Greta Garbo as Joan of Arc
Greta Garbo, known as arguably the greatest and most beautiful actress of the 20th century, also known as the Mysterious Lady and the ultimate recluse had at one point in her life the chance to play the role of another famous 15th century icon, Joan of Arc. It came just after the release of the Painted Veil.
At the height of her career and being the most famous actress in the world, she felt she could bring a good character to the part, and she also was a forerunner of gender bender roles since she played Queen Christina, so Joan of Arc would have been something she would have crossed over into with much passion.
However, her good friend Mercedes De Acosta had worked on the Joan of Arc script for 9 months putting her heart and soul into the script and it received the approval of Irving Thalberg, but there was a problem. Garbo had refused to play the part for some reason. According to Mercedes, when she and Garbo had discussed the script in private, they had felt that Saint Joan was actually standing between them. Apparently this might have spooked Garbo and she refused to play the part. More than a decade later Ingrid Bergman took this role and from an entirely different script.
Certainly Garbo was the Mona Lisa of the 20th century, and Garbo was known to give herself so completely to her movies that she not only exhausted herself but all her co-stars and production workers as well. I think she would have done an outstanding job, but the problem might have been with Mercedes's script. Maybe Saint Joan didn't like something in the script and came between Garbo and Mercedes with such a powerful present in the room that day, that Garbo became quite frightened and not only refused to do it, but refused to do several various adaptations of Joan of Arc after that. Also Mercedes first versions of the script were said to portray Joan as a man hater, but the final drafts were praised by studio head Irving Thalberg.
Garbo was an incredibly powerful character in her native adaptation of Queen Christina, and had no rivals in Hollywood. She was the most mysterious and most famous star ever in history, in my humble opinion. Quite fitting indeed I think to play Joan of Arc. Why the vibes were bad, I don't know, but I think it must have been a bad script that would have summoned Saint Joan. Apparitions of Saint Joan have been incredibly rare, and I don't even remember reading of any. I think it's quite amazing that Garbo was the original role model to break the taboos of Hollywood way before Marlene Dietrich came along.
Well at least Mercedes was, then Garbo. Mercedes De Acosta was an incredibly charming charismatic figure who dressed and looked somewhat like Napoleon. She was incredibly beautiful as was Garbo, and always wore black and white. Both opened the doors to such parts in Hollywood for an actress to take on parts like Joan of Arc or Queen Christina, and Garbo was the only one who had full control over the movie studios. Her rule was law, and that was that, but that's not to say some movies were axed by some of the big religious organizations at the time.
Catholic Bishops felt they were fooled by the production codes in the 30's and rallied huge numbers against what they thought were sinful movies. Catholics created what was called a Legion of Decency levied by high ranking clergy, so Joan of Arc would have been a gamble and tricky proposition. Queen Christina was under fire as well, but was passed by studio heads previously, before things became worse. Although Catherine the Great was another role that might have been in the works for Garbo, she had been thinking of playing such a grand role as Joan of Arc for years.
If a great film of Joan of Arc could have been done by Garbo and she was given full control, it's quite possible that certain churches and councils of decency in films could have axed it or asked that it be edited, which happened quite often in those days. It's not that there would have been anything so bad in the film, but playing Joan of Arc is very tricky. It's subject to the cross-over roles, and the gender benders of the time were always under the gun.
For the true to life accurate portrayal of Saint Joan in the 1920's and 30's would not have been an easy film shown nationwide, but many of the fans and moviegoers would have loved it nevertheless. As for me personally, I think Saint Joan is a unique character that transcends race, religion and sex. Her noble qualities makes her sex transcendent or irrelevant but at the same time, we marvel at her youth and gender, that such a young noble girl of such modest roots could become the savior of France.
It's certainly a wonderful story and I think if Garbo and Saint Joan met, they would marvel at each other stature as being such role models for women that have broken all the old stereotypes. We will never know what Garbo could have brought to Joan of Arc, and as a Garbo fan myself who has many of her movies on tape, Joan of Arc is the one movie I wish dearly she would have made, but we will never know what went on that day with Saint Joan, Garbo and Mercedes De Acosta. I guess it just wasn't meant to be!
While reading many books on Garbo, it seems to me that she desperately wanted to play Joan of Arc for years, even before Mercedes came up with the script. It's not as if she were in the take it or leave it mode, no, not at all; to the contrary she very much wanted to do Joan of Arc for years.
In fact Garbo had asked German director Ludwig Berger what he thought of the idea, and he told Garbo if she were living in the 15th century, she would certainly have been burned at the stake! In fact Garbo and Mercedes were the first to be seen walking down the streets of New York in men's cloths, and Garbo was the first to wear men's cloths in the movie called The Single Standard, an extremely old and rare Garbo film.
