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GARBO TALKS! the ads proclaimed, and for once the capital letters and exclamation point were warranted. Garbo's talkie debut was one of the last, and most anticipated of the silent screen stars. She was MGM's biggest star...and their biggest worry. The problem was not Garbo's voice, which was deep and pleasant, but her heavy Swedish accent. The studio couldn't risk allowing Garbo to sound ridiculous, so she continued to make silents - seven of them since sound was introduced in 1927 - while production head Irving Thalberg continued to look for just the right vehicle. In fact, MGM's very last silent film was Garbo's The Kiss (1929). Finally, Thalberg found a brilliant solution for her first talkie: a film version of Eugene O'Neill's play, Anna Christie.
Anna Christie (1930) had everything: the prestige of being the work of an important playwright; a director whom Garbo trusted, Clarence Brown; and a role that was tailor-made for her. She also had her favorite cinematographer, William Daniels, and the studio's best writer, Frances Marion, to adapt the play. Anna is a Swedish-American streetwalker who arrives at the waterfront looking for her father. Tired and sick at heart, she wants to change her life, and meeting an attractive and decent sailor seems to offer salvation. But how will he react when he learns about her past? George F. Marion, who played Anna's father, Chris, had created the role on the stage and repeated it in the silent film version of Anna Christie (1923). Marie Dressler, a friend of Garbo's, played Marthy, Chris' mistress. And Charles Bickford was a stalwart Matt, the sailor who falls for Anna.
Garbo was delighted with the project, but very nervous. Just before her first sound test, she told a friend, "I feel like an unborn child." Yet, she had a lot of support and encouragement from Brown, and from the warm-hearted Dressler, who not only kept things light on the set, but was also a strong acting partner for Garbo in their scenes together. But would the public buy Garbo in a drab role quite unlike the glamorous characters she'd been playing? And could Garbo handle it?
Anticipation was high, and MGM milked the suspense. Not only was there the GARBO TALKS! ad campaign, but she didn't even make her entrance until 34 minutes into Anna Christie. Garbo enters a saloon, walks to a table, sits down, and finally, FINALLY, utters her first words, the exact first words which Anna speaks in O'Neill's play: "Give me a whisky...ginger ale on the side...and don't be stingy, baby." Audiences cheered when they heard it; so did the critics. Richard Watts, Jr. wrote in the New York Herald Tribune, "Her voice is revealed as a deep, husky contralto that possesses every bit of that fabulous poetic glamour that has made this distant Swedish lady the outstanding actress of the motion picture world." Everyone marveled at the voice, comparing it to wine, velvet, a cello, mahogany...Anita Loos called it a "Swedish foghorn." But they also marveled at her acting. Anna Christie was a hit, and Garbo became an even bigger star in talking films than she had been in silents.
There are actually two versions of Anna Christie. In the early days of talking films, studios looking for the widest possible distribution for their most prestigious productions, sometimes simultaneously made foreign language versions, on the same sets, but with different casts. (This method proved impractical, and studios eventually subtitled or dubbed films.) Garbo starred in a German version of Anna Christie, directed by Belgian director Jacques Feyder, with a different supporting cast and different costumes. Garbo's good friend Salka Viertel played the Marie Dressler role. Viertel would later write the screenplays for several Garbo films, including Queen Christina (1933).
Director: Clarence Brown
Producer: Paul Bern (uncredited), Clarence Brown
Screenplay: Frances Marion, from the play by Eugene O'Neill
Editor: Hugh Wynn
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Costume Design: Adrian
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Principal Cast: Greta Garbo (Anna Christie), Charles Bickford (Matt Burke), George F. Marion (Chris Christofferson), Marie Dressler (Marthy Owens), James T. Mack (Johnny the Harp), Lee Phelps (Larry the Bartender).
BW-90m. Closed Captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri