BluRay/DVD Reviews

GARBO: THE SIGNATURE COLLECTION & GRETA GARBO: A CINEMATIC LEGACY

By • Sep 6th, 2005 •

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GARBO: THE SIGNATURE COLLECTION
(Warner Bros Home Entertainment)
13 feature films + supplements:

THE TEMPTRESS (1926) Dir. Fred Niblo. 106 mins.
FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1927) Dir. Clarence Brown. 112 mins.
THE MYSTERIOUS LADY (1928) Dir. Fred Niblo. 89 mins
ANNA CHRISTIE (1930) Dir. Clarence Brown. 89 mins.
ANNA CHRISTIE (1931 – German version) Dir. Feyder. 85 mins
MATA HARI (1931) Dir. George Fitzmaurice. 89 mins.
GRAND HOTEL (1932) Dir. Goulding. 112 mins.
QUEEN CHRISTINA (1933) Dir. Rouben Mamoulian. 99 mins.
ANNA KARENINA (1935) Dir. Clarence Brown. 93 mins.
CAMILLE (1921) (Without Garbo) Dir. Smallwood. 70 mins.
CAMILLE (1936) Dir. George Cukor. 109 mins.
NINOTCHKA (1939) Dir. Ernst Lubitsch. 110 mins.
GARBO (2005) Dir. Kevin Brownlow. 86 mins.

GRETA GARBO: A CINEMATIC LEGACY
(Harry N. Abrams) author Mark Vieira.
$50. 290 pages, 250 B&W pix

I would like to have saved this treasure trove of a boxed collection for the Xmas Stocking Stuffer column, but it’s out too early. From the box’s back cover description Warner Bros didn’t know quite what they had. They lay claim to 10 films, but in fact there are 13. I guess documentaries don’t count in a collection like this, but GARBO is 86 mins long, so it must count as a feature, plus it’s directed by world-class film historian Kevin Brownlow, one of the most distinguished directors in the entire batch.

Starting with the Brownlow overview, I felt that this was, if not a minor effort from the passionate historian, then it was at least a notch below what he has unearthed and imbued with life in the past. His book THE PARADES GONE BY is still one of the ten best books ever written on film history, and his three-part documentary THE UNKNOWN CHAPLIN is one of the ten best films of the 1980s, ranking alongside RAGING BULL, THE FOURTH MAN, and LONESOME DOVE. The title sequence, usually a carefully designed metaphor of the experience to come but less substantial than that here, indicates that the filmmaker was running short of ideas in this category. Carl Davis’ score, certainly satisfactory, nonetheless pales beside those he did for HOLLYWOOD, CINEMA EUROPE, and the aforementioned UNKNOWN CHAPLIN. And the research seems sometimes too easy, as when Brownlow interviews various current Garbo biographers, or performer Charles Busch (however articulate and adoring of Ms. Garbo he may be). However there are some plum interviewees, such as one of Garbo’s cronies,
Mimi Pollack (shot in ’93) who hung around with her at the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theater Academy. Now a wrinkled mask, the remains of a bygone era, she recounts her stories in German, definitely a Brownlow coup. The director has also unearthed footage of his reclusive subject prowling the streets of New York later in her life, after the public definitely had left her alone.

Garbo’s first talkie, a medium into which she ventured late (1930), is ANNA CHRISTIE, from the play by Eugene O’Neill, and while it is as early-sound-chatty as one would expect, it is also more contemporary and mellifluous than 1930’s filmmaking and literary aspirations generally achieved, and the sound quality is good to boot. Until Garbo enters, around the time of the second reel, Marie Dressler, a towering character actor of the silent screen, delivers a grandstanding performance, full and satisfying to be sure, but laced with generous doses of ham, as if she’s trying to steal the scenes from Garbo, except that Garbo isn’t on the set yet. Likewise the actor playing Garbo’s father, George F. Marion, also mugs it up, somewhat saved, like Dressler, because he’s got a fascinating mug. The two of them go swaggering down a gangplank, under a wharf, and into a bar, caterwauling and yokking it up as if there were no tomorrow…nor any second act.

Both of them undergo a marked change when the Garbo arrives. Once she appears in that doorway, sashays in, plops her weary carcass down at a table and lets loose with the first dialogue she had ever uttered on film, her co-stars tone down their performances a few decibels, as if in quiet awe, and a more realistic level is finally established.

