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.
Greta Garbo in Anna Christie
Although I had never seen Anna Christie before, I have heard the famous line that the enchanting Garbo speaks just after she enters the bar. However, I watched the German version with English subtitles. Instead of the line Patrick quoted, Garbo says, “Whiskey, but not too short.” The bartender asks sarcastically, “Shall I bring a bucket?” Garbo smirks back, “All right by me.”
Although Anna was raised in Minnesota, Garbo is not playing a Midwesterner. In this version I took it that her parents were Swedish immigrants so they all spoke their native tongue. The home she stayed at in Minneapolis was populated by a family of Swedes. Anna later explains that the Swedish boys that lived their desired a Swedish girl and one night when she was alone, one of the boys, “seduced” her. Although she implies that it was closer to rape than anything resembling consensual sex.
Another suggestion that it was not her choice was that she ran away from that home as soon as she could. Without any where to turn, she became a prostitute. She explains to Marthy and later to Chris that she hated everyman who ever employed her. She may have been a prostitute but she was not promiscuous.
What I found most interesting about Anna Christie was the sexism of the time. Chris cannot stand the fact that the woman he fell in love with used to be a hooker. He tells her he cannot stop thinking about all of those other men. Earlier we learn that Chris has frequented whore houses in different ports of call. Never does he equate her being a purveyor of sex and his employing of prostitutes. She never complains about his sexual past while he is so bothered by her not being innocent that he wants to end their relationship. Does he not realize that a honeymoon with a skilled pro would be ten times as fun than with a virgin?
Anna Christie is a morality play. None of the four main characters are upstanding or virtuous. Matt is a drunk who abandoned his five year old daughter. Marthy is herself a former prostitute. When she and Anna first meet they recognize each other even though they are complete strangers. Marthy tells Anna, “You are a fine one.” Anna comes back with. “You’re not much better. I’ll look like you in 50 years.” But Marthy gets the last word by proudly stating, “At least I never walked the streets.”
I was not sure how Anna Christie was going to play out. As this was made in those pre-code years there were no standards about redemption or paying a moral due. As Patrick mentioned, it is poorly staged with basically two sets but I found myself enjoying the father and daughter reunion and how their tale would unfold.
Photos © Copyright MGM (1930)