Friday, October 17, 2014

The Divine Garbo (Turner Entertainment, 1990)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles came home from work shortly before 10 and asked if we could watch something relatively short, and as luck would have it I’d just recorded a 45-minute program from Turner Classic Movies called The Divine Garbo. This was a “clip show,” produced by Turner Entertainment in 1990 back when TNT (Turner Network Television), not TCM, was their main movie channel, and they showed the films with commercial interruptions (though I recorded some items off it anyway, carefully editing out the commercials as I went — notably the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon, which I quite like even though the 1941 classic with Bogart and Huston trumps it big-time; my VHS tape of this remained my reference copy for this film until Warner Home Video reissued the 1941 version on DVD and put the 1931 version and the intervening reworking, Satan Met a Lady from 1936, in the package as bonus items) and occasionally interspersed them with vest-pocket documentaries like this one. The Divine Garbo was blessedly bereft of talking heads; it was just a chronological portrayal of Garbo’s career via clips from her films, and the only contemporary person involved was host Glenn Close, picked because at the time she was starring on Broadway in a stage musical version of Grand Hotel in which she played Garbo’s old role. The Divine Garbo actually showed her career, to paraphrase a line from Citizen Kane, before the beginning and after the end; it included clips from commercial movies she made for the Stockholm department store where she worked in the early 1920’s (for years the store sold copies of her employment record, including under the category “Reason for Leaving,” the foreshadowing words: “To enter the films”), including one called How Not to Dress in which she dresses so badly she looks like a singularly unconvincing drag queen. (Garbo would play at androgyny throughout her whole career, especially when sound came in and that deep, contralto voice became part of her screen persona.) The film also included clips from Garbo’s first feature film, a slapstick comedy called Luffar-Petter (the title literally means “Laughing Peter” but when it was released in the English-speaking world it was called Peter the Tramp, which suggests its star was doing a Chaplin knockoff), and her breakthrough role in Mauritz Stiller’s 1924 epic The Saga of Gösta Berling (a saga-like novel by Selma Lagerlöf that was remade in the 1980’s as a mini-series for Swedish TV). I’ve seen that one, but only in a 90-minute cut-down version — the original lasted half again as long and I believe Kino Lorber has a restored version available — and Garbo seems to be barely in the movie until the last half-hour, where she dominates. Garbo was 17 when Stiller discovered her and Stiller was in his mid-40’s; they were widely rumored to be lovers, and though Stiller was (mostly) Gay they very well might have been — at least two of Garbo’s later boyfriends, Gayelord Hauser and Cecil Beaton, were men who were otherwise Gay.

It also showed a clip from Garbo’s last European feature, Die freudlose Gasse (literally “The Joyless Street,” though once again the English-language releases gave it a different title, The Street of Sorrow), in which Garbo was second-billed to Asta Nielsen and the two played women forced by dire circumstances into prostitution. The clip we got was a Caligari-esque dream sequence — appropriately enough since Caligari himself (actor Werner Krauss) had a key supporting role — in which ghostly hands reach out for Our Heroine with a sinister purpose behind them. Then Garbo came to MGM as a sort of afterthought; Louis B. Mayer wanted Mauritz Stiller on his roster of directors but Stiller said he’d sign with MGM only if they took Garbo as well. “Tell her that in America we don’t like fat women,” Mayer told Stiller about Garbo — according to this documentary she’d already lost 20 pounds at Stiller’s behest to play Elizabeth Dohna in The Saga of Gösta Berling but Mayer wanted her to slim down even more, and MGM’s publicity department handled her like any other starlet, posing her with football players and the MGM lion. Garbo’s first two American films, The Torrent and The Temptress, were both based on novels by Vicente Blasco Ibañez (two of whose other books, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Blood and Sand, had elevated Rudolph Valentino to stardom — what a pity Valentino didn’t live long enough to make a film with Garbo!), and were both incredibly silly romantic melodramas that became enormous hits. Mauritz Stiller was originally assigned to direct The Temptress but was fired after just 10 days, and though his career at least temporarily recovered (once MGM dropped him, Paramount picked him up and assigned him Hotel Imperial with Pola Negri, and it was a hit), by 1928 he was dead and Garbo’s friend (and sometime Lesbian lover) Salka Viertel recalled Garbo going through his belongings in his Hollywood bungalow, since Stiller’s family had asked her to decide which of his things could be sold, given away or thrown out and which should be shipped back to them in Sweden, and fondling each item while reminiscing what she and Stiller had been doing when he acquired it — a scene reproduced in the film Queen Christina (1933), which Viertel wrote for Garbo, in which she feels every item in the room in which she’s just lost her (heterosexual) virginity to John Gilbert and says that in the future, in her memory, she will live a great deal in that room.

