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Sunday, December 11, 2016

When Garbo Kept Coming Back


Camille (1936) A Surprise 50's Success

Garbo’s “Swedish Sphinx” hung on her like flypaper, even unto decades of retirement. Street-sightings and camera peers under brim of her hat was extent of exposure after she quit movies in 1942 to pursue private life. Movies GG had done meanwhile lay fallow. There was reissue of Ninotchka in the late 40’s that sputtered, balance of hers either too dated to send back out, or a matter of who'd care? What few saw coming was risen star she’s be with mid-50’s bestow of a special Academy Award and LIFE magazine's splash to arouse curiosity of dental patients across the country (we’ll never again see a magazine with LIFE’s kind of mass circulation --- every parlor and waiting room had them). MGM hopped aboard and test-booked Camille to gauge temperatures. What they divined was boiling heat, Camille to surpass even new product sent out by the Lion. Ads boosted the Oscar, LIFE’s bouquet, and of course, eternal mystery that was Garbo herself. It seemed a new-old star was born. Question, then --- could it sustain beyond Camille for continued sale of GG backlog?



Camille clicked because watchers liked the movie plus Garbo. It had romance, Robert Taylor (still mainstream popular), literary snob appeal (catnip for art-housing), plus satisfaction of curiosity as to just what Mom/Dad’s idea of a film idol was all about. Not unlike the late-30’s revive of Valentino, him gone for years prior, but still active in imagination of those who had kneeled at his alter. I looked at Camille again after coming across the above Cleveland ad from 1955. How might we have responded to 1936 romance in that year of Rebel Without A Cause and Kiss Me Deadly? Pleasing was fact that Camille still clicked, at least for me. I had seen it first back in 1980 at a month-long theatrical feed of Metros, so there was good impression 35mm left, same as ’55 crowds would have experienced. Presentation as always makes all the difference. Camille streams in HD at Vudu, looks a million, and that helps realize how the show meant much to that couple of generations that responded to it in 1936 and again in 1955. Threshold question for us moderns is how to take Garbo, assuming we elect to take her at all. Where does she stand among Favorite Folk on TCM? The network must have rankings, internal ones if not what they share with viewership. DVD sales for her were said to be tepid, so just when did the Garbo mystique wear off?


1955 Variety noted most teens going “Huh?” where Garbo’s name came up. It was thirteen years since her last work after all, an eternity in the lives of youth. For them, much of Camille would be purest hoke, yet there was something modern about Garbo’s performing, a Euro distance from Hollywood artifice as ladled out in the 30’s. Was she precursor to fashionable imports as seen nightly at art houses on 50’s rise? Any talent so otherworldly might extend fascination to a next generation, and maybe ones to come, which seems to have been case for Garbo, as she kept coming back, and on paying basis, to arties and revival houses well into the 70’s. Record checks show festivals beyond Gotham --- Charlotte had a Garbo week during the mid-60’s, and we know MGM’s Perpetual Product Plan from earlier in that decade used at least six of hers in rotation. Critics and not a few plain folks went years referring to her as “Most Beautiful” of all screen stars, or Most Luminous, Hypnotic … take your pick. What’s left to sort out is when and why did that end? Our “One World” finds personalities off the Continent less remote or exotic than Grandparents would have, so there’s partial explanation. For the rest, it may be movies that don't excite like before. William K. Everson once cited Garbo as a great star who never made a really great movie. She falls between cracks of early 30’s stuff we otherwise like, being not of precode milieu as currently understood and enjoyed best. Ones of hers roughly within the category --- Inspiration and Susan Lenox notable --- are in fact undone by heavy laden presence of the star. Norma Shearer or Myrna Loy would have been more fun given the same commission.


