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In 1927, Greta Garbo had starred in Love, a version of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Co-starring her real- (and reel-) life paramour, John Gilbert, the picture had been one of her biggest early successes. It had dissatisfied the actress, however, due to MGM's insistence that the story's narrative (wherein the heroine killed herself by jumping in front of an oncoming train) be re-written - re-uniting her with Gilbert's character for an unrealistic but crowd-pleasing happy ending.
Throughout the thirties, Garbo kept the idea of a re-make in mind. By mid-decade, with lavish adaptations of classic novels in vogue (in 1935 alone, MGM would mount opulent renditions of David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities), the actress approached the head office with a request to do a more faithful version of Tolstoy's great Russian romance tragedy.
MGM, always ready to appease their star, agreed to consider the matter. Garbo forged ahead, pushing the idea to top-ranking producer David O. Selznick, Louis Mayer's son-in-law and the force behind the recent (and highly touted) Charles Dickens MGM film adaptations. Surprisingly, Selznick nixed the idea; he saw Garbo in more modern-day dramas, not the costumed prop in period pieces. He even suggested that the actress try her hand at comedy, but admittedly could not find a proper vehicle suitable for the star. He did acquire Dark Victory, a contemporary tragedy of a woman in love, that he pitched as rivaling Tolstoy: not only does the main character suffer the joys and pain of a grand passion but she goes blind and dies from a brain tumor! Garbo was willing but, alas, the project, with George Cukor slated to direct, fell through, triumphantly emerging four years later as a Bette Davis smash hit for Warner Brothers.
Perhaps Garbo saw the Dark Victory loss as a bright omen. Her follow-up suggestions were both period dramas: Joan of Arc and what could have only been a bizarre concept of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. Instead, Selznick and MGM reconsidered Anna Karenina, and went, albeit reluctantly, full speed ahead. Garbo was pleased: this time she would get it right.
The production was a lavish affair in the expected MGM style and teamed the actress with trusted director Clarence Brown, with whom she would ultimately make seven movies. Brown's obvious approval of the star bordered, like her public, on fascination: "Garbo starts where they all leave off. She was a shy person; her lack of English gave her a slight inferiority complex. I used to direct her quietly. I never gave her direction above a whisper. Nobody on the set ever knew what I said to her; she liked that. She hated to rehearse. She would have preferred to stay away until everyone else was rehearsed, then come in and do the scene."
Brown also was privy to star actress's strange behavior: "We could never get her to look at rushes - then sound arrived, we had a projector on the set. This projector ran backward and forward so that we could match scenes and check continuity. When you run a talking picture in reverse, the sound is like nothing on earth. That's what Garbo enjoyed. She would sit there shaking with laughter, watching the film running backward and the sound going yakablom-yakablom. But as soon as we ran it forward, she wouldn't watch it."
For her co-stars, Selznick recruited Basil Rathbone as Anna's cuckolded husband and 1931 Oscar®-winner (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) Fredric March as Vronsky, the impetuous, irresistible lover. March recalled that "During the making of Anna Karenina...Garbo was very friendly, not always reserved. We would bounce a medicine ball back and forth during breaks, and one day she stripped to the waist to take in the sun. Then she caught herself and asked if it embarrassed me. It did not." March sincerely felt that Garbo's astounding beauty was more appealing to women than to men.; however, this did not stop the well-known womanizer (a trait he had in common with his Vronsky character) from "making his move." It was here that the actor was shown, like Brown, a playful, humorous side that Garbo devotees never saw. Not wanting to encourage her hormone-raging leading man, and knowing that many a love scene was forthcoming, the actress armed herself by stuffing garlic in her mouth prior to each embrace. Effective, clever, and to the point funny, this maneuver cured March's amorous advances while providing her with an on-going case of the giggles.
But it was Garbo's notorious shunning of publicity ("I give them everything I've got on the screen - why do they try to usurp my privacy?!!") that most affected another co-star, 11-year-old Freddie Bartholomew, who portrayed Garbo and Rathbone's son. Bartholomew always remembered how the actress literally became a surrogate mother to him during production, doting on the boy, playing with him between takes. The delighted child adored his "new" mom, and would regale his actual family each night at home with recounts of games and jokes the two shared. Although Bartholomew had appeared in several movies and opposite a number of top stars, the Garbo connection was like being touched by God - especially to his movie-fan relatives. When one particularly infatuated uncle asked his nephew if the lad could obtain an autograph, the young innocent, unaware of Garbo's fierce obsession with her own privacy, shrugged and agreed.
As usual the next morning, Garbo, upon seeing Bartholomew arrive on-set, ran to her pal, covering him with hugs and kisses. When the youngster asked if he could have an autograph, he at once felt the climate drastically change. Her embrace stiffened and she pushed the child aside, walking away grim faced - much to Bartholomew's shock. Throughout the remainder of the filming, Garbo kept their relationship strictly professional - her performance unaffected during their on-screen time, but never as much as uttering a "Hello" to the adolescent off camera. To his dying day this haunted Bartholomew, who could never grasp the extreme unpredictability of Garbo's pendulum behavior ("This is my friend, I thought").
Contrary to its reputation today, Anna Karenina received mixed reviews from the critics upon its 1935 release (though it was profitable at the box office) and seemed to confirm Selznick's claim that Garbo should shy away from period pieces (although Camille would help negate the producer's statement); indeed, it wouldn't be until Ninotchka - a contemporary comedy - four years later that the actress would, once again, totally win over both audiences and critics. Nevertheless, important papers such as The New York World-Telegram begrudgingly recommended Anna Karenina, correctly citing that "There is always an excitement and interest about any role that Greta Garbo portrays on the screen...."
Producer: David O. Selznick
Director: Clarence Brown
Screenplay: S.N. Behrman, Clemence Dane, Salka Viertel, based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Costume Design: Adrian
Film Editing: Robert J. Kearn
Original Music: Herbert Stothart
Cast: Greta Garbo (Anna Karenina), Fredric March (Vronsky), Freddie Bartholomew (Sergei), Maureen O'Sullivan (Kitty), May Robson (Countess Vronsky), Basil Rathbone (Karenin), Reginald Owen (Stiva), Phoebe Foster (Dolly), Reginald Denny (Yashvin).
BW-94m. Closed captioning.
by Mel Neuhaus