SHE HAD “SOMETHING BEHIND the eyes that you couldn't see until you had photographed it in close-up,” said her frequent director, Clarence Brown. “You could see through. If she had to look at one person with jealousy and another with love, she didn't have to change her expression. You could see it in her eyes as she looked from one to the other. And nobody else has been able to do that on the screen.”
You can see thought in her eyes, it's true. More astonishingly, you can see soul. Greta Garbo may not have been the greatest actress who ever graced the screen (although she was certainly among the greatest) but her face is perhaps the cinema's most indelible image. She was extraordinarily beautiful, of course, but beauty is common coin in Hollywood. Garbo had something else, an indefinable quality that suggests the ethereal, the spiritual. She repeatedly portrayed courtesans, prostitutes, adulteresses–creatures of the flesh. It was her peculiar genius to imbue these “fallen women” with an angelic aura so that their souls transcended the weaknesses of their bodies. Garbo died onscreen more often than any other leading lady in the movies. Those deaths are rarely seen as retribution for sins, but rather, as welcome release from stifling conventions and intolerable pressures.
Garbo was specifically distant. She had the remarkable ability to seem remote to everyone but the audience, each member of which felt the charged connection of complicity. She was stubbornly private in real life, a trait that has become far too important in trying to solve her “mystery.” Like the serious artist she was, she chose to communicate through her art. That the public needed to augment its adoration with knowledge of her dog's name or her favorite color or her views on the environment struck her, quite rightly, as ridiculous.
Comparatively few of Garbo's films are available on videocassette, although in the wake of renewed interest in her, that is likely to change in the near future. In addition to the eight titles below, Mauritz Stiller's The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924) and George W. Pabst's The Joyless Street (1925) can be found on cassettes of varying pictorial quality. To me, Garbo's silent legacy is far richer than her sound films, and so video release of Love (1927, her first version of Anna Karenina ), The Divine Woman (1928) and The Kiss (1929) is devoutly to be hoped for.
Garbo was under exclusive contract to MGM for the duration of her film career in the United States, which means that MGM/UA can release everything she ever made if the company chooses to do so. More of her films should be available on laser disc, since the brilliant cinematography of William Daniels, Garbo's favorite photographer, is one of the enduring joys of these films. Videocassettes, even those as expertly mastered as most of these MGM/UA releases, just don't do justice to those shimmering silver images.
Flesh and the Devil 1927
Two Austrian officers, boyhood friends (John Gilbert and Lars Hanson), are torn apart by their mutual desire for the beautiful Felicitas (Garbo). She marries one of them for security while encouraging the continued lust of the other. The situation, not surprisingly, leads to betrayal and death. Felicitas is a dark angel whose conscience extends no further than her immediate desires. She isn't abnormal: She regrets the deadly ramifications of her eroticism. When Gilbert first lays eyes on her, he's dumbstruck. The sexual heat between them is palpable and is, one imagines, almost worth the destruction it will bring. Flesh and the Devil is among the most visually sumptuous of Garbo's films. William Daniels bathes her in light so that she seems a languorous deity. She's wonderfully carnal, too: No one ever wore mourning clothes more fetchingly. In Felicitas' line of word, they're a kind of uniform. MGM/UA Home Video, $ 29.95
Wild Orchids 1929
This film is a stunning example of Dreck Ennobled by Class (a phrase that could too often have been MGM's motto). It has lush cinematography, striking set design, smooth direction by Sidney Franklin and on-the-money performances. What it doesn't have is much of a point. Neglected wife Garbo is the fulcrum of a triangle involving fatherly, oblivious husband Lewis Stone and exotic, dangerous Javanese prince Nils Asther. The story offers no surprises, but its weird psychosexual undertones do. When Garbo sees Asther lash a servant, she's revolted. That night, craving affection from her husband (who prefers separate beds), she dreams of that lash and wakes up screaming from twin fears; the danger Asther poses and her own erotic response to it.