This was before Marlene Dietrich appears in men's cloths in one of her first movies called Morocco. However, when you asked anyone who started cross fashions in America they would say it's Marlene, but that's not true at all. It was Garbo and De Acosta. Garbo started many of those hair fashions as well, and they also inspired a new rage in the 60's. Garbo and Mercedes pushed all the buttons to the limits in America, and broke the taboos of what women could wear.
It's possible that Garbo was the first to be seen sporting a pipe and tobacco as well! However, back to our story, the question is why would someone like Garbo all of a sudden refuse to do a part that she so dearly wanted to do, but considered it to be one of most noble acting films that she might possibly ever make. Joan of Arc was at the top of the list, even before Queen Christina and other noble roles for film, as least it was for Garbo.
From what I read, Mercedes really had done a soul-searching script, she put her whole heart and soul into it for nine months and one of the biggest studio heads in Hollywood at the time, Irving Thalberg, not only gave his approval, but he was so excited that he walked Mercedes out to her car that day arm in arm! So much energy had gone into the script and when Mercedes and the greatest most beautiful movie star of all time, who had the face of an angel, Garbo herself, was caught up talking about it one night with Mercedes, it's only fitting that Saint Joan appeared! I mean this is quite possible, and Mercedes was one to have some type of gift as well.
She predicted Garbo's bank account would collapse several days before the stock market crashed and that she and Garbo would be at the bank taking out whatever papers that were left. She told Garbo this but Garbo ignored it, but sure enough they would down there taking drafts and personal papers out several days later. This was the start of a special friendship between Garbo and Mercedes. Originally Mercedes's script was not acceptable and portrayed Joan as a man-hater and Irving rejected it, but after 9 months the final draft was so compelling, that Irving was so excited, even his secretaries marveled at his joy when he escorted Mercedes to her car that day!
Perhaps her gifts worked such magic on the scripts that with the likes of Greta Garbo playing Saint Joan was too much for Joan, and thus Joan intervened. Perhaps maybe to the contrary Joan was giving her blessings to the script but that Garbo just got spooked at the apparition of Saint Joan and just decided it was too deep for her. Another thing too that might have caused Garbo to throw in the towel was her good Swedish soul mate, best friend, Salka Viertel was suspected of influencing Garbo on his films, and might have tipped the scale away from the production of Joan of Arc. She was said to be responsible for persuading Garbo not to make any more comedies years later with Ernst Lubitsch after their great work on Ninotchka.
Mercedes wrote that she was so absorbed in the script for Joan of Arc that often in her mind, she couldn't tell which was Garbo and which was Saint Joan. Also Joan of Arc was a far more complex character then Queen Christina, and the script had to meet the approval of the production codes.
Perhaps this role was too deep for even the Great Garbo, but we will never know for sure. One thing is for sure, Garbo was not a phony; she was the real thing in life and in art, and could have done Joan better than anyone in my opinion, including Ingrid Bergman, because Garbo had passion, great passion, and that is what it takes to bring Saint Joan to life.
Some have argued 'how could a glamorous Swede who was known for extravagant roles fill the shoes of Saint Joan?' Garbo had often seen herself as an empty vessel much like a chameleon, and Garbo had told studio heads to do with her as they will. In other words she could meet the challenge and fill the shoes of Saint Joan. Once she threw herself into a project, she gave it 110 percent, and wore out even the best actors of the time with her superb concentration on the set. She never needed to be rehearsed, she knew her lines, and Garbo never really made a bad movie.
It's truly a shame that Joan of Arc was never done on a grand scale like Cleopatra or Ten Commandments. There has yet to be a producer to do it right, by putting their heart and soul into Joan of Arc along the lines of David Lean or Cecil B. DeMille. Can you imagine that with the likes of Greta Garbo?
Great camera work like on Lawrence of Arabia or The Ten Commandments along with that splendid color they did back then, Technicolor they called it, sure brought a certain magic to the films! That would have brought out those beautiful blue eyes that Garbo had and highlighted her extraordinary features. Garbo never made a color movie and Joan of Arc would have been a blockbuster, maybe even greater then some of the classics giants we know.
Joan of Arc should have been done on a grand scale with the witty techniques of say Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg, who put his heart into Schindler's List, or the camera effects of Oliver Stone would bring life to the battles scenes and the surrounding mountains, or some of the more dramatic moments of Saint Joan. Surely someday, someone will do a great job on this one!
The only one I can think of today who might bring that level of passion to Joan of Arc is maybe Jody Foster. Perhaps there are others, I am sure, but Jody has done excellent work on her parts over the years. She has passion, or in Spanish known as Gannas, in French called Panache or in Italian called Grinta! It means the actor has risen to the occasion and delivered something very special for the part! Perhaps if done right today, maybe finally Saint Joan could really tip her hat and say well done good and faithful servants. You have brought me great honor this day!
Rest in Peace, Saint Joan.
Original Article in English Written by Bruce Johnston.