The documentary, written by David Ansen and directed and edited by Susan Walker, shows some quirky choices as well as the expected ones — including her silent Wild Orchids (1929), which MGM insisted she finish even though Stiller died during its making and she protested that she was so emotionally distraught if they continued the movie “you will have a dead thing on screen.” They also showed a brief clip from her last silent, The Kiss (1929) — though not one with her leading man, up-and-coming Lew Ayres — and clips from both the English and German versions of her first sound film, Anna Christie. (The English Anna Christie is actually a terrible movie; thrown by sound, Garbo overacts for the first and last time in her screen career; and George F. Marion from the original stage cast of Eugene O’Neill’s source play, playing her father, has an awful faux-“Swedish” accent that sounds even worse by comparison with Garbo’s real one. The German version, which Garbo liked better, featured Salka Viertel in the older-woman role Marie Dressler played — superbly[1] — in the English version and, judging from this clip, seemed more naturalistic and less “stagy.” The Divine Garbo also included quite a long excerpt from her 1931 film Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (though a lot of people who’ve written about this film invert the title to the more conventional “Rise and Fall”), which co-starred her with Clark Gable — they look horrendously mismatched together but this still looks like a film it would be worth seeing again — and clips from her 1932 film As You Desire Me, co-starring with Melvyn Douglas (first of their three films together) and Erich von Stroheim (whom she admired as both actor and director — when they made the movie he was still recovering from an injury suffered on his previous film, The Lost Squadron, and fearful that he would be replaced if he ever called in sick, his job was saved by Garbo, who told him if he didn’t feel up to working one day he should call her, and she would call the studio and say she was sick). Of course it also shoed excerpts from her legendary movies Grand Hotel (1932), Queen Christina (1933), Anna Karenina (1935 — a remake of a silent she’d made called Love as a follow-up to Flesh and the Devil, in which she was teamed with MGM’s “Great Lover,” John Gilbert), Camille (1936) and Ninotchka (1939).

The show is ambiguous about why Garbo’s career fell so fast, to the point that after just one movie following Ninotchka — the abysmal Two-Faced Woman (1941), which has a marvelously romantic opening reel and the rest sucks — Garbo hung it up and never made a movie or appeared in public again. The problem with Garbo’s career is that in the 1930’s her popularity in the U.S. faded but MGM kept her under contract anyway because her films still made tons of money overseas, especially in Europe. Then World War II cut off the European market for American productions, and Two-Faced Woman was a failed attempt to remold Garbo into a figure of fun American audiences of 1941 would like again. Garbo’s career was also hurt by the death of MGM’s production chief, Irving Thalberg, in 1936; when she’d renewed her contract in 1935 she had specifically asked that either Thalberg or David O. Selznick produce all her films, but after 1936 Selznick was working independently and Thalberg was dead — and of the three films she made after Thalberg’s death (including the leaden spectacle Conquest from 1937, about Napoleon — played by Charles Boyer — and his Polish mistress Maria Walewska), only one, Ninotchka, was any good (and that was because its producer-director, Ernst Lubitsch, brought his celebrated “touch” to it and created a quality lacking in her other two post-Thalberg films). After Pearl Harbor was attacked and the U.S. entered World War II, Louis B. Mayer called Garbo into his office and offered to keep her on salary for the duration of the war but not actually make any films with her. Garbo, whose professional ethic rebelled against taking money for work she wasn’t doing, said no and agreed to be released from her contract. She made one comeback try — in 1949, when independent producer Walter Wanger signed her for a version of Balzac’s The Duchess of Langeais, to be shot on location in Italy with James Mason as her co-star — and she got as far as shooting makeup and costume tests (one of which is included here). Then she arrived in Italy, ready to work — only the financing wasn’t set and neither was the script, and appalled by the difference between MGM’s professionalism and the al fresco uncertainty of independent filmmaking, she walked. Charles noted that Garbo during her later years wasn’t the anti-social recluse of legend — there’s a still photo of her hanging out with the world’s elite on Aristotle Onassis’ yacht, and she continued to see people, though any hint of what she was doing to the outside world (especially the press) and you were banished from her circle forever (as Cecil Beaton was when he published his diaries, including memoirs of their affair). The Divine Garbo offered a nice précis of her career and also included 1930’s cartoons spoofing her image; in one of them she has a run-in with Cary Grant (ah, Grant and Garbo together — another haunting cinematic might-have-been!) and in another she’s a cigarette girl, Harpo Marx gives her a hotfoot, and as the flames work down her shoe she first doesn’t react at all and then says a long, slow, languorous “Oooouuuucccchhhh.”

[1] — Dressler was the only member of the cast of Anna Christie who had extensive experience both on the stage and in silent films, and it showed.