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According to a Daily Variety pre-production news item, M-G-M announced plans to market this picture as "Garbo's Tenth Anniversary Picture." In a letter dated January 7, 1935 from producer David O. Selznick to Greta Garbo (as quoted in a modern source), Selznick told Garbo that he preferred a George Cukor-directed Dark Victory to Anna Karenina as a starring vehicle for her, and urged her to agree with him. One week later, in a letter to M-G-M director J. Walter Ruben, Selznick stated that he would do Dark Victory if he succeeded in purchasing the rights to the play at a reasonable cost and if Philip Barry consented to write the screenplay. Selznick pointed to the box office disappointments of Queen Christina and The Painted Veil as evidence that Anna Karenina would be an unwise choice for Garbo, and noted that actor Fredric March, who was "fed up with doing costume pictures," made it known that he would do Anna Karenina only if required to by his studio. Despite Selznick's best efforts to convince Garbo to do Dark Victory, she insisted on doing Anna Karenina, a story she had already done in 1927 as a silent entitled Love. According to a biography of Garbo, Garbo was determined to do Anna Karenina because she did not like what she had heard about Dark Victory, and because she "had immersed herself in Anna Karenina and it was now too late to make an abrupt turnabout." Furthermore, a clause in Garbo's contract gave her the option to refuse to make a film if she disliked the script.
Following Selznick's failed attempt to star Garbo in Dark Victory, the producer, in a letter to Clemence Dane (the assumed name of English playwright and author Winifred Ashton), suggested that he would assign a new director to Anna Karenina, someone "more enthusiastic than George [Cukor]." According to a January 10, 1935 Hollywood Reporter news item, production on the picture, which was originally scheduled to start that week, was postponed indefinitely due to story changes. A Daily Variety pre-production news item noted that M-G-M had planned to rush production on the film so as to finish with Garbo before 1 May and avoid having to pay "heavy overages" for her services. In an undated rough draft of a letter to M-G-M studio head Nick Schenck, Selznick stated that Anna Karenina "cost much less than Queen Christina, [but the] same as Painted Veil." Selznick also wrote: "I begged for [Clark] Gable, but I got [Fredric] March." Hollywood Reporter pre-production news items note that Alan Mowbray, who was originally cast in the part of Stiva, was replaced by Reginald Owen because he was tied up in Becky Sharp. Hollywood Reporter production charts and news items list actors Kathleen Howard, Forrester Harvey, Antoinette Lees, Mara Borisova, Richard Lancaster, Brenda Fowler, Bess Stafford, Helen Wood and David Worth in the cast, but their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed.
The file for the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library contains a memo, dated November 6, 1935, from PCA Director Joseph I. Breen, who suggested that Selznick alter the scene in which "Vronsky" returns to Moscow from Italy, to show that "Vronsky" is "definitely punished as a result of his sinful alliance with Anna." According to the memo, when Breen suggested that "Vronsky" be denied reinstatement in the Russian army and be banished from his native land, "Mr. Selznick agreed to this change." Breen also raised a number of objections to specific scenes that showed "Anna" and "Vronsky" carrying out an "adulterous" affair with impunity. In March 1935, Selznick wrote a letter to Breen, in which he sharply criticized new objections raised by the PCA to the script, claiming that Breen's "change of heart...will jeopardize a million dollar investment." Selznick went on to say that Breen's comments left M-G-M with no alternative but to make a "completely vitiated and emasculated adaptation of Tolstoi's famous classic." Following the film's release, the PCA received a letter from the Chicago Legion of Decency, which stated: "We are thoroughly disgusted to hear that you have passed Anna Karenina and Barbary Coast and shall boycott these and all others like them."
According to studio publicity records, cinematographer William Daniels, who had photographed all but one of Garbo's first twenty pictures, made it a rule never to photograph Garbo with unflattering intermediate or full-figure shots-only closeups and long shots. A Hollywood Reporter pre-release news item notes that the Russian ballet sequence was shot in shades of black and white only. No color was permitted in either the costumes or the makeup. According to a Daily Variety pre-release news item, because Garbo refused to work at night, M-G-M was forced to build a stage over the St. Petersburg railroad station set on the back lot to simulate darkness. Daily Variety also noted that the steeplechase scenes were filmed in Del Monte, CA. Actor Joseph Tozer's name is spelled "Joe E. Tozer" in the onscreen credits. Modern sources indicate that former Russian army officer Count Andrey Tolstoy, the grand-nephew of Leo Tolstoy, was the technical adviser on the regimental drinking scene in the film. Modern sources list Val Lewton as Selznick's production assistant on the picture.
Anna Karenina was named one of the ten best pictures of 1935 by Film Daily's nationwide poll of American film critics. The picture also was named the best foreign film of the year and was presented the Mussolini cup at the International Motion Picture Exposition at Venice, Italy. Garbo received the New York Film Critics award for "best feminine performance" of 1935.
Among the many films based on Tolstoy's novel are a 1915 Fox silent directed by J. Gordon Edwards and starring Betty Nansen and Edward Jose (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1911-20; F1.0115); M-G-M's 1927 silent, Love, produced and directed by Edmund Goulding and starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30; F2.3208); a 1948 British film directed by Julien Duviver and starring Vivien Leigh and Ralph Richardson; a Masterpiece Theatre/BBC television film directed by Basil Coleman and starring Nicola Pagett and Eric Porter, which aired on the PBS network on February 5, 1978; and a Colgems Productions/Rastar television film directed by Simon Langton and starring Jaqueline Bisset and Christopher Reeve, which aired on the CBS network on March 26, 1985.