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Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Garbo suffers as Anna Karenina. Again.

You may recall some months back when I wrote an article referencing certain duplications a specific actor or actress has made in his or her career. My recent research into the work of Ms. Greta Garbo has unearthed another example of this double-take phenomenon, and so I present it amidst my latest batch to you now. It seems fitting, since last week's topic referenced "The Way We Never Were," that this week we delve into "The Way We Were... Twice." Enjoy!

After the tremendous success of the Gilbert-Garbo teaming in Flesh and the Devil-- an erotically charged vehicle that instigated a public fascination with the on and off screen love affair of the two hot stars-- MGM did what all studios do: capitalize. Hence, another pairing with "Jack" Gilbert and Greta in an adaptation of the Leo Tolstoy classic Anna Karenina. Forbidden romance? A foreign, chilly terrain that features Garbo's remote persona? The effect of Jack's passion melting her heart? Sold. To sensationalize things further, the film was given a new title and the studio advertised it thus: "John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Love" (see left). The film was a huge success, further cementing Greta's rapidly growing reputation as the (reluctant) femme fatale of the film business. Brandon Hurst portrayed her cuckolded husband Karenin in the film, and Philippe De Lacy  assumed the role of her son, which gave her the rare opportunity to play a mother. It was a role that surprisingly fit her naturally and provided perhaps the greatest relationship in the entire film. Lots of things had changed a mere 8 years later in 1935. "Garbo talked," and her relationship with Jack Gilbert was over romantically. Greta's characters on film, while maintaining their complexities, had become somewhat less venomous. Prodded by Salka Viertel, Greta agreed to do a re-make of her former success in sound: Anna Karenina. Thus, she stepped back into the tragic heroine's elegant shoes once more, but this time her love interest, Vronsky, would be played by Fredric March, her spurned husband by Basil Rathbone, and her child by Freddie Bartholomew. While still a fascinating, well-performed picture, it failed to live up to either the passion or emotion of the original. It is hard to find the drama beneath the stale, screeching plot points, and while each individual part performs beautifully on its own, the chemistry between all of the main characters is lacking. Thus, while Love remains a tragic opus to love, Anna Karenina exists as more of a fraternal twin, which represents love as a villain that disturbs, dismantles, and clumsily destroys lives. One film is about blind bravery; the other about mere blindness. Because both are Garbo, both are classic.

In 1929, Jeanne Eagles was hot property. One of the most talked about female talents in the theater, she had been poached by Hollywood in an attempt to use her reverberating dramatic gifts to bring another dimension to their two-dimensional heroines-- one of whom was murderess Leslie Crosbie in The Letter. Unfortunately, this little spark plug was about to burn out. After her invigorating performance in but one more film, she was to succumb to her own demons and perish-- in part-- due to her heroin addiction. Her legacy is left behind almost entirely in this film, which is one of the few scraps that remain of her acting work, so legendary in her own time. When Jeanne passed away in 1929, many of her fans probably assumed that the world would stop turning. However, it did not-- the show must go on. That it did, and to bigger and better results. In 1940, William Wyler directed another interpretation of The Letter, but this time with Bette Davis. There was one member of the cast, however, who had performed in both the '29 and the '40 versions: Herbert Marshall. In the earlier film, he had played the role of the soon-murdered lover, Geoffrey Hammand (right with Jeanne). In the latter film, he played Leslie's devoted, oblivious husband, Robert. Certainly, the compare/contrast of the experience must have been entertaining for him. In one film, he got to stare into Jeanne's blazing eyes as she maliciously shot him. Repeatedly. In the other, he got his heart metaphorically staked by Bette's conniving philanderer. In one, he is young, arrogant, and invincible-- until it's too late. In the other, he is warm, enamored, and trusting-- until it's too late. So many of Wyler's stylistic choices make the more polished 1940 version a clear victor over Jean de Limur's take, but the trophy for bad Marshall vs. good Marshall is still up for grabs. How can one outdo oneself? The audience's decision will totally depend on whether you like your Herbert naughty or nice. It is safe to say that both of his performances contributed to the excellence of both films.

