ANNA CHRISTIE, 1930
Cast: Greta Garbo, Charles Bickford, George F. Marion, Marie Dressler, James T. Mack, Lee Phelps.
Unhappy prostitute Anna (Garbo) returns home to see her father (Marion) after 15 years away with relatives. He assumes she is a decent and respectably employed woman, but she hides the truth from him, his lover Dressler and the sailor (Bickford) they rescue from the sea during a storm. Anna is left in a quandry - how to kindle this burgeoning love without deceiving those around her.
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At a time when several top silent stars in America were Europeans with accents incomprehensible to American audiences, MGM nervously held back their number one foreign import Garbo from talking for as long as possible.
But by 1930, with most theatres converted to exhibit only sound films and most foreign stars effectively tried, tested, failed and unceremoniously sent packing, the time had come for ‘the divine’ one to face the aural firing squad as well and for the critics to scoff at her voice.
Happily, this was not the outcome. After waiting patiently through almost half an hour of Marion’s uninspired adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1922 play, it is worth the wait to hear her say the most famous of first words in cimeatic history, in a seductively deep, exotic tone that fully merited MGM’s publicity tag line 'Garbo Talks!': “Gimme a viskey, wiv a ginger ale on da side. And DON’T be stingee, babee!”
Director Brown, who had helmed some of Garbo’s most famous and sexy silent movies, fails to do justice to her here, making the film as dreary and moody as the average O’Neill play, though shorn of any psychological insight. O’Neill’s plays contain the scope for electrifying performances but here it looks like the fuse box needed to be changed. There are some persuasive moments, such as the opening and the fairground scene, but the whole film feels soggy and dull.
Garbo is none the less soulful and radiates a woeful passion and those loving glimpses, caught by cameraman Daniels in caressing close-ups of this most luminous and ghostly of movie beauties, of her famous face provide more than enough satisfaction for fans of classic Hollywood or the great lady herself.
She’s not helped by boorish Bickford, whose performance soon descends into prime American ham and it’s left up to Dressler as a drunken barge-harpy to save the day with a performance of humility and truth that fully merits the career resuscitation that followed for her.
(NB: A German language version of the film was made immediately after this was completed, with Garbo’s friend and scriptwriter Salka Viertel in the Dressler role. Garbo originally wanted fellow Swede Victor Seastrom to direct, but he was holidaying in Europe at the time so Brown got the jobb. He went on to steer her through most of the next 11 years of her career).