September 18, 2005

The goddess born a hundred years ago.

Garbo.
[I]t's impossible to imagine a contemporary star with Garbo's intense and utterly genuine desire to be ignored. Morbidly shy and deeply private, she simply would not participate in any PR activity that made her uncomfortable.

Though this was unheard of for a young actress in the studio system, MGM capitalized on Garbo's introversion. It turned her need "to be alone," as her weary prima ballerina famously declared in "Grand Hotel," into the unknowable persona that defined her....

Garbo's sculpted features, languid carriage and assertive androgyny, in films like "Queen Christina," "expressed a worldly wisdom that was unknown among the Pollyanna good girls or the vamps"....

Exuding a blend of power and sensuality that defied gender expectations, Garbo "made you understand passion," says film historian David Thomson. "She identified the bittersweet quality of love better than any star."
Try to watch a Garbo film today. What would you recommend? I've only seen "Anna Christie," "Grand Hotel," "Queen Christina," "Camille," and "Ninotchka." "Ninotchka" is the only truly good movie on that list. "Camille" is, I think, the best choice for staring at Garbosity.
"You who are so young--where can you have learned all you know about women like me?"
UPDATE: Victoria has much more on the great faces of Hollywood.

28 comments:

Troy said...

Give me Myrna Loy -- sassy! Claudette Colbert (Cleopatra) -- smoldering! or Norma Shearer any day (in a hypothetical world without my beautiful wife of course!).

Garbo wantewd to be left alone -- and that's OK with me.

I agree Ann, her movies are unwatchable except for parts of Grand Hotel and Nonotchka. Queen Christina is laughable and boring.

vnjagvet said...

For a real kick, try Anna Christie in the German Version. Campy, but earthy.

vbspurs said...

"Anna Christie," "Grand Hotel," "Queen Christina," "Camille," and "Ninotchka." "Ninotchka" is the only truly good movie on that list. "Camille" is, I think, the best choice for staring at Garbosity.

What a Sunday morning surprise!

I'm assuming, Ann, that this post was inspired in part by TCM's month-long Garbo tribute, to honour her birthday.

Last Sunday, as I believe I posted on your blog in passing, I watched both Anna Christies (again for the dozenth time), in English, and in German -- struck again by how she embodies the characteristics of both cultures in her portrayal.

A lost, but earnest soul in the English version. A torpid floozy in the other.

The problem with people not liking Garbo is that she's an actor of gestures.

I absolutely adore Myrna Loy too (even though her autobiography read like a paen to the Democratic Party), but she was limited in range.

Garbo could do it all, and she proved it again and again, albeit because she was mannered, it doesn't resonate with today's audience.

This has to do with the linear quality expected of audiences today -- there's a need for denouement in the story, which the actors must carry out.

And there is much less need for what is called "cinematographic moments" such as in, "Susan Lennox" when she comes down a staircase, her shadow preceeds her slowly, building up tension, ominous, foreboding, and suddenly, she's there.

Only an actress as foreign to American tastes, could make that scene happen.

The same is true of the famed Rouben Mamoulian (one of my favourite directors, BTW) direction of her in Queen Christina, when he asked her to think of "nothing" whilst the camera melted into her in the last long shot in the film.

Ninotchka was indeed her most accessible film, but don't forget her silent pics if you can.

Gösta Berlingsaga is particularly amazing.

The Joyless Street and Flesh and the Devil, both delightful.

The only Garbo film I could never stomach, because she tried to dumb herself down to changing American WWII tastes (co-starring Melvin Douglas AGAIN, and following her stunning Ninotchka portrayal too), by being very "natural" -- was Two Faced Woman.

Garbo rumbas...

Holy Canoli. Now that was painful.

P.S.: Your music posts sail over me, because I'm a music illiterate. Film is where I'm on sure-footing.

Cheers,
Victoria

Troy said...

I know good cinema. I don't like Garbo. You can give me all the NYU Film School analysis you want, Garbo is a yawner.

I've seen all her movies trying to get her and felt that there was nothing worth getting.

Garbo could not, in fact, do it all. But that's worth only what it is... my informed, yet hardly authoritative opinion.

vbspurs said...

I know good cinema. I don't like Garbo. You can give me all the NYU Film School analysis you want,

Actually, I was only the student reviewer of films for 2 years at Oxford U, where I got my undergrad degree. :)

I'm no more authoritative than the next person (especially if the next person is Leslie Halliwell ;).

But in my relatively short lifetime, I have watched thousands of films -- with special emphasis on films of the '20s and '30s, my "speciality" being German film.

It's easier for me to stomach her mannerisms, since I am not viewing movies from my lifetime, backwards to the past.

