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Archive for the ‘Greta Garbo: acting goddess, screen goddess’ Category

Mata Hari

25 Jan

Mata Hari – directed by George Fitzmaurice. Turgid Melodrama. 89 minutes Black and White 1931.

★★★★★

The Story: A beautiful spy sleeps with and plans to run off with the enemy.

It’s quite stupid. The writing is scenically dead. But no scene in which Garbo ever appeared is dead. Each scene is perfervidly alive. She is 24 yet she is older and wiser than anyone else in the neighborhood, which includes, as usual, Lewis Stone, who is quite inert, as he often was playing opposite her. Stone has the George-Brent-foible of imagining that to come alive opposite a female star would be to pull the rug out from under her, not realizing that great female stars depend on the surprising and advantageous occasion slipping rugs provide. His woodenness is at one with the balsa of the script.

So here we have her already in power as the fatal woman who drives men wild and who  murmurs to their adavances, “Later.” Lionel Barrymore is one such dumbstruck dumb cluck, and sweet Ramon Navarro is the antidote to him. He’s a Russian pilot carrying messages back and forth to Moscow. She is a spy intent on intercepting them. Barrymore is the military go-between betraying his nation. It all takes place in Paris, and Garbo dances, or, one should say, prances about in skin-tight, gold, toreador pants. Indeed she is never without weird far-Eastern rigs and odd chapeaux. To see them is not to believe them. She is more manly than any of the men. Which is maybe why they throw themselves at her glittering boots. From whose vicinity she nudges them humorously aside.

Mata Hari, in the film (although not in real life, for she was married and the mother of two and over forty) was a woman alone, as was Garbo, and Garbo frequently played such women, women getting by through superior intelligence, daring strategies, consummate allure. Whatever tools that come to hand to promote their survival, her characters seize upon with the ready address of a hardened feminist. Garbo almost never plays a mother. Is almost never actually married, and never happily. In her roles she sleeps her way to the top or has done so. In the enneagram Garbo, a high Virgo, would be not a sexual or social, but a survival type. And perhaps her screenwriters were helpless not to conspire with her vaunted solitude and yet, in blind addiction made role after role of that solitude, a corset that limited her to the range of the isolate. MGM kept her playing these fallen women, fallen, though somehow still unavailable.

This sort of part, Mata Hari, was crazy for Garbo to do, but maybe she felt it would be a change of pace. After all, she was the top actress, the top moneymaker at the top studio. Adrian was doing the things, Douglas Shearer was recording it, Cedric Gibbons was to design it. The director had a reputation for taste and being good with women – yet Mata Hari is not well directed, and the continuity is lousy. But, of course, that is not the point, for it was extremely well filmed – by William Daniels, whose great lighting created her, for herself and for us. This is the period when Garbo does not let anyone on the set, including the crew. The scene is surrounded by black screens. Occasionally Thalberg alone stood far off in the shadows. He watched in admiration, amazement and respect, as we do to this day. Yes, the story is preposterous. But watch it and see how Garbo conjures something out of nothing. Into this grotesque shell of a production, this pearl.

 

The Temptress

25 Jan

The Temptress  — directed by Fred Niblo. Drama. 117 minutes Black and White 1926.

★★★★★

The Story: A gorgeous woman, married to a jerk, has an affair with a dam-builder from the Argentine, to which she follows him, to dam-busting seismic disturbance for all.

Greta Garbo is the most sexually voracious actress ever to have appeared in film.

Her films are all the same. She has been kept by older men or beset by unwanted suitors, too old, silly, callow, married, dense, young. They come upon her and desire her wantonly. They betray all their scruples for her. She laughs, treats them like children, and doesn’t let them off the hook because they pay for her fancy apartment. She keeps them dangling. Obviously no one is the right one. They appear in uniform, with medals, naked, clothed, in rags. They present her with diamonds, furs, and food. Nothing turns her head. They tire her. She makes her living on them. Until there swans into view some young man, so pure, so devoted, so delicious of aspect and potential, that Garbo, who has spurned Dukes, walks over to this young man, seizes him with one hand by the back of the head, grabs his chin with the other, drapes her body upon him, leans her face down over him, puts her mouth on his, and drinks and drinks and drinks.

This skill as an actress she had when she was twenty, when she made The Temptress, her second film. The vamps, such as Nita Naldi and Gloria Swanson and Clara Bow, were all dark and tiny wild gypsy bitches. Garbo was a lanky blond, and she was not a bitch. She was a master flirt, but also second-by-second sensitive, open to the subtlest influence, inner or outer. She was simply a lone operative in the big-time world of men with nothing but her female wiles to survive on, and an acting instrument strung like an Aeolian harp.