Wild Orchids was released in early 1929 with a recorded music and sound-effects track. Not as rich or as satisfying as Carl Davis' powerful new orchestral score for the Flesh and the Devil videocassette, this sound track is an interesting example of how MGM straddled the sound fence, waiting for just the right moment for Garbo to Talk. MGM/UA Home Video (currently out of print)
Anna Christie 1930
That moment came with Anna Christie, which was advertised with the slogan, “Garbo Talks.” And she talks and talks. The opening scenes are richly atmospheric, but once the film settles down in the barroom where we first meet Garbo, the film becomes a series of talking-head tableaux–O'Neill performed by a news tea,. Some of the static drabness of the film is a natural by-product of the limitations of sound, but it works for this grim story. Anna Christie is about people whose brightest dream is a slightly higher level of squalor. The sullen, weary Anna was new territory for Garbo. There's nothing celestial about her. She slumps onto the screen carrying her every heartbreak and broken dream on her shoulders like bricks. Anna Christie expanded Garbo's range and proved she could lich the dreaded talkies on her own terms. Her performance is by far the best thing about the film, something that can be said all too frequently. MGM/UA Home Video, $ 24.95
Grand Hotel 1932
If you just have to hear her say it, this is the film to watch. Jewel thief Baron von Gaigern (John Barrymore) has surprised aging ballet star Grusinskaya (Garbo) in the act of poisoning herself. “Who are you?” she asks. “Someone who loves you,” he answers. There can only be one reply: “I vant to be alone.”
Grand Hotel won an Academy Award for Best Picture and, like most Oscar winners, isn't quite as good as its reputation suggests. More interesting that entertaining, the film benefits from its cast (Garbo, Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery) and from the facile way director Edmund Goulding juggles the many plots. Ultimately, it's too much of a stunt to be really good and too convinced of its classic nature to be much fun. MGM/UA Home Video, $19.95; laser disc $ 34.95
Queen Christina 1933
Christina is justifiably famous for two scenes: the one in which, after a romantic weekend with John Gilbert, Garbo moves about their hotel room locking every detail into her memory, and the final shot, in which her serene, expressionless face masks the devastating heartbreak she feels. Everything that comes in between is pretty terrific, too: technically thrilling, emotionally affecting. Rouben Mamoulian got a superb, minimalist performance from Garbo. For the final scene he told her, “I want your face to be a blank sheet of paper, the writing to be dine by every member of the audience.” MGM/UA Home Video $29.95
Anna Karenina 1935
When David O. Selznick takes on Tolstoy, those of us who prefer movies to be shorter than, say, monsoon season have reason to be uneasy. Anna Karenina, then, is a very pleasant surprise. It's a lovely and moving film, lush in all the right ways–and only 95 minutes long. In many scenes, particularly a plot-rich mazurka at a ball, Selznick seems to be rehearsing for Gone With the Wind. Once again, William Daniels' cinematography can almost claim costar status with Garbo. His virtuosic crane shot, down an impossibly long banquet table, is breathtaking, as in our first view of Garbo emerging from a cloud of steam as she steps from a train. Once again, she plays a woman brought low when she chooses love over social convention, and once again, she finds new and revealing facets in the character. How odd that her body is so graceful and lithe here and in Camille when she was so unconvincing as a dancer in Grand Hotel. Perhaps it's because she had the wondrous ability to embody spiritual essence. In Anna Karenina , she's as ethereal as the steam from that train. At film's end, when the physical realm has failed her, she returns to the train and its steam for a lasting peace. MGM/UA Home Video, $ 24.95
Garbo Coughs. An enduringly beautiful film, Camille makes one wish that Garbo worked more often with George Cukor instead of with the less gifted Clarence Brown. Cukor had a deft touch at evoking a period– in this case, France in the 1840s–without smothering his story in costume and set design. More crucially,. he creates a social context that defines how the characters ca, and must, behave. Cukor brought out facets of Garbo's talent that other directors did not suspect. As Marguerite Gautier, the tragic heroine of Dumas fils' La Dame Aux Camélias, Garbo is at once flirtatious and tragic, sophisticated and unpretentious. Irving Thalberg, viewing the rushes, marveled at how “unguarded” Garbo was in her performance. His perception was accurate; her implacable mask is removed here. In no other film is Garbo as delicate, as approachable or as beautiful. MGM /UA Home Video $24.95