My sensibilities were formed in reverse.

Garbo is a yawner.

Watch Gösta Berlingsaga, first. Then if you think she's a yawner, I'll be the first one to give you Sominex.

Cheers,
Victoria

Ann Althouse said...

I should do more movie posts, to get Victoria to comment!

One thing I'd say to Troy is that you should look at the still photos of Garbo. They are endlessly fascinating. There is something about looking into her face that is different from everything else. The paradox of being drawn in and excluded is very grand! That is the "goddess" quality. Who else has it?

ziemer said...

have to disagree with the posts saying anna christie is not a great film.

but i'm an o'neil freak, so, maybe i'm just biased.

Troy said...

I'm not saying she wasn't beautiful and even exotic and you are right Ann -- a great photgraphic subject. I can see why people liked her in the 1930s perhaps. My judgment is purely subjective obviously.

"Goddess" quality. Many of the stars of the '30s had it over today's stars -- even if they were probably just as uninformed, etc.

Victoria you should have a movie blog. My misunderestimation of Garbo doesn't make it uninteresting to read good writing passionately defending her.

And I left Anna Christie off the list of Garbo movies I do like -- I'm also an O'Neill fan so that helps.

Sorry if I "sounded" snarky -- completely unintended.

Troy

vbspurs said...

I should do more movie posts, to get Victoria to comment!

As Helen Hunt told Jack Nicholson in the uneven, "As Good as it Gets":

"The compliment of a lifetime." ;)

But the big knock on my film reviews at University was that I concentrated too much on analysis (philosophy/form/cinematography), and not enough on pure film review.

You know, "This is all very great Vic, but you didn't tell us about what happened in the movie!".

Pff. Roger Ebert I ain't. I'm cuter.

Cheers,
Victoria

vbspurs said...

Victoria you should have a movie blog.

Thank you too, Troy. :)

The reason why I like Althouse (and Reynolds) is that Ann is not unitopical -- like so many other political/law bloggers out there.

There's a brain there, yes. But one gets the sense there's flesh too.

I'd like to think my otherwise quirky blog, which has no central theme (ergo Sundries), evokes that feeling too.

Having said that, perhaps I can write up a blogpost featuring Garbo (perhaps tomorrow's blog theme, as I want to comment on Angela Merkel today -- go Angie!).

I think I'll title it:

Faces

4 or 5 actresses of yesteryear whose faces were unforgettable, or beautiful, or both.

Sorry if I "sounded" snarky -- completely unintended.

Oh no worries, Troy. I'm not one to take offence quickly, anyway.

Helps on Blogosphere. :)

Cheers,
Victoria

vbspurs said...

That is the "goddess" quality. Who else has it?

Goddesses are a bit difficult to find these days -- these days of Jennifer Anniston and Natalie Portman.

I'd say however that of the current crop of female Hollywood stars, Angelina Jolie, with her endlessly fascinating face, the curves of her bone-stucture, and her larger-than-life presentation onscreen, comes closest to a proper Screen Goddess.

There's just a touch of taking oneself too seriously, but with good humour, that she has, that Garbo personified.

I used to think Winona Ryder had that quality -- but she turned out too wimpy.

Cheers,
Victoria

Troy said...

I think Nicole Kidman has the goddess quality at times and Natalie Portman -- perhaps Angelina Jolie, but she's no Audrey Hepburn.

Perhaps Rachel McAdams might get there...

Perhaps we know too much about these women for there to be that goddess quality? Even the accessible stars of the '30s like Loy and Harlow were relative mysteries

aidan maconachy said...

Garbo was a goddess indeed.

Actresses of her era had a different relationship with time. They could slow it down and become statuesque, immortal ... as they lingered on a balcony overlooking a moonlit sea waiting for some gent to light the cigarette that dangled ever so precariously from elegant fingers.

I love movies of that era. They transport me to a place where style and diction still mattered. The sheer innocence of the enthusiasms and the sincerity that accompanied the smallest gesture lends credibility to even the most cheesy Hollywood offerings of that period.

These days plot and character has been sacrificed to special effects. Time is put on a roller coaster and images collide, as the "action" is driven ever onward ... riding roughshod over the audience, in the course of barreling toward a conclusion that at times can't come soon enough.

There are exceptions of course. American Beauty was psychologically compelling and looked deeply into character within the context of a real time plot that was quite believeable. But by and large, unfortunately, Hollywood has abandoned the classic formula for flash and cash.

Bring back the goddesses!!!

Ann Althouse said...

The number one movie experience, it seems to me, is gazing at a closeup of a face, and it just isn't well done anymore. I realize I am going all "We had faces then," but really, today's faces -- maybe because of color -- are much less grand. But I've never seen Angelina Jolie in a movie. (For some reason.) A big problem for me is that, with plastic surgery, so many of the actresses look alike. The standard beauty has become so ordinary.

