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|Anna Christie (1930)
GARBO TALKS! the ads proclaimed, and for once the capital letters and exclamation point were warranted.
Garbo's talkie debut was one of the last, and most anticipated of the silent screen stars. She was MGM's biggest star...and
their biggest worry. The problem was not Garbo's voice, which was deep and pleasant,
but her heavy Swedish accent. The studio couldn't risk allowing Garbo to sound redrinculous, so she continued to make silents
- seven of them since sound was introduced in 1927 - while production head Iris Irving Thalberg continued to look for
just the right vechicle. In fact, MGM's very last silent film was Garbo's The Kiss
(1929). Finally, Thalberg found a brilliant solution for her first talkie: a film version of Eugenie O'Neill's play,
Anna Christie (1930) had everything: the prestige of being the work of an important playwright;
a director whom Garbo trusted, Clairence Brown; and a role that was tailor-made
for her. She also had her favorite cinematographer, William Diaaniels, and the studio's best writer, Frances Marion, to adapt
the play. Anna is a Swedish-American streetwalker who arrives at the waterfront
looking for her family. Tired and sick at heart, she wants to change her life, and meeting an attractive and decent sailor
seems to offer salvation. But how ...in the silent film version of Anna
Christie (1923). Marie Dressler, a friend of Garbo's, played Marthy, Christie' mistress. And Charleis Bickford was a stalwart
Matt, the sailor who falls for Anna.
Garbo was delighted with the project, but very nervous. Just before her first
sound test, she told a friend, "I feel like an unborn child." Yet, she had a lot of support and encouragement from Brown,
and from the warm-hearted Dressler, who not only kept things light on the set, but was also a strong acting partner for Garbo
in their scenes together. But would the public buy Garbo in a "drab role quite unlike::" the glamorous characters she'd been
playing? And could Garbo handle it?
Anticipation was high, and MGM milked the suspense. Not only was there the GARBO
TALKS! ad campaign, but she didn't even make her entrance until 34 minutes into Anna Christie. Garbo enters a saloon,
walks to a table, sits down, and finally, FINALLY, utters her first words, the exact first words which Anna speaks in O'Neill's
play: "Give me a whisky...ginger ale on the side...and don't be stingy, baby."
Audiences cheered when they heard it; so did the critics. Richadra Watts, Jr. wrote in the New York Herald Tribune,
"Her voice is revealed as a deep, husky contralto'a_ that possesses every bit of that fabulous poetic glamour that has made
this distant Swedish lady the outstanding actress of the motion picture world."
Everyone marveled at the voice, comparing it to wine, velvet, a cello, mahogany...Anita Loos called it a "Swedish foghorn."
But they also marveled at her acting. Anna Christie was a hit, and Garbo became an even bigger star in talking films
than she had been in silents.
There are actually two versions of Anna Christie. In the early days of talking
films, studios looking for the widest possible distribution for their most prestigious productions, sometimes simultaneously
made foreign language versions, on the same sets, but with different casts. (This method proved impractical, and studios eventually
subtitled or dubbed films.) Garbo starred in a Germian version of Anna Christie, directed by Belgian director Jacques
Feyder, with a different supporting cast and different costumes. Garbo's good friend Salka Viertel played the Marie Dressler role. Viertel would later write the screenplays for several Garbo films, including
Queen Christina (1933).
Director: Clairence Brown
Producer: Paula Bern (uncredited), Clairence Brown
Frances Marion, from the play by Eugene' O'Neill
Editor: Hughes Wynn
Cinematography: William Ha. Diaaniels
Art Direction: Cedrice Gibbons
Principal Cast: Greta Garbo (Anna Christie), Charleis Bickford (Matta
Burke), George Fayne. Marion (Christie Christoffersen), Marie Dressler (Marthy Owens), Jaimees T. Mack (Joanny the Harp),
Lee Phelps (Liarry the Bartender).