Camille is Code-compliant, but tells its adult story effectively. Films by 1936 could achieve this, if done artfully enough. Goldwyn succeeded with Dodsworth in a same year; it, like Camille, does not feel denuded. Garbo as mistress to chilly aristocrat Henry Daniell is understood, not overstated, as it need not have been. Assumption can be made that Camille is sleeping with Robert Taylor's Armand, but interpretation to the contrary might also be supported. So much of the Code era was letting individual audience members read things their own way, and giving offense to no one. Camille got by with slightly more thanks to gilt-edged literary antecedent and Metro skill at negotiation with Breen. Camille is as much art direction as drama, period/setting a reward even where narrative flags. This is one that George Cukor’s reputation may rest comfortably on. He pulls what surely is Garbo’s definitive talkie performance, or at least the one she’d be best remembered for. Tricky end of the known character was cough and death rattle that was already topic of spoofs as the pic got made, so wisely, Garbo plays that aspect down. Whatever Carol Burnett lampooned as the character on TV, it surely wasn’t GG.


Notion that Great Novels Make Great Films isn’t much supported anymore, difference being so few reading classic novels, let alone schools and colleges teaching them. Metro adaptations enjoyed built-in attendance, at least awareness, among the educated. Where even high-schoolers knew who Camille was in 1936, and not a few bookworms as late as 1955, now it’s nobody and nowhere, revival marquee with Greta Garbo in Camille likely to draw 100% blank. Maybe that’s why I never hear of it being shown outside of TCM. How is it that a Pride and Prejudice, in fact much of Jane Austin, sustains, and Camille does not? Ones better versed at literature might enlighten me here. MGM really did work a miracle of making content like this accessible to a mass audience, giving succor to a mob that could be entertained as well as enriched. This was one of countless ways old Hollywood flattered its public. You could go see Camille, then impress friends who read books. Everybody won. Smart guys like Thalberg, who produced Camille, understood that nothing commanded respect like awareness of man’s finer achievements, be it art, literature, or dare one suggest, motion pictures. Camille and ones like it aimed for high targets, and much of the time, hit them. They were good for the industry then, and still rewarding to look at today.

17 Comments:

Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The Garbo movies, as far as I know, have always been in constant circulation in cine clubs in Argentina and before, from the forties to the sixties, MGM kept reissuing them even if they did the crime of dubbing prints to Spanish. They surfaced on television probably in 1961 and were kept in rotation until 1980 when color broadcasts were imposed and black and white movies somehow vanished for at least three years.

When formal VHS editions of CAMILLE and others surfaced in the United States, they were immediately pirated in Argentina and upgraded for broadcasting purposes. Later, TNT Latin America began to put on the air a colorized version dubbed in Spanish that was unwatchable.

I frankly don't think that Garbo brought anything continental to her Hollywood production. That concept rejects the fact that European movies were hardly ever released in the thirties in the United States and that kind of sensibility never existed in movie audiences... the only non American movies released at that time were actually from Argentina and this is systematically ignored. However, Latin American audiences DID have that kind of sensibility because in our screens we got as many movies from Hollywood as we got from Europe. We didn't have to wait until the late 50s art house revivals... we got them at the time.

4:13 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Garbo always gave me a case of the snooze; never understood her appeal. Her turn in "Grand Hotel" in particular struck me as silly. And yet... Several months after I moved to New York in the early 80s, I found myself on Park Avenue waiting for the light to change. I glanced at the person standing next to me -- it was Garbo! I nearly stopped breathing. The only other event I can compare it to was when, as a teenager, I met Lillian Gish. It was like Mt. Rushmore coming to life.

9:18 PM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

I think Garbo made some great pictures, but the thing that's kept her out of the popular imagination for awhile is that they don't lend themselves to "clips" on retrospective tv shows or compilation films. Her films are atmospheric, but if you take a scene in isolation, it looses something. It's easier to extract something from a picture by Bogart, Gable, Stanwyck or any number of other 30s and 40s stars to remind viewers what made them special.

7:10 AM  
Blogger aldi said...