Dave Schuler said...

I'm not a Garbo fan but try either Flesh and the Devil or Love. The silents are her bests.

Anna said...

I'm not much of a Garbo fan, either, though her social reluctance gave her a mystery that drew you to her.

I am more a Katherine Hepburn fan. She was quite ahead of her time both on film and off.

somross said...

I can never resist "Ninotchka" when it's on, including the sly lines in that flat voice("There will be fewer but better Russians")and the great costuming. For another B & W movie with beautifully carved faces, watch my all-time favorite: Hitchcock's "Notorious" - with Ingrid Bergmann and Cary Grant. Bergman (drunk): "My car's outside." Grant: "Naturally."

vbspurs said...

I am more a Katherine Hepburn fan. She was quite ahead of her time both on film and off.

Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story is one of God's gifts to man.

But I'm sad to say she always bored me.

Just a touch too modern, yet almost half-ashamed of what she was -- an upper-class American woman in love with a married Catholic man.

Eh.

Give me Ingrid Bergman throwing away her Hollywood career for the love of Roberto Rossellini, and coming back in triumph after Congressional denunciations years later...any day.

I can never resist "Ninotchka" when it's on

Me neither. Like Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame, the dialogue is without peer.

including the sly lines in that flat voice("There will be fewer but better Russians")

And Ina Claire, don't forget that diva of theatre with her deadpan elegant delivery!

"But then Madame Yakushova, you must not understand a word I am saying."

"Not at all, Grand Duchess."

"Oh dear, I must be losing my finesse. If I'm not careful, everyone will understand me."


Hitchcock's "Notorious" - with Ingrid Bergmann and Cary Grant.

It was just on today at 4 PM on TCM!

Seems what with Ann being otherwise engaged this Sunday, the blog has been transformed into Film Appreciation Day.

Bliss.

Cheers,
Victoria

vbspurs said...

The number one movie experience, it seems to me, is gazing at a closeup of a face, and it just isn't well done anymore. I realize I am going all "We had faces then," but really, today's faces -- maybe because of color -- are much less grand.

Just for that sentiment, Madame Althouse, you have been blogrolled.

Well it's about time, isn't it.

I'm here more often than anywhere else on Blogosphere.

Cheers,
Victoria

Michael said...

I like Garbo without liking her movies that much, because I think the role she usually plays-- maneating female who gets punished big time for her love-- is sexist and way beneath her intelligence. That's why Ninotchka is easier to watch than much of her dramatic work (and the clip of her late-in-life screen test, seen in the Brownlow documentary on TCM, is so tantalizing-- I want to see the adult, non-judgmental romance that test would have led to!)

That said, I'd recommend these (and sorry to point out that most of them were on TCM LAST week):

-The Kiss. The least silly of her silents, a pretty grownup version of the meaneater tale from an intelligent European director, Jacques Feyder, who also did:

-Anna Christie (German-language version). As someone said above, earthier than the English-language version, this is the only one that really lets her criticize the maneater view of her kind of woman.

-Anna Karenina. The talkie version of Tolstoy of course reduces the epic plot to just a love story, but she suffers beautifully, Fredric March is attractively spineless, and Basil Rathbone attractively heartless.

miklos rosza said...

moving away from cinema studies and back into the "I vant to be alone" attitude... the very opposite of the hyperexhibitionism epitomized by such exploits as having one's own "reality show."

the insatiable hunger for attention. attention which (whatever its actual content) is interpreted as undifferentiated applause.

and "talent" in the arts is no longer talent at a craft so much as it is a talent for celebrity, or self-publicity, talent at shaping a personal myth.

lindsey said...

"and "talent" in the arts is no longer talent at a craft so much as it is a talent for celebrity, or self-publicity, talent at shaping a personal myth."

*cough* Madonna.

Turner Classic Movies recently aired Flesh and the Devil and I was amazed by it and by Garbo. Even though certain parts were hokey and the male actors wore a lot of makeup! I was hooked. It has such a great title and the communion scene was so So. I don't even known how to express it. It made me realize how the conflict in most romantic comedies is safe and fake.

tcd said...

Damn! Missed a movie discussion. This is by far the most interesting post you've had up in a while Professor.

The most fascinating face that no one has mentioned here is Marlena Dietrich in "Shanghai Express". That woman was beautiful, earthly and heavenly at the same time.

None of the actresses today can hold a candle to even an extra back in the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Victoria,
Can you provide a link to your blog?

vbspurs said...