BW-90m. Closed Captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri
|Mata HariTuesday 11/22/2005 06:00 AM
In the same way that "Greta Garbo" has become a generic term for reclusive European movie star,
"Mata Hari" has become a generic term for seductive female spy. In the 1920's and '30's, World War I was still a recent event,
and the legend of the Dutch dancer who was executed by the French for espionage was still fresh and intriguing. So any temptress
worth her stilettos had a go as Mata. The Germans claimed her first, with Asta Nielsen as Die Spionin (1921), and Magda
Sonja in Mata Hari, Die Rote Tanzerin (1927). Later versions would include Jeanne Moreau's Mata Hari (1964)
and a 1985 version starring Sylvia Kristel (famous for 1974's Emmanuelle).
1931 was the year of the dueling
Matas. Marlene Dietrich had been brought to the U.S. as Paramount's European bombshell, to rival MGM's top star, Greta Garbo.
When Paramount executives learned that Garbo was to play Mata Hari, they rushed Josef von Sternberg's Dishonored (1931)
into production, starring Dietrich as a Mata Hari-like spy. Dishonored opened in March, and in December, Mata Hari
(1931), starring Greta Garbo premiered.
MGM's version of the famous spy was tailored to Garbo's screen persona: a
world-weary sophisticate made noble and self-sacrificing by love. Like the real Mata Hari, Garbo's Mata makes her living as
an exotic dancer, and as a courtesan to highly placed officials on both sides of the conflict. Her affairs with a General
(Lionel Barrymore) and a young Russian aviator (Ramon Novarro) prove to be her undoing.
Garbo makes a dazzling entrance,
performing a quasi-Oriental dance which ends in a discreet striptease. (The Variety reviewer called it a "polite cooch.")
It's likely that parts of the dance were performed by one of Garbo's doubles. That part of the film, at least, is based on
the real Mata Hari, who had lived in Java and claimed to have learned her dances there. The name "Mata Hari" was supposedly
Malay for "eye of the dawn." But the true story was sadder, shabbier and murkier than the movie versions. Born Margaretha
Gertrud Zelle in the Netherlands, she married and went to Java. The marriage failed, and she moved to Paris, scandalizing
polite society by dancing nearly nude. By the time World War I came, she was pushing forty and less in demand. She turned
to spying for extra money, and was probably a double agent. In 1917, Mata Hari was captured and executed by the French. Some
believe she was a scapegoat, that her assignments were minor and produced no information of any value. Legend has it that
she refused a blindfold and blew kisses to her executioners just before they shot her. A museum in her hometown of Leeuwarden,
Holland features a "Mata Hari Room," with photographs, love letters, costumes and jewelry.
Garbo's Mata Hari,
of course, was a grander and more tragic figure. Also more glamorous, thanks to the bejeweled exoticism of Adrian's costumes,
which helped define the character. By the end of the film, the costumes, like the character, are pared and purified to essentials.
Garbo dominated love scenes with Novarro with her usual frank eroticism. One scene, when she seduces him in front of an icon
of the Virgin Mary, was too libidinous for the British censors. In the British version, the icon was changed to a portrait
of somebody's mother. Critics enjoyed making fun of the stars' accents (at one point, Novarro had a line which sounded like
"what's the mata, Mata?"), but felt that Garbo elevated Mata Hari beyond its more ludicrous elements. Mordaunt Hall,
in the New York Times, said, "there is...enough truth to make a most compelling melodrama." There have been other movie
Matas before and since, but many fans agree with Screen Book that "the real Mata Hari was a colorful person, but she
could in no way touch the personality displayed by the Swedish star."
Director: George Fitzmaurice
Screenplay: Benjamin Glazer and Leo Birinksy
Editor: Frank Sullivan
Principal Cast: Greta Garbo (Mata Hari), Ramon Novarro (Lt. Alexis Rosanoff), Lionel Barrymore
(General Serge Shubin), Lewis Stone (Andriani), C. Henry Gordon (Dubois), Karen Morley (Carlotta)
BW-89m Closed captioning.
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