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The Divine Greta Garbo is a brisk clip-driven documentary that covers Garbo's illustrious life and career, all within 47 minutes. The production was made for Turner in 1990, shortly after Garbo died on Easter Sunday, and it was written by Newsweek film critic David Ansen and produced, edited and directed by Susan F. Walker.
The documentary is completely composed of clips from Garbo's movies, including the few that she made in Europe before immigrating to America and greener pastures in the desert paradise known as Hollywood. There are no interviewees available for added commentary on the many Garbo films that we see. Glenn Close narrates and hosts from the stage of the Martin Beck Theatre, which was then home to the Broadway production of Grand Hotel. Walking through the set, Close claims it is where the "legend and the mystery of Greta Garbo lingers on."
Structurally, the documentary covers Garbo's life and career in a fairly standard fashion, starting with her humble origins in Sweden, to her discovery by Swedish director Mauritz Stiller, through her introduction to the world, courtesy of Louis B. Mayer and MGM. That's just the first 15 minutes of the film and it's given short thrift, considering Garbo's years in silent film were when she formed and fortified the famous mystique that had somehow gotten trapped eventually at the Beck Theatre in New York City.
Despite the standard clip-driven narrative and trite pronouncements, The Divine Greta Garbo does score on a number of things. It rightfully acknowledges the masterful contributions to building the Garbo image from costumer Adrian, art director Cedric Gibbons and cinematographer William Daniels ("She had no bad angles."), who shot 20 of her 24 Hollywood films.
The script also mentions the fact that she moved eleven times in 16 years. The documentary uses this fact to dovetail into its argument that Garbo never really settled in Hollywood. True enough. In fact, Hollywood did not really know what to make of the famously private Garbo, the one who almost never went to premieres or the industry's most important work function outside a studio set, the Academy Awards. But the script says it was easier for Hollywood to "make fun of her," a point backed up by a caricature of Garbo appearing in a number of cartoons. Spoofing on movie stars in animated shorts were matters of mild satire and could perhaps even be seen as an honor. They were usually not ridiculing the star. In fact, in one clip that Garbo appears, from Warner Bros' Hollywood Steps Out (1941), the notoriously clever writers make a joke about Garbo's supposedly large feet. So what? In the same cartoon, they also riff on Jimmy Stewart's famous stutter.
Speaking of feet, Garbo had a rather amusing idiosyncrasy: shot permitting, she wore comfortable bedroom slippers, no matter what the scene called for. Before each shot, she would ask William Daniels, "Is (sic) the feet in?"
Producer: Ellen Krass, Susan F. Walker
Director: Susan F. Walker
Screenplay: David Ansen
Film Editing: Susan F. Walker
Music: Mark Governor
Cast: Glenn Close (host), Greta Garbo, John Gilbert.
by Scott McGee