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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 weeks, #10: Anna Christie, 1930

 I'm now 20% through my blog project, and entering a new decade. It's appropriate that since Greta Garbo was such a major star during this era, that I include one of her films. 

Anna Christie, 1930

Director: Clarence Brown
Writers: Frances Marion, adapted from the play by Eugene O'Neill
Cinematographer: William Daniels
Produced by Clarence Brown, Irving Thalberg, and Paul Bern for MGM 
Starring: Greta Garbo, Charles Bickford, George F. Marion, Marie Dressler

Why I chose it
This film rose to the top of my shortlist for Greta Garbo, but also for director Clarence Brown. Many years ago I was impressed with what he did with Valentino's Russian romp The Eagle, and vowed to explore more of his films. I learned of his vast impressive filmography, from the silent days to studio-era classics such as Intruder in the Dust, The Yearling, and National Velvet

That the film was recommended by a film friend and tied for first on my Twitter poll solidified my choice for 1930.

'No-spoiler' plot overview
After being separated from her father Chris (Marion) for most of her life, a young Swedish-American woman, Anna (Garbo), returns to seek shelter with him on the coal barge he captains. Unbeknownst to him and the young sailor she falls for (Bickford), her past is clouded with rape and prostitution. Eventually, she is forced to reveal these details to those she loves and risk their rejection.

Production Background and 1930 in Film History
In some ways, MGM was taking a risk with this film, with Garbo a silent film superstar but so many others becoming victim to the talkies because of their thick accents or other challenges adapting to the new medium. Fortuitously, the script, based on Eugene O'Neill's play, called for his protagonists to be Scandinavian-American, giving perfect screen to Garbo's accent. The film was marketed by MGM with the famous "Garbo Talks!" tagline. They had secured the services of veteran actor George F. Marion (he was born in 1860!), who had originated the role of Chris Christophersen in the Broadway run of the film as well as the 1923 film version. A version in German was also shot at the same time, starring Garbo but featuring a different supporting cast. 

Director Clarence Brown was nominated for two Oscars for films in 1930: this one, and Romance, also starring Garbo.

Some other notable film-related events in 1930*:

  • The first daily newspaper for the Hollywood film industry, The Hollywood Reporter, had its debut.
  • All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) was the first major anti-war film of the sound era, faithfully based upon the timeless, best-selling 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque. Although it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, it was criticized as being propagandistic and anti-militaristic. 
  • German stage revue actress Marlene Dietrich starred in her first Josef von Sternberg film, The Blue Angel (1930), playing the role of cabaret singer Lola-Lola and performing her signature song: "Falling in Love Again (Can't Help It)." Her performance in the first major German sound film led to a contract with Paramount in the US. 
  • The movie industry began to dub in the dialogue of films exported to foreign markets.

*Thanks to

My Random Observations
  • Garbo is not a favorite of mine; while she is usually a glamorous, elegant, and sympathetic screen presence, her acting style brings a touch too much melodrama for my tastes. Yet here, I appreciated what Garbo did with the film's early version of Anna - the fallen, lower class, rough and cynical woman. She left her glamor in her dressing room and convinced as this character. Later, she transformed to a more poised, elegant version of Anna that better matched Garbo's type.
  • Not being from Ireland, I don't know if Charles Bickford's thick Irish accent was a good one, but it sure sounded like it! Bickford had a long Hollywood career and I love it when he shows up in a film. Bonus points if he gets to play a romantic lead.  Although his role here stretches the definition of romantic lead, considering his extreme roughness.
  • Garbo's and Dressler's characters are seen coming into the bar using the "Ladies' entrance"--I had no idea that such a thing existed. A little internet research set me right. According to Madelon Powers in her University of Chicago Press book called Faces along the Bar: Lore And Order In The Workingman's Saloon, 1870-1920,  a 'ladies entrance' served three purposes:  “First, it permitted women to enter inconspicuously and minimize public scrutiny of their comings and goings… Second, women’s entry through the side door eliminated the necessity of their running the gauntlet through the establishment front room . . . undisputed male territory.  . . .  Finally, the side door afforded women quick and convenient access both to the far end of the bar, where they could purchase carry-out alcohol and to a second chamber known as the ‘back room,’ where they could feast on free lunches or attend social events hosted there.” Who knew?
  • My second choice for 1930 film was Min and Bill, also a working-class drama starring Marie Dressler, who was the supporting character, Marthy, in this film. Like George Marion, Dressler was also born in the 1860s and was a theater veteran and considered today one of the greats in early cinema. It never gets old to witness performances of actors whose careers flourished over a century ago.
Christophersen (Marion) and his companion Marthy (Dressler)
meet up at their favorite watering hole.

Anna (Garbo) arrives at the bar and develops a bond
with Marthy, a kindred soul.

Anna's face and body language signal melancholy and
uncertainty in what she will find returning to her father.

High angle shot of the Anna's new environs.

Anna begins a life of dutiful domesticity aboard
her  father's barge.

Rugged sailor Matt Burke (Bickford) checks 
Anna out in the fog.

Anna and Matt getting to know one another.

A fun 'date' in the city.

Lovely shot of Anna with Brooklyn Bridge

Christophersen and Burke have competing
designs on Anna.

High melodrama: Anna and her father during
a moment of reckoning.

Is a happy ending possible for these three?
Where to Watch
The film can be streamed for a small fee on many streaming platforms, including Amazon, Hulu, and YouTube.

Further Reading
Danny of discusses the film here, highlighting how it conforms to conventions of pre-Code cinema, and like me, admit to not being a huge Garbo fan. As usual, TCM has an excellent essay on the film here.

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