, who happens to be having dinner with Neville and Constance that night, to get help for Jeffry. Jeffry is extremely ill and won’t let Diana help. After she leaves, Neville follows her out and they end up spending the night together.

Several months later, after Neville and Constance are married, Neville gets a message saying that Diana is sick and she keeps asking for him. She’s been recovering from a miscarriage and is in a delirious state. When he goes to see her, she doesn’t even recognize him. But when she comes to her senses a little bit, she declares her love for him, not realizing he’s brought Constance with him. Neville’s never stopped loving her, but now that he has a chance to be with his true love, does he leave Constance behind?

A Lady of Affairs is pure melodrama, but it’s really great melodrama. Few actresses were made to work in silent film the way Greta Garbo was. The simple movement of her eyebrows spoke volumes and she is positively radiant in this movie. She gives a fantastic performance and although I wouldn’t say this is the best pairing of Garbo and John Gilbert (it’s awfully hard to top the cinematic explosion that is Flesh and the Devil), but Gilbert is very good in it, too, and it’s easy to see why they were such a hit with movie audiences. Great stars, beautiful cinematography, an interesting story (a bit scandalous for its time, but still toned down from the book it was based on), it all adds up to one entertaining movie.

Ninotchka Greta Garbo Melvyn Douglas

Ninotchka (1939)

As a way to raise money, the Russian government sends Iranoff (Sig Rumann), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart), and Kopalski (Alexander Granach) to Paris so they can sell some jewels that had been taken from the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire) during a revolution. Swana now lives in Paris and when she hears about the sale of her jewels, she wants them back and gets her boyfriend Leon (Melvyn Douglas) to put a stop to it. Leon distracts Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski from their mission by giving them a taste of the luxuries life in Paris has to offer (not that it takes much effort to distract them).

Once the Russian government finds out about the sale getting off track, they send special Envoy Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) to make sure the job is completed. While Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski were easily tempted to enjoy a taste of the good life, Ninotchka is a devout Communist, deeply loyal to Russia, and very stern and humorless. The sophisticated, decadent Parisian lifestyle appalls Ninotchka and her only interests lie in selling the jewels and admiring Paris strictly from an architectural standpoint.

While headed toward the Eiffel Tower, Ninotchka meets Leon, who is immediately attracted to her. Neither of them realize who the other is and Leon continues trying to flirt with her. Even when he finds out who she is and why she’s in Paris, he still continues to pursue her. Meanwhile, Ninotchka starts to fall in love with Leon, too, and being in love helps to soften Ninotchka’s stern attitude and even gets her to change her minds about the way of life in Paris.

In my book, Ninotchka is Garbo’s finest talkie. As much as I love movies like Queen ChristinaNinotchka is a perfect cocktail of a film. This was Garbo’s first attempt at comedy and she proved to be an expert at very dry, deadpan comedy. As great as Garbo is when Ninotchka is at her sternest, her finest moments come as Ninotchka softens and starts to let go of herself. These are the moments when Garbo is at her most delightful; they let us see a side of Garbo that we don’t see in any of her other films.

Melvyn Douglas was easily one of Garbo’s best leading men; he’s my second favorite of her co-stars, just behind John Gilbert. (Melvyn Douglas is vastly under-appreciated in general, in my opinion.) His debonair, sophisticated style in this movie is the perfect contrast to the uptight Ninotchka.

And I certainly can’t neglect to mention director Ernst Lubitsch, who is completely in his element with Ninotchka. This is exactly the type of material Lubitsch is best remembered for working with. To make things even better, Billy Wilder had a hand in writing the screenplay. I adore Billy Wilder both as a writer and a director and I have yet to be completely disappointed by a Lubitsch film, so to be able to see those two creative forces come together in one movie is a true delight for me.

TCMFF 2015, Day 1: Tours, Red Carpets, and Garbo

Waiting for the TCM Film Locations Tour with Thomas, Kendahl (A Classic Film Blog), Jessica (Comet Over Hollywood), and Danny (Pre-code.com)

Waiting for the TCM Film Locations Tour with Thomas, Kendahl (A Classic Film Blog), Jessica (Comet Over Hollywood), and Danny (Pre-code.com) Photo courtesy of TCM.