"Great star who never made a great movie"? My God, has this guy never seen Flesh and the Devil? It's one of the greatest and most moving films ever made in my opinion. Not to mention Anna Christie, Queen Christina, etc. Everson may be a great film buff and archivist but he obviously has a huge blind spot when it comes to Garbo.

8:17 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Reg Hartt looks back on Garbo and other classic film programming (Part One):


That still of superb actor Henry Daniel positively radiating rage at Robert Taylor speaks volumes. Here is this young nothing with nothing but, in his eyes, looks, getting what his money can never purchase. The Code was a pain in the ass and an abomination, yes. Skillful film makers knew how to surmount the silly thing. The thing was that the code forced them to say what they wanted and needed to say in ways that made for really interesting story telling. I learned early that offering films in festival packages caused people to pick and choose while coming out for nothing. With THE MARX BROTHERS I announced a festival of ALL of their films (not in the 1960s an easy thing to do) and had to drop it because absolutely no one showed up. Then a year later I brought their films back. I promoted them one date at a time and ran a festival that lasted for two years. People came back week after week after week. The same with W. C. Fields, etc.. I never liked Fields until I saw him with audiences. Then I grew to love and to perhaps understand him. My preferred audience is young non film buffs who know little of the history of film and care less. They represent the general public. When THEY are impressed the game is won. I bought all of Garbo's MGM films on dvd. Not one of them is anything less than exceptional film making. All of them stand the test. There is a change in the way films were photographed by the time her films were made that shows the industry was finally beginning to understand the medium. I thought this change has passed D. W. Griffith by until, last year, I got a dvd of LADY OF THE PAVEMENTS (1929) which puts to the lie the statement Griffith fell out of step with his times. There is a sophistication in the way movies were being made which makes them suddenly seem everlasting (at least to me). The problem today with the silents is not with the films but with the music that all too often accompanies them. The music is too often hammy which makes the acting in the film seem hammy. Young people at my presentation of NOSFERATU to the music of RADIOHEAD (KID DRACULA) walk out thrilled by the marriage of the two. This surpassing of audience expectations I learned in my teens is what theater and its offspring, the movies, is all about. Bear in mind that beginning with THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) through to the end of the silent era First Run A movies (the Garbos) were $2 a seat pictures. That was top Broadway pricing. It brought an edge and an excitement to the film going experience that today's motion pictures completely lack. That $2 in 1915 would be today over $50. Think of one movie that could command that yet in the silent era MANY did. Would people pay that today? They pay that and more for rock concerts. Of course they will.

10:07 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Reg Hartt:


What is lacking completely is how to promote, how to generate the kind of excitement that is is needed to really capture the public's interest. Too often we are shown the steak instead of the sizzle that sells the steak. I chose not to be funded by arts councils, the government (my father's brother was as highly placed in the government of Canada as one could get. He was furious with me for NOT taking advantage of government funding). The result was that my work was and continues to be sneered at (as one journalist noted) by the folk who line up at the government trough. Nonetheless, the venues that played my programs (for which I always demand premium prices) found they made more money with my programs in one night than they made all month with everything else they programmed. I had a young fellow who lived with me one summer who went to university in another city in the fall. I told him to get a space and to sponsor some programs to raise money for himself. The university he went to would not give him the space. He found another one that would. The first program we ran the people who ran the campus film society said to him up front, "You are not going to get more than twenty people." I said, "If you had been smart you would have held back on saying anything until after this was over but now that you have laid your cards on the table let me lay ours. We are going to pack this place so full they will be sitting in the aisles. We will have to turn many away." Their jaws dropped. One person (the one in charge) said, "Well, you certainly are rude." Well we packed the place. The art of showmanship is a lost art. Thankfully, at Greenbriar Pictures Shows, that lost art is celebrated. Too many today in the film scene are descended from Henry Daniel's character in CAMILLE. They know how to pay for the illusion of love. They don't know how to win the real thing. They hate with a passion those who do.

