Greta Garbo in Anna Christie.
By 1930 only two stars in Hollywood had maintained successful careers without surrendering to the juggernaut of sound. Charlie Chaplin was one. He would continue to defy the new technology for another decade before finally allowing dialogue in his movies. The other star was Greta Garbo. When she did finally deign to speak in a movie it was front-page news around the globe. Headlines boldly proclaimed "GARBO TALKS!" and indeed she did. In a deep, guttural, thickly accented voice, her first words are now immortal. "Gif me a visky, ginger ale on the side, and don' be stingy, baby."
When MGM decided to remake Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie (the first screen version was silent and starred Blanche Sweet in 1923) audiences were shocked to learn that the Great Garbo was going to play the title character. The name Garbo was synonymous with mystery, glamour and elegance and here she was taking on the role of a downtrodden prostitute.
Anna Christie tells the story of a crusty old sailor living on a coal barge in New York Harbor and his reunion with his beautiful but enigmatic daughter that he hasn't seen since she was five, fifteen years earlier. When a brash young sailor enters their lives Anna quickly falls in love but is terrified of revealing her past life of sin to either him or her father. The old man, on his part, does not want to see his daughter become just another sea widow. The other character in this four-person drama is Marthy, a coarse drunken old bag with a heart of gold, played by Marie Dressler who practically patented this type of character.
Although I never once bought Garbo as a Midwesterner, (her Anna Christie was raised in Minneapolis and is of Swedish descent) she is pure magic in this role. Whether dramatically running her hands through her hair, throwing back her head with a sarcastic laugh, or simply hunching her shoulders with a sorrowful look on her face, she is absolutely riveting to watch. She is the reason this movie is remembered and always will be.
Director Clarence Brown doesn't do enough with the staging. It is true that the sound revolution was still in the experimental stage and like any new commodity the kinks were still being worked out. Nonetheless, with the exception of one scene at Coney Island, the movie is far too static. But don't let that stop you from enjoying one of the greatest screen legends of them all in one of her most famous performances.
Photos © Copyright MGM (1930)