However, this unevenness may be one reason Garbo preferred the German version, shot immediately after the English-speaking version was wrapped. Another reason is that in the German film, helmed by famed director Jacques Feyder, Dressler was replaced by a friend of Garbo’s, Salka Viertel , who remained an enduring influence on the star’s artistic life, co-authoring the screenplay of QUEEN CHRISTINA. A third reason – which may sound slight, but wouldn’t be for a serious actor – was that she got to alter her wardrobe (for the second time – she’d done it once during the filming of the original version), perhaps only slightly in our eyes, but substantially enough for her to finally feel right as the former streetwalker she was playing. In the U.S. version, she easily could have been taken for an alcoholic who’d just come out of rehab.

It should be noted that Charles Bickford, as a brawly sailor taken with Garbo’s character, and vice versa, in the U.S. version, really hooked big time into O’Neill’s Irish rhetoric.

Jumping to one of Garbo’s first ‘comebacks, QUEEN CHRISTINA, the demanding star teamed with one of Hollywood’s exciting directors, Rouben Mamoulian, he who is credited with being one of the saviors of cinema after the talkies arrived and the art form took a giant step backwards and fell on its ass. Mark Vieira‘s sumptuous Harry Abrams coffee table book, GARBO, one of the very best tomes of its kind and an invaluable companion piece to the boxed DVD collection, nonetheless falls short in trying to sum up the web of studio-and-personal machinations at work on this project prior to filming. Though I couldn’t follow the rubic’s cube of political games and shifting external influences on Garbo, it’s clear the end product was to some degree diminished by them. And yet the film is a still an imbalanced delight. We should be grateful that Garbo held fast and replaced her co-star with ex-lover, ex-star John Gilbert. Their extended scene in an inn outside Stockholm – she pretending to be a man, he being forced into sharing a bed with her, thinking she is a man, the chambermaid offering herself to Garbo, who rather enjoys the idea but blows it off, while Gilbert is gallant about it but his ego has clearly been bruised by the maid’s preference of this other man to him – is unparalleled Hollywood screenwriting and directing, and what appears to be hefty code defiance (during the depression, the Code was temporarily more lenient). After he finds out that she’s a chick, they share the bed together for days! A few years later, the Code wouldn’t even let a married couple do that!

While we’re on the subject of John Gilbert, note that his name isn’t even mentioned in the trailer, which is included on the disc. In the Brownlow doc, Gilbert’s daughter blames it on Louis B. Mayer’s concerns that her father might rise to stardom again and therefore have to get paid more. Maybe. I saw it as a cautionary move: Gilbert was already way into decline, and I don’t think the powers that be wanted his fading star to taint the brilliance of Garbo’s. It’s a tribute to Gilbert that I seriously considered stopping the film before the ending, fearing the fate of his character; I was that moved by his performance.

The quality of QUEEN CHRISTINA, and the other talkies, is generally superior to what’s been seen in recent decades, this despite the source of the prints, which is often five generations away from the camera negative. In CHRISTINA, for example, at 1:18:30-1:19:30, the blacks waver, and gray undulations can be seen within them. Well, these are dissolve/shots, which required a different stock from the rest of the film. Add to that the multiple generations traveled to gather this DVD, and it’s still pretty remarkable looking. The German ANNA CHRISTIE is a different story: supplied by Eastman House, one feels lucky just to be seeing it, regardless of occasional splice jumps in dialogue, etc. And the silent films are far more worn, even showing signs of nitrate disintegration which, again, only reminds us how lucky we are to be seeing the footage at all. The Silents have commentary tracks featuring historians, a pleasantry worth dropping in on, and new scores. Vivek Maddala‘s for THE MYSTERIOUS WOMAN is particularly engaging, conjuring period Vienna in its orchestration. The results of the Annual TMC Young Film Composers Award competition has Michael Picton scoring THE TEMPTRESS quite beautifully, and a worthwhile documentary accompanying the FLESH AND THE DEVIL disc details his win and subsequent ordeal producing a score that runs from first frame to last. Also, the Silents have some worthy extras, such as alternate endings, photo montages, and a documentary on the scoring of silent films including these.

Vieira’s book goes beyond the perimeter of Garbo’s social and professional sphere; he shuttles back and forth, both with pictures and prose, between her and Marlene Dietrich’s dueling presences in the dream capital. That is the kind of expansive decision that renders the book invaluable – we really sense why they were imported from Europe by MGM and Paramount, why they worked so well on the public’s consciousnesses, and why they both fell out of favor at approximately the same time. The pictures are gorgeous, and the paper used captures the gloss of those gifted photographers magnificently. As if this wasn’t connection enough for you to own both the DVD collection and the coffee table book, author Vieira (name misspelled on the DVD back cover) provides the commentary on THE TEMPTRESS!

In addition, Sweden House in New York is doing a Garbo retrospective this Fall. What a deluge, in every medium possible, celebrating cinema’s most secretive lady. It is her hundredth birthday, after all, but would she really have approved of all the attention?

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