Friday, August 8, 2008

Garbo: let the obsession begin

I was never a Garbo fan until this past Thursday. What a day. 24 hours of Garbo (on TCM) and I'm still walking around on a cloud. I'd only ever seen her in Grand Hotel and clips of the end of Camille. From those two performances I had a very skewed vision of her as a grandiose, operatic actress, a throwback to the days of silents when actors didn't trust the camera to pick up their actions so they made them a bit bigger than life.

One movie, changed my mind about all this: Queen Christina. Wow. She gets it. She just lets her face do all the work, and it's subtle, but perfect in the way that Gary Cooper could be perfect in a scene, breaking your heart with just an expression. Very few actors have the ability to be still, almost immobile and portray complex emotion.

Garbo dressed as a man sharing a bed for three days with John Gilbert. Much is implied at the end of the movie when Garbo goes around the room touching up tapestries and bed posts, hungrily. She looks to the camera and says that she is memorizing this room because in her future life she will live many hours their in her imagination. This scene caused a scandal because its frankly sexual nature. So much so that the baddie of the Hays Code office, Joseph Breen took it as a personal crusade to destroy the film. He started a very specific campaign against it in the Catholic church that ended in the enforcement of the production code. He never managed to suppress the film, though. It's there still in all its brazen glory. I usually laugh at movies where insanely beautiful women put on men's clothing and fool everyone. Queen Christina has a hint that maybe everyone knows she's a girl. In one scene a maid at the hotel comes on to her and John Gilbert says with a leering smirk, "she prefers you to me."

Another revelation was Camille. The thing that most surprised me about it was how funny and light-hearted about half of the movie is. I'd only ever seen the ending and just thought of it as a weepie. There is so much life there, in the caricatures of the Parisian courtesans and their hangers-on. I want to go to that party where the ladies wear outrageous dresses, smoke cigars and practice the can-can till they literally fall on the floor. What a hoot. And all the while Garbo is collapsing with consumption, but she wouldn't have it any other way. That's just how she rolls.

If you watch Garbo in Camille you see her acting with her whole body. She manages to portray vitality, contentment, health, depression, exhaustion and illness very well with just her body language. She look 10 or t20 pounds lighter in the final scenes compared to the beginning just by the way she angles her body toward the camera. I never expected that kind of acting from Garbo. When Margeurite breathes her last, she leaves with a little eye roll. I might be reading way more into it than really exists, but something about it seems to undercut the nobility of her sacrifice. It says, I shouldn't have to die. It's too soon to go away. And that was the secret of Garbo's mystique and a big part of her enduring popularity. It is the essence of showmanship, really. Leave the audience crying for more.

Bonus: Camille Wallpaper. Thanks to Simply Classics and Doctor Macro for images.


kda0121 said...

I can't say that I'm an ardent Garbo fan. For instance, I always found viewing still photos of her more seductive than her movies. She has such a mysterious, tantalizing aura about her. But, over the years her films have grown on me and I do have several I admire.

My favorite Garbo films are two of her atypical ones; the classic Ninotchka and the underrated comedy Two-Faced Woman. Melvyn Douglas co-starred with her in both and he is one of my favorite leading men in romantic comedies. Two-Faced woman had a charming premise of Garbo posing as "herself" and her sister, all in an effort to win back Douglas. It's really one of the final screwballs of the era and I find it a very watchable movie.

The Garbo dramas that best capture my interest are Queen Christina and Anna Karenina. The photography of Queen Christina is about as good as it gets, capturing all of the Garbo mystique, down to that last mesmerizing shot. Anna Karenina is Tolstoy's sudsy soaper, with adulterous Anna choosing lover Fredric March over husband Basil Rathbone. (Who wouldn't?) And of course, Grand Hotel is also one of my favorites, but I really don't consider that a Garbo movie, per se, with its great ensemble cast.

I've tried to watch some of the Garbo silents, but haven't been able to gain a proper appreciation of them as of yet. It took me a long time to watch her sound films. I'm glad I took the time because she is worth watching.

Jennythenipper said...

I think Garbo is an aquaired taste. I taped Ninotchka and Two-Faced Woman and I haven't had a chance to watch them yet. I'm looking forward to them.

AbbyNormal said...

"That's just how she rolls." I think that sums it all up. :-)

I dabbled with Garbo and I too was turned off a bit. I haven't watched "Queen Christina" so I have added it to my queue and I will see when I can get around to it.

Jennythenipper said...

"I dabbled with Garbo." Ha. It's almost like you're confessing you dabbled with a drug. Yeah. That sums her up as well.

Nancy "Beaky" Bruce said...

I'm not so sure Garbo is an acquired taste as she is someone that you have to mature to. The first Garbo I saw was Camille -- and that was in the last few years. I was blown away. I can't believe how well it worked with Robert Taylor being so young and new at it all. Granted, that serves the role he's playing a bit, but what a risk it Garbo hadn't been so capable.
After that, I've been impressed with all her work - even if I didn't care for a story.
Silents and talkies alike. Garbo rocks.