Irving Thalberg remains a visionary in the film business. This is doubly surprising, not just because of the "boy wonder's" young age at the beginning of his career, but because he was a studio big-wig. As one of the pillars of MGM, Thalberg was unlike the overly greedy LB Mayer who rarely saw beyond box-office receipts. Thalberg was both the entrepreneur and the artist. His sixth sense about story and talent led to some of the best made films and collaborations of the studio era. A forward-thinker, he saw his job as a responsibility to push forward films with meaning-- to make a point while making a buck. Many actors of the time considered him a friend and protector-- and buffer against LB-- because while LB had the muscle, Irving had the brains. The pen is always mightier than the sword. He almost single-handedly kept Jack Gilbert from Mayer's wrath, because Jack was a friend and too a major talent. He too pushed for the homo-erotic undertones in Queen Christina, because he knew that it would add layer and intrigue to the story. Another example of his fine brain came earlier when he caught wind about a little film called The Unholy Three, which he produced in late 1924 with Tod Browning as director and the uncanny Lon Chaney as the lead. The creepy, unlikely thriller was a bonanza at the box-office, despite the fact that some scenes were rendered so shocking and violent that they had to be cut-- including a murder sequence performed by Harry Earles as Tweedledee (above with Granny Lon and Victor McLaglen). The success of the film helped the newly formed MGM thrive. Of course, it was because of Irving that Tod and Lon had made the switch to MGM in the first place, and their combining talents continued to keep MGM running at full throttle for the rest of the decade. Lon Chaney always respected Irving and vice versa, and it was fairly poetic when Lon's first talkie and last film was chosen as a remake of their prior collaboration: The Unholy Three (1930). The cast, minus Lon and Harry Earles, had changed, the ending was altered, but all in all it was a direct re-hash. While the silent version remains a bit superior, this latter film became a sign-post of the beginning and ending of a tremendous era of film.

Quick Little Two-Steps:

Lon also made a re-appearance in the film Kongo, which was a remake of his earlier triumph West of Zanzibar. Since Kongo was made in 1932, two years after his death, one may find this a bit... odd. But hey, when an actor's good, he's good! Actually, only a brief clip of Lon from Zanzibar made it into the later Walter Huston and Lupe Velez film (both right). Chaney's multi-facial arts are unfortunately covered with a tribal mask. In the footage, he is seen briefly crawling to a burial ceremony.

There are no two ways about it: Sophie Loren was and is gorgeous. She once said that she owed everything she had to spaghetti, but I think the mythic Gods of Rome may have had something to do with it as well. In addition to her great beauty, she had the acting chops to back it up, a fact she made well known when she won the first Academy Award for Best Actress by performing in a foreign language film-- the gut-wrenching Two Women. (Pause for applause). However, her sexuality often came into play for both her and our benefit. For example, she performed a very memorable strip tease for Marcello Mastroianni in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow in 1963 (left). She performed the same memorable striptease for Marcello Mastroianni 31 years later in Ready to Wear. She had lost none of her allure.

Spencer Tracy dreaded shooting Stanley and Livingstone. Why? Because he was in agony over delivering the infamous line/punchline, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" How to do it seriously? How to say it and not get the expected guffaws? It. Was. Torture! However, as only Spence could do, he did it perfectly... after a few takes, of course-- he couldn't help giggling a little himself. He clearly must have gotten over his anxiety about the experience by the time he made Woman of the Year in 1942. Perhaps to have a little fun at his expense, George Stevens had him use the line at an uncomfortable, international party in the film, where his character, Sam Craig, knows no one... and rarely speaks their language. To show him bashfully trying to edge his way into one particular conversation, Spence boyishly rolls out, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" His cocky smile is met with stony glances and foreign gibberish. Guess they didn't get it...

