They actually talked like that in the '30s... at least, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger thinks they did.
"Give me a whisky, ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby."—Anna Christie
Anna Christie is perhaps not the best introduction to Greta Garbo. She was on fire as a silent film star: Her dominating presence and melodramatically warped face expressed wells of emotion and misery when words could not. With the advent of talkies came a period of technological fumbling and uncertainty. The technical and acting challenges were quickly overcome, and Garbo went on to make highly successful sound films. Anna Christie gives us Garbo's first spoken words, but is an uneven film overall.
It may have an asterisk next to it in her body of work, but Anna Christie was my introduction to Greta Garbo. Flaws and caveats aside, it was a fine one. It took some time to get the ball rolling, but the grande dame of melodrama made an impression on me.
Facts of the Case
Anna Christie is an adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's tale of womanly woe. Chris Christofferson (George F. Marion) and his bag lady–ish gal pal Marthy (Marie Dressler, Dinner at Eight) stumble about on the wharfs of New York City, drinking heavily and trying to forget their cares. Neither is much of a catch; their rumpled exteriors and bittersweet interiors are a matched set. The two find a bar and toss back a few drinks, only to learn that Chris's daughter, Anna Christie (Greta Garbo), is going to meet him there.
This may not seem like a big deal, but Chris has not seen Anna for 15 years. He left her on a farm in St. Paul while he sailed the seven seas. The occasional letter is all that binds them. Nonetheless, Chris is wistful about Anna and nervous at the opportunity to see her again.
Anna walks in, the movie picks up, and she soon comes to live on Chris's barge. They have a good time, until the old devil of the sea sends sailor Matt Burke (Charles Bickford) into their midst. Chris knows it means trouble—but Anna seems like the kind of gal accustomed to trouble.
I call it uneven, but Anna Christie was nominated for Oscars for best director (Clarence Brown), best actress (Garbo), and best cinematography. For its particularly troubled year of 1930, Anna Christie was a resounding success.
That is all well and good, but Oscar nominations cannot refute certain aspects of Anna Christie. It is claustrophobically staged, mostly occurring in a bar and on a barge. I can only take one camera angle for so long before it starts to feel like theater rather than film. The sound quality is wretched, as one would expect for an infant technology represented 75 years after the fact. And despite great effort to make Chris and Marthy colorful and engaging, Anna Christie drags its feet in the dirt until Garbo shows up.
The good news is that Garbo does show up. What a woman! As sad as it is to be a movie critic and be ignorant of Garbo, now I see what the fuss is about. Is she melodramatic? Indeed. Angst and sorrow pour from her face like the waters of life seeping down the drain. Her thickly accented, dusky voice sounds like a rake being dragged over gravel. Yet I yearned to hold her close, to put a finger to her lips and tell her it would be okay. Even when she's happy (you can tell by the slightly less wrinkled brow and the upbeat tone of her deprecating remarks), trouble looms on her horizon like a stormcloud. She is overwrought, but highly expressive and luminous in her portrayal.
Next to Garbo, the rest of the cast become bit players. George F. Marion goes for the "immigrant salty dog" shtick, and pulls it off well enough. Charles Bickford is blustery and masculine, but always "acting" instead of being. Marie Dressler is what passes for comic relief in this dreary Greek tragedy. The actors craft exaggerated characters, and it works to an extent, but the acting in this film is owned by Garbo. She is so world-weary and so dynamic that one's eye fixes solely on her.
Aside from Garbo's fine work, Anna Christie distinguishes itself with moody establishing shots that help explain the cinematography nomination. The majority of the film is static, but a few scenes are memorably shot: a drunken walk along the docks, with fog-clouded pools of light and sinister silhouettes; the brightness and clamor of Coney Island; and the darkly forbidding swells of the sea. Something about Anna's short-lived rebirth into joy and hope on the barge (along with Garbo's statuesque eroticism) set against dynamic shots of an angry sea reminded me of Jean Vigo's L'Atalante, which came four years later. L'Atalante is by far a more successful film, but it borrows heavily from Anna Christie's vibe.
As Anna Christie wears on, some of the early slowness is redeemed. Marthy emerges from the mist of the background noise while Anna and Matt sit down to a romantic dinner. Her reappearance is like a harbinger of doom, the specter of reality intruding on Anna's newfound happiness. This is where Anna Christie becomes potent. Chris's constant worrying is validated in a rush, as are Anna's rueful comments about her past. When that past comes to light, it does so in a spectacle of heart-wrenching (or eye-roll-inducing, depending on your take) dialogue and gnashing of teeth.
Anna Christie doesn't seem like a film I'll be coming back to often. It is slow, ungainly, and technically awkward. Yet it has ignited within me a feverish desire to see more of Garbo's work (and also reminded me to watch L'Atalante again). For that, I'll be eternally thankful.
Warner Brothers has done their usual fine job with the transfer. For a 75-year-old print, it looks great. You can tell that print damage was restored, but the overall impact and contrast of the transfer are amazing. The audio issues are no one's fault, but that fact doesn't change the boomy, tinny, pop-riddled end result. The real surprise is that the soundtrack survived in such listenable condition.
Is a second full version of the film an "extra" or is this a two-film set? If you don't count "German Version" as an extra, we get bupkiss. The German version is going to be of more interest to film scholars and Garbo enthusiasts than anyone else (aside from Germans, of course). It is interesting to watch Garbo's second take on the material, but I'm not sure it's worth watching the whole thing.
I've just seen something wonderful: a lithe blonde package of desperate energy and emotion, with a heavy voice and careworn demeanor. I haven't enjoyed overacting this much since watching Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai. The fine cinematography of old New York and the seething sea is merely a bonus. Otherwise, Anna Christie is a rather plain girl.
For sheer cinematic history value alone, the court finds Anna not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Simultaneously Filmed German Version (with English Subtitles)
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