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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Monday Glamour Starter --- Greta Garbo --- Part One

Men have a hard time getting what the Garbo excitement is/was about. She is not for the uninitiated, and even seasoned buffs tend to leave her off a viewing menu. The centennial celebration of 2005 was welcome to those who cared, though I wondered how so many book and DVD tributes would fare after those hundred years had passed. For a lot of people, Garbo is as cold as ice, and that’s all there is to her. Much as I enjoy the films, I never once envied screen partners that bedded her. It never seemed Garbo had an ounce of sex in her, a legitimate issue where we address a presumed goddess of love, if a mostly unattainable one. Garbo's unique sensibility was what mattered in the long run, as willing love goddesses were more easily manufactured. Much of her persona derived from a European outlook, for she conveyed a knowing quality to parts American actresses would have bought into and played straight. Garbo floated above hackneyed material she recognized for what it was. Sometimes her expression betrayed boredom and frustration in it all, and you wondered when she might break through the fourth wall, walk past us all and back home to Sweden. Garbo seemed to traffic in emotions unknown to performing rivals, and yet audiences spotted truth in her work and identified with her responses. That was then, before she ditched celebrity and became a dedicated recluse. To love Garbo was to assume the role of so many hapless men (and women) in her movies, for she’d not give anything back. The prospect of such unrequited love, particularly when it’s directed toward a public figure (an entertainer yet) who by any definition of the term should be more generous, could be an off-putting thing. If she had just once been nice to an interviewer, confessed upon her eightieth birthday that the whole image had been contrived (and there’s reason to believe it was, largely by Garbo herself), maybe more of us could embrace her today. I like to imagine a forgotten Kinescope hidden somewhere at NBC of Dave Garroway and simian sidekick J. Fred Muggs interviewing the elusive Miss Garbo on a 1955 Today segment flanked by Ovalteen commercials and a singing appearance by Johnny Ray. What a treat if such a thing turned up on YouTube ...

Should the foregoing seem irreverent, I'll add that I think Garbo’s terrific. Seven of her pictures have passed my way these last days and I've not yet tired of her, so let’s not confuse mine with revisionist voices seeking to dismantle the myth. On the other hand, I’m not of the worshipful school of older critics who built and maintained a shrine that remained intact for all of Garbo’s lifetime, and has only lately been challenged by a new generation of critics coming to her by way of DVD reviews both online and in publications like Entertainment Weekly and Premiere. Sometimes I’m shocked at the dismissive ways of modern media when they tear down sacred totems, and someone like Garbo makes a ripe target for non-believers who failed to get the memo about her greatness. Our Web world has unleashed radical voices to take on the critical orthodoxy where Garbo and a lot of others are concerned. There is quite a gulf between books I’ve read by Andrew Sarris or Alexander Walker and online reevaluations by cheeky youngsters determined to swing the bat on established idols like so many Piñatas. Never have old stars been so fragile as they are today. What’s special about him/her? Were Garbo alive, she might be alarmed by such shifting tides. She’d at least be aware of it, in any case, as I understand there was a clipping service on retainer throughout her life, and during stardom days secretaries were routinely dispatched to go out and buy fan magazines (but only ones that featured her). Garbo herself  stole into Museum Of Modern Art revivals during the fifties and sixties. So why shouldn’t she have taken an occasional glance backward, even as she professed not to care?

Withdrawn Swedish temperament did not lend itself well to playing with others, particularly on movie sets. You can blow off the press in that business, but it’s unwise being rude to people sharing your monotony on a sound stage. Was it deprived upbringing and unpolished manners that caused Garbo to treat Marion Davies so badly during the latter’s attempt at a friendly on-set visit? Basil Rathbone and Freddie Bartolomew both requested signed portraits at the end of Anna Karenina and were summarily rebuffed. Rathbone remained miffed twenty-five years later penning his memoirs. Movie folk were unaccustomed to snubs like these. It’s one thing to chase off autograph hounds outside the gates, but Garbo made colleagues feel like intruders upon her privacy, and this was not an attitude to foster good will. Had she not been so wildly successful with audiences, I’ve no doubt they would have relished giving her the pink slip. The bigger Garbo grew, the higher she erected those walls. It got to a point where other actors weren’t even permitted to watch her emote, such was Garbo’s determination to keep things private between herself and the camera. All this eccentricity was bred by success, for at the beginning, she was reasonably affable and ambitious as the rest, but much of that team spirit was left behind in Sweden, where hard times made her thankful for work in advertising reels and modest features. She got into a drama academy despite humble beginnings, and there became hopelessly smitten with classmate Mimi Pollak (shown with her here). Recently revealed letters track Garbo’s devotion through a lifetime of unrequited passion, but by the looks of pixie Mimi, who could blame her? Lakeside swimsuit footage for a commercial film were shared with two other ingenues, both with seemingly better prospects than a plumpish Garbo, her heft soon giving way to an MGM-mandated all-spinach diet once they hired her. Luck was with her when director Mauritz Stiller offered The Saga Of Gosta Berling, far and away the biggest undertaking yet attempted by a Nordic filmmaker, and one noted by a visiting Louis B. Mayer, whose interest in Stiller was now sidetracked by a fascination with Garbo. Both artists would decamp to America, providing the finishing touch to a Swedish industry already deprived of its other distinguished director, Victor Sjostrom (by way of his own Metro contract). Stiller the mentor and master would come to know that in Hollywood, survival was for the fittest, as would his pupil, though Garbo, whose good luck remained unswerving, flourished even as his floundered.