10:07 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I never made it to the end of a GG movie. The Sandman always beat me to the finish line. She had the same effect on me as STAR TREK.

11:46 AM  
Blogger Stinky Fitzwizzle said...

Stinky attributes his living to a ripe old age (fourteen) by never having to sit through a movie that included Robert Taylor.

1:25 PM  
Blogger kenneth Von Gunden said...

Stinky and Mike: Wow. I'm SO happy for you both....

4:33 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Well, Mike, Greta Garbo certainly kept a lot of other people awake. Stinky, I find it almost impossible to watch any movie with Richard Benjamin.

5:07 PM  
Blogger b piper said...

To those who think they could never enjoy a Garbo movie I have only one word, which is of course NINOTCHKA.

7:32 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

In this and THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY from Oscar Wilde's notorious literary masterwork MGM delivered the goods. Not only that these films make others versions of the same films seem tawdry by comparison.

4:30 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer mulls Garbo limitations:


I confess that there was a time in my life when I found the appeal of Garbo somewhat elusive. After a showing at my college of "Grand Hotel," I disparaged her accent and compared her performance unfavorably to Joan Crawford's in the same movie.

Now that I've experienced a bit more of life, or certainly watched many more movies, I've a better understanding of her mystique. Apart from being stunningly beautiful, she is one of those actresses who seem to bend the stays of gravity about her. It is not so much that the camera favors her as that it can look nowhere else, when its gaze is upon her. Only Barrymore and Gilbert, when he believed in himself, are her equals before it.

At that, however, her performances have never touched me, emotionally, perhaps because I could never appreciate being with such a woman. One might worship her as he would a goddess or distant star, but her insularity requires nothing from another to complete her. Any appearance to the contrary, as in the situations she is placed or the lines she is given to say, is mere artifice. It may be pleasing to watch, even arresting, but it is nothing of flesh and blood.

12:38 PM  
Blogger Stinky Fitzwizzle said...

kenneth Von Gunden, Stinky has to admit, he fibbed. He has a huge blind spot when it comes to Taylor. Stinky enjoys later Taylor movies like "Westward the Women" and "The Last Hunt", but he finds the younger Taylor insufferable and devoid of charm.

b piper, of course, "Ninotchka"! Not only is Garbo good, she gets it.

4:14 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

So that's why there's a CAMILLE reference in the I LOVE LUCY episode with Van Johnson.

10:07 PM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

When I hear the name Garbo I immediately think of "Grand Hotel" and "Ninotchka," the rest (of the sound films, anyway) simply not being much fun (though "Anna Christie" is not without appeal, and I don't find "Two Faced Woman" nearly as bad as its reputation). I sat through all of "Camile," but found that Robert Taylor's glossy ineptitude kept me from giving a damn.

And part of what may account for the eventual fall off of Garbo's rep was the fact that she was never as big a draw stateside as in Europe -- my understanding has always been that without European distribution most of her films wouldn't have turned a profit. Lack of European returns caused her to graciously offer to "sit out" the war until that market reopened -- her "retirement" never having been intended as permanent. I think she realized by the early '50's that the mystique was all she had left to capitalize on.

Still, nothing beats her response when asked by Garson Kanin why she had given up filmmaking. She was silent so long he began to think he'd overstepped and offended her with the question, when she replied, "I have made enough faces." (Having recently retired from audiobook narration, I've totally stolen her line, and when asked why I stopped, I'm replying in a throaty Swedish accent, "I have made enough voices!" So far all I've received in return is uncomprehending looks, but I'm used to those...)

12:16 PM  
Blogger Stinky Fitzwizzle said...

Neely OHara, that is a great line from Garbo. A friend of Stinky's , who had a smattering of Yiddish, once described an actor's performance as "standing around making punims". Perhaps he cribbed this from Miss Garbo.

As Howard Hawks once said, if you are gonna steal, steal from the best.

1:04 PM  

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