US Release Date: 02-21-1930
Directed by: Clarence Brown
- Greta Garbo, as
- Anna Christie
- Charles Bickford, as
- Matt Burke
- George F. Marion, as
- Chris Christofferson
- Marie Dressler, as
- Marthy Owens
- James T. Mack, as
- Johnny the Harp
- Lee Phelps as
- Larry, the Bartender
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.
George F. Marion, Greta Garbo, and Charles Bickford in Anna Christie.
Given the crudeness of the sound recording equipment of the era, why on earth did they decide to use such strong accents for the main characters? Garbo's was unavoidable, but Charles Bickford's Irish accent and George F. Marion's Swedish one weren't really necessary. I might have been better off watching the German language version since then there would have been subtitles. Without them I had difficulty at times understanding what they were saying due to the poor quality soundtrack.
I agree with Patrick that Brown doesn't do nearly enough with the staging. The original Broadway play by Eugene O'Neill only had two sets and this movie version doesn't really expand on that. Apart from the bar and the barge, we only get the occasional rear projected scene of the East River and one scene of Garbo and Bickford out on a date in what looks to be Coney Island. While it's understandable that the camera was limited in its movement because of the new methods of recording sound, less excusable is the very poor editing throughout the film, which is choppy and poorly timed, extending the running time much further than it needed to be.
Garbo's performance is good and she's quite beautiful slinking around without a bra, but she also goes over the top a few times. This is pure soap opera and it shows in her performance. Marion is relaxed in his role as Anna's drunken old father, but then he'd already played the exact same part on Broadway and in the 1923 silent version. Dressler is natural as Marthy, but her drunken antics at the beginning of the film, which are played strictly for laughs, feel out of place with the drama that comes later. I could be wrong but I'm guessing those scenes were added for the film.
Eric wrote about the sexism in the story in his review of the German version of this film and he's correct. I was struck by the scene where the recently rescued sailor tries to force himself on Anna. She fends him off and accuses him of being "fresh", which is a phrase you often hear in old movies, which today would be classified as sexual assault, but which then was simply taken for granted. It was up to the woman to protect herself as it was assumed all men would do whatever it took to get sex.
Garbo's presence in the film is what makes this movie memorable. She definitely had an ineffable star quality that draws your eye whenever she's on the screen. She escalates this kitchen sink melodrama into something worth watching.
Greta Garbo and Charles Bickford in Anna Christie
Greta Garbo made two different versions of Anna Christie in the same year. The Hollywood version and the German one follow the same plot but have different dialogue and some other subtle changes. The first difference I noticed between the two was that this version opens with a scene, that Scott mentioned, that is being played entirely for laughs. Marie Dressler's Marthy is a hard-drinking old floozy who puts a tad more slapstick into the part than Salka Steuermann did in the same role in the German version. In a drunken stupor, Dressler hiccups and gets hit by a swinging saloon door.
The biggest and most notable difference between the two films is that Garbo is much better in the German version. She seems a bit uncomfortable here and the English words do not roll off her tongue as well as in the German dialogue. She looks better in this film as if this Anna is a tad less worse for the wear than the German Anna. She complains of being tired in the Hollywood version but she actually looks tired in the German one. Although the mature subject of rape and prostitution remains the same in both films, the Hollywood version seems a bit less gritty. The dreary barge Anna lives on with her father is much better lit and cheerier looking and Charles Bickford plays Matt with a bit more playful attitude than Theo Shall. Patrick complained that Clarence Brown didn't do enough with the staging but he did far more than Jacques Feyder, who used less sets and extras.
As both my brothers wrote, Anna Christie is all about Greta Garbo and her expressive face and body. Her every pout, smile or exaggerated gesture is a work of art. She was more a movie star than an actual actress. Sure, she is a competent actress but you never forget that you are watching Garbo flaunting about. The scene where she torments her father and Matt about her past (see the picture in Scott's review) reveals her strengths and weaknesses as an actress. She teased the camera like a disinterested erotic masseuse prolonging a happy ending.
Photos © Copyright MGM (1930)