If MGM had a model for developing Garbo, it was likely Paramount’s Pola Negri, a German import whose line in Euro-sophistication awakened passions dormant in stateside audiences and gave us all a taste for Continental variations on lovemaking. It was only natural that Garbo be herded in the same direction. Otherwise, why bring her over? We’ve forgotten Negri, thanks to films mostly lost, while all but one of Garbo's output do survive, including a lush initial two, The Torrent and The Temptress, both based on Blasco Ibanez novels and showcases for the new star. Any $400 a week player would have died for a start so auspicious, but Garbo complained and made waves from a start, disdainful of what she called "vamp" roles, and vowing to pack for home unless things improved. Sympathetic Lon Chaney advised her to keep them guessing. Be mysterious and secretive, he advised. The conscious decision to do just that defined the remainder of her career, as well as offscreen life. The purposeful withdrawal saved her the embarrassment of dealing with a corporate and social structure she could not comprehend, silence on screen deflecting awareness of language skills she lacked (Garbo consolidated her stardom before talkies arrived). Best then, to become known as "The Swedish Sphinx" so long as you’re obliged to drag an interpreter everywhere you go (and hers was doubling as a Mayer snitch). From such sour fruit came ambrosia, for Garbo’s pained ambivalence struck a chord with her public and gave them something brand new --- a reluctant movie star. MGM went public with contract disputes, as this played hat and glove with the image they had fostered. Flesh and The Devil profited from that investment in publicity, for the on and offscreen coupling of Garbo with (much bigger) co-star John Gilbert turned the ignition on a boxoffice clean-up that made these two the screen’s most believable love team. Rival pairings of a Colman/Banky, Gaynor/Farrell sort were persuasive enough as make-believe love matches went, but none generated the heat of a Gilbert/Garbo embrace, its carnality given further emphasis by the leading lady’s fervent way with a kiss (open-mouthed and/or on top of Gilbert). As to standards of further Garbo silents, they remained high, and ever increasing grosses rewarded Metro’s effort. Love, The Mysterious Lady, and A Woman Of Affairs still play nicely today, while The Single Standard, Wild Orchids, and The Kiss each benefited from recorded music-and-effects during those waning days before talkies. As to these, Garbo must have worn the rabbit’s foot Vilma Banky and Emil Jannings lost, for she was about the only notable foreign-born survivor of the sound purge to come. More about that in Part Two to follow.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

Not long after I moved to New York in the early '80s, I was in midtown, walking on Park Avenue, when I stopped at the corner for the light to change. Casually looking around, I was astonished to see Garbo standing right next to me. (She was easy to ID since the paparazzi were always selling shots of her to the "Post" and "Daily News.") That brief encounter gave me more of a thrill than any of her movies.

8:52 AM  
Blogger The 'Stache said...

I love Garbo, too. If they'd just paired her with stronger male partners, I think she would have been better off. But they were all sort of milquetoasts — Lew Ayres, Melvyn Douglas, etc.

1:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness! Thanks so much for todays Monday Glamour starter. My dear Garbo! Wow! I am a huge fan of GG, so this made me really happy!!!

2:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As much as I love Garbo in her signature films -- Grand Hotel, Queen Christina, Anna Karenina, Camille, Ninotchka, etc. -- her mystique isn't enough to get me through stuff like As You Desire Me. (Fortunately, there isn't much of that.) Even so, I got a wide-eyed thrill reading about East Side's street-corner encounter from the 1980s. I know exactly how he must have felt.

10:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

east side: How'd she look?

2:28 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Here's a post folks here might find interesting, that I wrote for alt.movies.silent after watching several of her silents on TCM a while back:

Here's a little taste: So in a sense, Garbo came to American films as The Woman You Love To Hate; her job was to want happiness (or at least sex), to be trapped in a marriage where it was not forthcoming, and be punished, cruelly and viciously, for finding it elsewhere... It's interesting to wonder what made Hollywood see her in those terms; foreignness, certainly, a certain Scandinavian gloominess (best seen in the way Warner Bros. cartoons caricature her), and also her size and as Margarita Lorenz says, a certain mannishness in her build-- she was big enough to take it, unlike so many of those 5-foot pixies in the silent era. But as MGM puts her in one tale of transgression and outsize punishment after another, something happens...

9:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John -- who is taking measure of Greta's bicep in that third picture and where did you find the picture?

It's remarkable.

10:34 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Chris --- That still was taken at USC, shortly after Garbo's US arrival. It was part of a publicity group she did with various campus athletes. She soon put the kibosh on further photo shoots of this sort.

10:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you're quite cruel to Greta. And perhaps you didn't know that she was very respected among her peers and her co-workers. The crew on her films adored her. As Clarence Brown mused, she was 'the best.'
As a grateful fan I am glad that 'I get it.' Garbo was truly 'divine.'

11:26 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

In case fellow poster greg drops by... Garbo looked like a fairly healthy, 76 year-old woman. On the tall side and thin. No laugh lines.

10:54 AM  
Blogger FlowerBell said...

It is impossible to truly appreciate Garbo's appeal until viewed on the big silver screen. A few years ago I attended a Garbo film festival and was shocked at her effect on the audience. When the camera came in for a close-up there was an audible gasp and it seemed everyone held their breath until the shot ended. Garbo's face was simply magic. Write what you will about her unacceptable personal behavior and need for privacy, it's all sour grapes. To me, she can be forgiven all. She gave so much more than what she was given.

3:30 PM  

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