She brought to MGM the caché of class. She was the top money maker there. As Louise Brooks said, as soon as Garbo appeared in films, every other Hollywood actress had to exist in relation to her. She was able to do on screen what no other actor was able to do before or since, and no one knew exactly what it was. When the war came, MGM did not know what to do with her. They had exalted her in their own eyes. This was stupid and unimaginative of them. It was quite simple, for Dietrich and Lamar and Bergman went on playing Europeans in war stories. Garbo was still a big money-maker – her last film, too. The war cut off her European audience, which was huge. And her American popularity in the sticks had waned, in part due to the number of fancy costume dramas she appeared in, and a certain distance she had created for herself on screen and which was created by her studio as well. She drew a circle around herself and acted inside it, as Brando was later to do. Who could imagine actually wooing her and marrying her? Adoring her, yes. Keeping her, or trying to, yes. But who could imagine actually settling down with her? Her eyes had gone private. So to stand next to her and do the dishes?

Stiller, her mentor from Sweden, began this film, was taken off it, and although it was reshot, he may have coached her here into the Garbo we came to know playing these parts. For it does not seem quite yet to exist in her first film, The Torrent. 

Anyhow here, in The Temptress, she is  young woman, not even of age, and already in full possession of her technique, which originated in her lower-middle back and travelled north. She made it up in the shower. She was already That Thing, Greta Garbo. Cary Grant did the same. They made something up and let it respond in accordance with the scene they were presented with. It was indissolubly manufactured and real at once. William Daniels said that Garbo made love only to the camera. True, and we wouldn’t have wanted her to do anything else. It means her real love-affair, her most intimate sexuality, is actually with us.

 

 

Anna Karenina

05 Feb

Anna Karenina — directed by Clarence Brown — Tragedy. A young mother married to a chilly bureaucrat is wooed and won by a high riding cavalry officer. 93 minutes Black and white 1935.

* * * * *

Frederick March had learned the secret of perpetual middle age, and he is no more a prince than my chest of drawers. He lacks the rash dash which John Gilbert had as Vronsky in Garbo’s earlier and silent version, which is in modern dress, and in which her scenes with her child are far more interesting than they are here with the dread Freddie Bartholomew. Vronsky requires an actor of Byronic allure, shirt open to the waist, a part perfectly suited to Errol Flynn, here being played by a businessman. Garbo plays it as though courteously exhausted by her marriage, whose doom she puts up with with a lovely and sincerely kind and interested social smile. She is unutterably beautiful, with her thick eyelashes and the astounding geography of her eyes, summoning everything from an exhausted interior. She does not look well in many of her costumes, though, and her hair-dos are an error. And of course the movie does not work because, for its transience, the love affair has to decline, and it can’t if it has never peaked, and it can’t peak if there is no lubricity between the two lovers, and there aint. The piece is over-produced; it looks foolishly expensive. as though all the Russian upper classes lived in MacMansions; Russian haute bourgeois interiors never had ceilings that weren’t there, nor were they that vast; after all, they had to be heated. Garbo does not play a beautiful woman; she, as usual, dismisses her beauty humorously as beside the point. Good. But I question the drone her voice takes on as one who has given up hopelessly before the play begins, making the performance appear a bit prefabricated. That is, I question her choice. The director Clarence Brown she liked because he managed traffic so well, but he’s an awful dullard, and the picture’s excellence, so far as it has any, is solely the product of Williams Daniels who filmed and lit most of Garbo’s films; the banquet scene, the ball, the movement of light across her face; the placement of Garbo in it; all the camera moves; all the angles; shooting from behind the harp, everything like that is not directorial, not Clarence Brown but Williams Daniels. Williams Daniels is the man. He is one really playing Vronsky here. He is the one madly in love with her. He was one of the great lighting and filming geniuses who ever lived. Garbo was a great actress and a great beauty and a great soul, and he caught it all, over and over again for us.

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Ninotchka

31 Dec

Ninotchka – directed by Ernst Lubitsch – light comedy about a schoolmarmish Russian bureaucrat who come to Paris to straighten out three crooked countrymen and falls in love with a hat. I hour 50 minutes black and white 1939.

* * * * *

Garbo laughs, yes, but before that she brings onto the scene her basso profundo gloom, and it’s a smart move because of the big silly she finds herself eventually preferring to become. She said Lubitsch was the only director of talent she ever worked with, which is odd because she worked with Mamoulian and Boleslavsky and Stiller and Sjostrom. If she meant the result she was allowed to arrive at here, her remark is understandable. Garbo never did anything symmetrical with her body; she always chose to be at an angle. William Daniels who lit her understood she was better in three quarter or close up and not moving. All this works in her favor here, as she drops her famed droop and opens up into  the rich sense of humor and fun everyone who knew her said she had. If she wanted to be left alone, it was probably because she wanted to have a good time, and that is certainly what she does here in the company of Ina Claire, in a rare screen performance, which nonetheless does not make plain why she was and really must have been Broadway’s great light comedienne of her era. Melvyn Douglas brings his boulevardier humor and easy masculinity into Garbo’s view, and teaches her the inner virtues of champagne. This is Lubitsch’s home territory: gladsome Paris, Europe in a tuxedo. In fact it is his only territory. Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, and Alexander Granach play the naughty trio, and watch Garbo’s shift into friendship with them as she treats with them. Simple. But what an actress! There is a lot to be said about Garbo in films: how she had to be imitated and could not be imitated and what she understood about film acting that nobody has ever understood so well since, but here, just sit back and take pleasure in the pleasure of another time, another genius caught in flight by another genius for us forever.

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