The 1990 film Pretty Woman was a surprising success. A romcom about a hooker? Mmmmkay... Somehow, with the arrogant charisma of Richard Gere and the girl-next-door charm of Julia Roberts, the audience bought it, and then some. One of the best remembered moments comes at a business dinner when Julia's Vivian tries to act the lady while eating snails. They turn out to be "slippery little suckers." After one morsel shoots across the room from her utensil, she is comforted by the kindly James Morse, who few recognize as Goldern Era studio actor and Irish Mafia alum Ralph Bellamy (left). One wonders if Garry Marshall put this episode in the film specifically because of Ralph. See, Ralph had had his own experience with snails in a prior film: Fools for Scandal. He too had had problems eating the slimy slugs, one of which he dropped under the table. His dining partner that time was equal, cooky beauty Carole Lombard. He admits to her, as he desperately tries to propose marriage, that snails give him an "inferiority complex."

King Kong was the brain child of renegade writer, producer, director Merian C. Cooper. The unbelievable story of a tropical romance between girl and gigantic ape became positive proof of the possibilities of the movies. Not only were the innovative special effects noteworthy, but the landscape of what creative minds could do with cinema significantly broadened with this film. It too became a piece of work that actress Fay Wray (right) would be forever thankful for. Her name, her face, and her scream, made the perfect combination and foil to moviedom's most surprising leading man, or rather, primate. When acclaimed and equally imaginative director Peter Jackson approached the classic with modern technology and a new actress, Naomi Watts, in 2005, he decided to keep a couple of things from the original: 1) compassion for the beast, and 2) Fay Wray. At the end of the original film, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) utters the iconic words: "It was beauty killed the beast." Jackson got the idea that it would be great for Fay to say that immortal line herself in his version. Sadly, right before filming, Fay passed away, and the pressure was put on Jack Black to fulfill the duty again as character Carl Denham. Thus, this double take was not to be. Perhaps Fay, as a lady, was simply bowing out and graciously making way for the next generation.

Until next next time...


  1. Just a question I have if you dont mind. Isn't it John Gilbert instead of Jack Gilbert? John Gilbert was the actor who was the leading man in the movie "The Flesh and The Devil" beside Greta Garbo.
    I remember once Joan Crawford made a comment about this movie. Greta Garbo kissed John Gilbert with an open mouth, something that could be a scandal at that period of time. She was really different in many aspects. Perhaps because she was European. Europeans are more open and care less about certain "social conventions".
    What strikes me the most in most of her movies is that Greta Garbo seemed so full of anguish and with her real personality in chains. No freedom at all to be her. Her sadness is almost touchable. It must have been very difficult to her to have to fit in the frame that was imposed to her Hollywood-style. Even in the scenes she laughed, it is not possible to see authenticity. I can't see!

    1. Simone: Yes, his name is John Gilbert. I have a tendency to refer to him by his nickname "Jack," just because that is what so many of his good friends called him. Sorry if this confused you :).
      I agree with you about Greta. Even her most exuberant moments are tainted by a kind of sadness. I think this is why people related to her so well. I admit, I like to see her laugh though!

    2. I did not know John Gilbert had a nickname. No, you did not confuse me, I guess I did mess with you knowledge. :)Please, forgive me for my ignorance! Yes, I agree with the comment below. Your posts are very interesting, starting by the image you have chosen on top of the page. "Sunset Boulevard" is my favorite movie. This is a memorable scene. Thank you for sharing with all of us all these treasures!

    3. Oh, Yay! Sunset Blvd is my favorite too! Great minds...

  2. You're such a wonderful writer and you have so much knowledge. I fall in love with your work at every post. Keep it up!

  3. Great again as usual Mer. I have seen both versions of "The Unholy Three" and the silent version is my favorite. Not just because of Mae Busch either. Maybe it wasn't meant for Lon (and Mabel) to be in talking pictures.That they would die with silent pictures, romanticizes for me. Indeed Irving was the creative force at MGM and had the vision to have the best artist, directors and writers there were ever assembled! What a magical place the Culver City lot must have been in the late 20's and early 30's. Thanks

    1. Thanks, Bill! I totally agree. There are times when I am wandering around Culver that I get a little lump in my throat. It is like treading on sacred ground.