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Greta Garbo took on Hollywood's biggest studio and won her case before she would setfoot on the set of Love, the 1927 adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.Not only did she get MGM to raise her salary, but through a carefully timed "illness," she even got them to give her the leading man she wanted.
Although Garbo had been at MGM for just two years, in which time she hadonly had two films released, she knew she was worth more than the $600 aweek her current contract gave her. She had scored solid reviews andstrong box office with her first two American films. As studio publicistsraved about her torrid love scenes with John Gilbert in the stillunreleased Flesh and the Devil, and gossip about their offscreenromance spread, her fan mail began to approach her leading man's 5,000 letters aweek.
At Gilbert's urging -- they were living together at the time -- shecampaigned for a new contract to start at $5,000 a week. Instead, studiohead Louis B. Mayer simply informed her that she was to start work on anadaptation of Anna Karenina co-starring Ricardo Cortez and LionelBarrymore and directed by Dmitri Buchowetsky. Only Garbo wouldn't reportto work. Mayer put her on suspension, threatened to have her deported,threatened to replace her with a look-alike and even threatened to burn offher current contract with minor roles. But she just laughed him off,countering that if she had to she could stay in the U.S. by marryingGilbert, whom Mayer hated.
Then MGM released Flesh and the Devil, which turned out to beGarbo's biggest hit to date. Realizing that he needed the independent starmore than she needed him, Mayer finally agreed on a contract raising hersalary to $2,000 a week, increasing to $4,000 the second year, $5,000 thethird and $6,000 the fourth. And still it wasn't enough. The new contractwasn't supposed to kick in until Anna Karenina was completed, soGarbo got sick -- too sick to report to work for a month. And she wonagain, convincing Mayer to backdate the contract to the beginning of theyear.
Conveniently, Garbo's return to work coincided with the completion ofGilbert's latest picture. With the tremendous box-office reaction to theirteaming, Thalberg decided to replace Cortez with Gilbert. In addition, hebrought on Edmund Goulding, already famous for his ability to showcasefemale stars, to direct. With the new team, Thalberg decided to change thefilm's title to something reflecting the star pairing. Someone suggestedHeat, but that would have resulted in marquees reading "John Gilbertand Greta Garbo in Heat." Instead, he called the pictureLove, using the tag line, "John Gilbert and Greta Garbo inLove....What more could be said about a picture -- see it."
And that's just what the public did. The film scored solidly at the boxoffice, despite mixed notices. Most of the reviewers found the film ratherone-sided, putting all the focus on Garbo at the expense of the otherperformers. This was tempered by their delight in Garbo's work. MordauntHall in the New York Times said "Greta Garbo, the Swedish actress,outshines any other performance she has given on the screen" and called her"a blonde Mona Lisa." Variety used language that seems ratherinappropriate today in light of what Garbo's career would become; theycalled her "the biggest skirt prospect now in pictures."
One element helping the film's box office was the addition of a happyending that reunited Anna and Vronsky after her husband's death. At leastit helped outside the major American cities, where this rather originaltake on Tolstoy's story played like gangbusters. For the major U.S. citiesand Europe, however, the film kept the novel's original ending, with Garbothrowing herself in front of a train - the same ending that would be usedwhen Garbo re-made the film, with Fredric March in the lead, in 1935. Forthis TCM presentation, both endings will be shown, giving viewers a chanceto decide for themselves how Anna's tortured romance should haveended.
Producer & Director: Edmund Goulding
Screenplay: Frances Marion, Lorna Moon
Titles: Marian Ainslee, Ruth Cummings
Based on the novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Alexander Toluboff
Score: Howard Dietz, Walter Donaldson, Ernst LuzPrincipal Cast: Greta Garbo (Anna Karenina), John Gilbert (Vronsky), George Fawcett (Grand Duke), Emily Fitzroy (Grand Duchess), Brandon Hurst (Karenin), Philippe De Lacy (Serezha, the Child).
by Frank Miller