Sure, TCD -- here's the link to today's blogpost about Screen Gods/Goddesses, which was updated by Ann in the frontispiece:

Faces

And as far as PURE face, it's true -- no one can hold a candle to Marlene Dietrich.

I actually mention her in passing in the post.

I decided to vary the nominations a little though, else I surely would've included the first true screen goddess: Gloria Swanson.

And thanks to Ann for the bloglove!

Cheers,
Victoria

Anna said...

Victoria,
I love The Philadelphia Story, but Bringing Up Baby is by far my favorite.

The "Face" really is missing in movies today, and I do believe it's because of color. There is nothing so beautiful as that close up picture with the lights and shadows of black and white.

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
vbspurs said...

Sorry to be away all Tuesday, Anna, but we in SoFla were with Hurricane Rita concerns, and I barely touched Blogosphere.

We're okay, so I'm getting back into the rhythm of things. My first port-of-call: this still delicious thread.

Victoria,
I love The Philadelphia Story, but Bringing Up Baby is by far my favorite.


I know what you mean. Bringing Up Baby is the signature screwball comedy, perhaps, and yet...and yet...

I prefer Katharine Hepburn in TPS precisely because her acting performance was layered: it was like a pun of a pun, and that's difficult to embody.

Unlike the elegant ditz role she played in BUB, by the way, reminiscent of my mother who has that same historionic, vague aura about her, TPS was a study in cringing for her, no doubt.

She played an untouchable "virgin goddess", in the words of her father in TPS, but one who had been married once and would be married soon in the film, with the inference that she was sexually frigid.

This is something one doesn't often hear, or see on in Hollywood movies, particularly post-code, and most especially not from a father to daughter, so it showed a certain sophistication that rang true of that particular set.

Also, it was like the whole script was tailored to exploit Hepburn's untouchable majesty -- her singular upper-class background, which so many actors faked in official Hollywood bios, was hers by birthright. She played Tracy Lord straight.

And not only did she go along with it, but she challenged herself to.

In contrast, if you watch Woman of the Year, she plays a variation of that goddess-on-a-pedestal, but the characterisation is much less fluid.

She is holding something back in that film, and though you can see her charm when Spencer Tracy explains the art of baseball to her, that's the only glimpse into anything but a forbidding nature.

One wonders what the onscreen character played by Tracy, saw in her.

But in TPS, she allowed herself to be mocked, and exposed. And it showed a fair bit of courage, to my mind, to do so.

Still didn't change her Box Office poison status, though.

The "Face" really is missing in movies today, and I do believe it's because of color. There is nothing so beautiful as that close up picture with the lights and shadows of black and white.

I touched on this in my blogpiece which Ann linked to above.

I mentioned it in the context of Claudette Colbert, of whom I deliberately chose a colour photograph, dressed in her Cleo togs.

Same screen presence. Same glorious cheekbones. Same (arguably more) impact of costumery.

I know what you are saying, and to a degree, I concur:

Silver nitrate gave black-and-white photography a certain elegant sheen to classic films, making it easier for the star to be turned from mere actor or actress into something legendary. Something quite missing today.

But I think it's overstating it, to say the black-and-white photography is what does that.

I argue that it's more an attitude that is missing, both in actors today, but also, in audiences today.

It's a sense that to be a screen goddess, the camera angles are made to deliberately romanticise the aura these people had.

As Ann said, there's nothing like seeing a 35-foot screen shot of a head in front of us in a darkened room.

But the problem is, there are no more Rouben Mamoulians in the year 2005 -- who want the camera to glorify an actress so, that it becomes simply a propaganda vehicle of her allure.

And that's fine with all parties.

Sadly, our audiences today (myself included) are much less likely to accept that pact, where we surrender ourselves to this knowing magic onscreen.

That's the essential reason, IMHO, why we have less and less screen goddesses today.

Cheers,
Victoria

vbspurs said...

And unlike today's actresses, she was a patriotic American, and smart enought to patent a method of avoiding submarine guidance jamming, the principle which is now used to carry cell phone signals.

Escaped the Nazis- Check
The most beautiful woman in hollywood- check
Patriotic American- check
Smart-check
First nude scene in film- check
Mega uber babe- check


Heh. I just mentioned Hedy Lamarr in my blog, in response to Ron's question if there was an actress of the period I considered beautiful, but not a screen goddess.

Hedy was truly gorgeous.

If you see her in Ecstacy, her strong Klimt Viennese features grab you by the throat (although it's the sex scene, and not "just" her being nude, that is the most memorable of that film).

But FOR ME, I stress, she fell just short of screen goddess.

All the other points you mention, save the fact that she died a very lonely and friendless woman, are absolutely spot on though.

Cheers,
Victoria