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Vol. LXIV, No. 9
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
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DVD Review

“Isn’t There a Mystery in All of Us?”: Garbo’s Moments, Our Moments

Stuart Mitchner

In the future, in my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room.

Greta Garbo in Queen Christina

If I were asked this week’s Town Talk question, and had no choice but to do the impossible and limit myself to a single most memorable movie moment, it would be the last scene of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, where the once blind flower girl realizes that her “rich” benefactor is the little tramp she’d been laughing at and patronizing a short time before. It’s a sequence that has little to do with conventional Academy Award notions of “great acting.” Chaplin, needless to say, never won an Oscar for either acting or direction.

Greta Garbo, another Hollywood immortal whose art was never recognized by the Academy, illuminated many such moments. One close-up of her face is enough to make a sequence memorable. So immense was the Garbo phenomenon that when her voice was first heard by movie audiences in Anna Christie (1930) it was marketed as an event (“Garbo Talks!”), much as it was nine years later when she laughed out loud in Ninotchka (“Garbo Laughs!”). Like Chaplin, she transcends acting. If I had to name the single most unforgettable Garbo moment it would be a scene in the period drama, Queen Christina (1933), where she “memorizes” the room in which she, the Queen of Sweden disguised as a man, and the Spanish ambassador (John Gilbert) have spent a “gloriously improbable” night in bed. How does Garbo memorize a room? She makes love to it.

The Spanish ambassador has good reason to call their snowbound interlude “gloriously improbable.” He thought he was to be sharing a room at the inn with a young cavalier and ends up feeding grapes to Greta Garbo. The Queen is trying to avoid a forced marriage. She finds love with Don Antonio. Typical Hollywood period corn, you might rightly think — except that Garbo has the power to make the grossly improbable gloriously true, even though John Gilbert, the man she almost married “in real life,” was an actor on the skids and out of favor with the studio. Garbo played her bedroom promenade with such power that some moral arbiters found it offensive. She was “a perverted woman” going about in drag and having sex (in a single bed yet!) and horrors! the way she was eating those grapes and hugging that phallic bedpost! What’s truly improbable is that Joseph Breen and the all-too-willing Louis B. Mayer failed in their efforts to delete the scene showing the love-sated, nightgowned Queen touching, caressing, and serenely apprehending the room and its objects in a post-coital ecstasy. This extraordinary sequence, one of the highlights of Garbo’s career, would have been lost but for producer Walter Wanger’s refusal to carry out the censor’s edict.

Garbo in Motion

If the Academy Awards had been in existence during the silent era Garbo would have earned an Oscar, maybe more than one. With the component of sound removed, there would have been no way not to honor acting based on gesture and movement, expression and presence. For the scene in Queen Christina Garbo had the advantage of an imaginative and sensitive director in Rouben Mamoulian, the camera work of her favorite cinematographer William Daniels, and a musical score by Herbert Stothart, who composed a charming little theme to underscore her exploration of the room. “This has to be sheer poetry and feeling,” Mamoulian told her. “The movement must be like a dance. Treat it the way you would music.” During the actual filming, her movements were paced by a metronome. “What was absolutely extraordinary about Garbo,” said Mamoulian, “was that she was both photogenic and intuitive.”

In fact, “sheer poetry and feeling” describes the quality Garbo invariably brings to the screen no matter how shabby or superficial the enterprise. Here she doesn’t merely touch a beam of wood, or a picture frame, or spin a spinning wheel, or hug a drapery-laden post, she makes a poem of each encounter, and when she stretches out on the bed and hugs and kisses the pillow, the camera moves in for one of the great Garbo close-ups. Though she’s gazing at her transfixed lover, she’s as near to us as if we were lying beside her. In that look, in those eyes, is the essence of cinema, the essence of Garbo, the “absolute” James Agee had in mind when referring in passing to her silent work.

“Garbo had something behind the eyes that you couldn’t see until you photographed it in close-up,” said one of her directors, Clarence Brown. “You could see thought.” But it’s something more than thought that prompts Gilbert to tell her “There’s a mystery in you” when she comes back to him after completing her possession of the room. Knowing by then who she is, he means mystery in the profoundest sense. “Isn’t there a mystery in all of us?” is her reply. For Garbo to say this after so memorable a sequence acknowledges an elemental connection between performer and audience — as when Shakespeare speaks through Prospero to say, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” The wonder of Garbo’s art and of the art of cinema is a mystery we all share if we submit to it, and one that will go on haunting us for as long as movies are part of our lives.

Garbo and Harlow

Today, March 3, is Jean Harlow’s birthday. She would have been 99. It will be 105 years this September since Garbo was born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson in Stockholm and it will be 20 years this April since she died. Planet Harlow and Planet Garbo are as far apart as Earth and Venus. M-G-M had them both, the mystery woman (Alice

B. Toklas called her Mademoiselle Hamlet) and the goodtime girl; the heavenly Sphinx and the sassy hellcat. It’s hard to single out great Harlow moments or any close-ups as unforgettable as the one of Garbo on the bed (shown here) or at the end of Queen Christina as her impassive, implacable, unfathomable face fills the screen.

Possibly the most sensational piece of sheer sexual outrage ever perpetrated by Harlow is the seduction of police detective Walter Huston in The Beast of the City. It’s pure jazzy in-your-face stripteaser bump and grind. Harlow somehow has always seemed the most dated of the great stars. Even at her freeswinging wisecracking best in Dinner at Eight or Red Dust or Blonde Bombshell, she’s such a creature of the period it’s as if you’re seeing her second-hand, an awkward artifact, and she often seems as stiff as that sounds. Even when she excels by playing against type as a good girl in Wife vs. Secretary or a rich girl in Platinum Blonde, there’s something unsettled and out of synch about her; it’s in the flat sound of her voice and in the sloppy, graceless way she moves. Only when you begin to fathom how deeply vulnerable she is, regardless of the part, do you begin to get closer to the heart of her appeal, as happens with some help from Victor Fleming’s direction and a script full of salty dialogue that makes her wisecracking tart touching and endearing in Red Dust.

One thing the two stars have in common is their failure to conform to the Academy’s conception of superior acting. Above all, Garbo is an extremist, always close to self-parody, open to laughter or mockery (in Blondie of the Follies Marion Davies and Jimmy Durante do a hilarious send-up of the Garbo-Barrymore Grand Hotel love scene). But isn’t this what makes her “Mademoiselle Hamlet”? Just as Hamlet’s mystery is in our not knowing when he’s putting on an antic disposition, feigning madness or possessed by it, Garbo’s allure is in her capacity for going beautifully to extremes. The intensity of her art suggests one of the more memorable literary “moments” in Henry James, who writes in The Middle Years: “We work in the dark. We do what we can. We give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

The DVD collection at the Princeton Public Library has a good selection of Garbo movies. It was also thanks to the library that I was able to use Mark A. Vieira’s beautiful and informative book, Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy (Abrams 2005) for research about the making of Queen Christina. The book can be found in the Christopher Reeve Theater and Dramatic Arts Collection.

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