For the first day of TCMFF 2015, my day started by taking a bus tour of locations that were featured in various films. This is the tour Turner Classic Movies partnered with Starline Tours to create. Unlike many other tours of film locations you can take in Los Angeles, the TCM Movie Locations Tour is unique in the sense that it not only encompasses more films from the classic era than most other tours, it’s the only film location tour that visits downtown Los Angeles.

The tour takes visitors by locations such as Chaplin’s former studios, Paramount Studios, Echo Park, Los Angeles City Hall, and the Formosa Cafe, just to name a few. The bus itself was nice; very comfortable with lots of windows so all passengers have a great view of the places they’re seeing. There’s also a large HDTV so people on the tour can see the locations as they appeared on film and as they look today.

Bradbury Building

The Bradbury Building

There are two stops on the tour where visitors are able to get off the bus and spend a few minutes exploring: the Bradbury Building and Union Station. In both cases, you’ll find yourself wishing you could stay and explore the buildings more. Walking into Union Station is like walking into a different era; it’s absolutely beautiful. And I couldn’t get enough of admiring the architecture of the Bradbury Building.

What impressed me the most about the tour was the wide range of films it references. Since this is a tour organized by Turner Classic Movies, you can naturally expect most of the locations to be related to classic film, but there are some modern films represented in the tour such as L.A. Confidential and The Artist.  Of course, there are plenty of familiar titles like Rebel Without a Cause and Sunset Boulevard that are referenced, but the tour also talked about locations used for less instantly recognizable movies such as Buster Keaton’s Battling Butlers and Barbara Stanwyck’s The Miracle Woman. I never though I would ever go on a film locations tour and hear anyone talk about The Miracle Woman, so that one really made me happy.

If you’re going to be in the Los Angeles area and are interested in taking the TCM Movie Locations Tour, I definitely recommend it. If you’re like me and not from the area, it’s a fun way to see the town in about 3 hours. Visit the Starlines Tours website for more information about ticket prices and when tours run.

After the tour, I went out to lunch with fellow bloggers Jessica (and her lovely parents), Raquel, Kendahl, and Danny and spent some time hanging out at the Roosevelt Hotel before heading off to my next big event — watching red carpet arrivals for The Sound of Music.

A view of the red carpet from the bleachers.

A view of the red carpet from the bleachers.

Festival attendees who weren’t attending The Sound of Music screening were able to watch the red carpet arrivals from some bleachers that had been set up by the red carpet. I joined some other movie bloggers to brave the heat (it was about 90 degrees and very sunny that day) and wait in line for the opportunity to get a brief glimpse of Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.

Christopher Plummer

Christopher Plummer

Many of the celebrities who appeared on the red carpet were people who were guests at the festival such as Keith Carradine, Robert Morse, Leonard Maltin, Diane Baker, Peter Fonda, Norman Lloyd, and of course, Christopher Plummer. Although she wasn’t doing any other events at the festival, Shirley Jones also made an appearance. While some of the stars stopped to address the crowd, others moved so quickly it was hard to even get a picture of them. Most of the pictures I took at the event could be compiled into a series called “Famous People Shielding Their Eyes from the Sun,” but it was worth attending because it gave me the chance to see some people I wouldn’t have been able to see in person otherwise.

Queen Christina Garbo Gilbert

My first film of TCMFF 2015 was 1933’s Queen Christina with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. If you ever have the chance to see Garbo on the big screen, you must go. Garbo had a face that was made to be seen on a larger-than-life screen. I’ve always loved the movie, but being able to see it on the big screen brought out many little nuances in her performance I had never noticed while watching it at home.

As an added bonus, they screened a rare Queen Christina lighting test from the Academy archives before the movie, which was an absolute pleasure to watch. It was a 2-and-a-half minute long silent clip of Greta Garbo simply being Greta Garbo. Since these were just lighting tests, she was relaxed in a way that you don’t see her being when she’s actually acting. Plus some of the shots were close-ups, which were simply breathtaking. If Queen Christina ever gets a blu-ray release, that lighting test would make a fantastic bonus feature.

My Man Godfrey Powell Lombard

After Queen Christina, I got in line to see 1936’s My Man Godfrey starring the incomparable Carole Lombard and William Powell. I was still debating what I would go see during this time slot up until I got out of Queen Christina. I like The Sea Hawk and after saying I had never seen Breaker Morant in my post about what I was planning to see, several people told me, “You must see Breaker Morant!” so I was definitely intrigued by it. In the end, Godfrey won because I was in the mood for something light and fun, but I fully intend on seeing Breaker Morant sometime in the near future. Godfrey was a digital print, which looked absolutely stunning; I’ve never seen it look better. Not only was tonight my first time seeing Garbo on the big screen, it was also my first time seeing Carole Lombard on the big screen. In both cases, it was an absolute delight. The crowd for Godfrey was very enthusiastic, which always makes classic comedies so much fun to watch.

Cedric Gibbons and Grand Hotel (1932): One of Oscar’s Biggest Oversights

Grand Hotel 1932 LobbyGrand Hotel (1932) is best remembered for being the movie to popularize all-star casts. Before Grand Hotel, the only movies that featured so many big stars together were “revue” type movies like The Hollywood Revue of 1929 and Show of Shows, which were popular in the early days of talkies and featured many of a studio’s top stars in a series of skits and musical numbers. While most other movies had just one male lead and one female lead, Grand Hotel took five of the biggest movie stars working at the time — Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, John and Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery — and put each of them in a leading role.

However, there is one other person who should be mentioned along with Garbo, Crawford, Beery, and the Barrymores as being a major star of the movie: art director Cedric Gibbons. The exquisite Art Deco style sets he designed for Grand Hotel refuse to be relegated to the background.

Grand Hotel 1932 Lobby Desk

Grand Hotel is also noteworthy for being the only movie to win a Best Picture Academy Award without being nominated in any other categories — no nominations for writing, direction, or even acting. Despite the sheer magnitude of Grand Hotel‘s stars, it’s easy to see how they failed to get nominated in acting categories. Grand Hotel doesn’t have just one male or one female lead to choose from and categories for Supporting Actor/Actress wouldn’t be introduced until the 1936 Academy Awards.  However, it’s not nearly as easy to understand how Cedric Gibbons wasn’t nominated for Best Art Direction, which is one of the biggest Oscar oversights I can think of.

Cedric Gibbons was MGM’s top art director for most of its peak years. He started working at MGM in the 1920s and stayed there until he retired in 1956. Name a big hit MGM movie from the 1930s through the mid-1950s and it’s very likely Cedric Gibbons had a hand in it. He is credited as the art director for The Wizard of Oz, The Thin Man, Ziegfeld GirlMeet Me in St. Louis, Gaslight, On the Town, The Great Ziegfeld, The Good Earth, The Women, The Philadelphia Story, National Velvet, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Marie Antoinette, and Forbidden Planet, just to name a very select few. He even designed one of the most widely recognizable symbols of Hollywood: the Academy Award statuette. But for all of his contributions to film, Gibbons’ work for Grand Hotel is undoubtedly one of the crowning achievements of his career.

Grand Hotel 1932 Exterior ShotEven with Garbo, Crawford, Beery, and two Barrymores to contend with, Gibbons’ sets stand out so much, they become a character unto themselves. Some people might even argue the sets outshine the actors. Although the sets are extravagant, there’s nothing about them that feels artificial. After all, this is a movie set in the finest hotel in Berlin, the sets need to exude an aura of luxury and represent the epitome of early 1930s glamour. But the sets are so believable as a lavish hotel, it’s very easy to forget Grand Hotel was filmed on a Hollywood soundstage and not on location.

Cedric Gibbons’ Grand Hotel sets demonstrate what an integral part art direction plays in creating Hollywood fantasy. This is a movie about characters going through difficult times in their lives, so it’s not a movie people watch and think, “I want to be just like them.” However, the sets are so breathtaking, people do look at them and think, “I want to go there!” If you’re a lover of Art Deco style, you’ll desperately want to believe this was a real hotel you could go visit. The hotel may not be real, but you’ll wish the sets had been preserved and put in a museum somewhere. These were movie sets that went far beyond being sets and were works of art.

 

31 Days of Oscar 2015 Blogathon

For more Oscar related articles, stay tuned to Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula’s Cinema Club all month long!