February 21, 1930: Garbo Talks!

#2 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

1930: Crowds outside the Capitol Theatre in New York for the premiere of ‘Anna Christie’, Swedish born American actress Greta Garbo’s first talking picture. (Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

Part I: Birth of the Talkies

Today’s movie stars are overexposed.  We see what they ate for breakfast on Instagram, glossy photographs of their multimillion dollar homes in magazines, watch them dance with Ellen and sing in the car with James Corden.  And they talk, and talk, and talk–on talk shows, on social media videos, on Saturday Night Live.  And if you missed them talking the first time, you can always catch clips of it the next day on You Tube.

Close your eyes and imagine it’s 1930.  Greta Garbo is the most recognized actress in America, star of eleven successful films for MGM Studios.

Yet audiences have never heard her speak.

As silent films gave way to early talkies, the new technology made casualties of some of the best actors and actresses of the day.  They faded into obscurity almost overnight, because they could not remember their lines, or they were uncomfortable with the new style of acting, or had accents inscrutable to the American ear.

Greta Garbo’s silent films had printed money hand over fist for MGM, and the studio hesitated to ruin her on-screen mystique by exposing audiences to her Swedish accent.  They didn’t want to lose their cash machine.  They hemmed and hawed, and Garbo made more silent films.

But talkies were here to stay.

So on February 21, 1930, America went to the movies to hear Garbo talk in Anna Christie.

The movie opens on a drunken old Swedish sailor who’s received a letter from the twenty-year old daughter he hasn’t seen in fifteen years.  Believing the sea was no place to raise a girl, he brought her to America and left her with relatives on a Minnesota farm.

A few minutes later, Garbo enters the film.  It’s immediately clear she hasn’t had the wholesome upbringing her father imagined.  Her clothes are shabby and a bit risqué, and she knows her way around a dive bar.

This is not the girl next door.

The director made the audience wait sixteen agonizing minutes before giving them what they came for–Garbo looks at the bar tender and utters the first timeless line in film history:

“Giv me a whisky, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.”

The accent and the husky delivery only added to her mystery and sent audiences wild.

It would take more than talking pictures to fell Greta Garbo.  

The MGM studio heads must’ve sighed with relief before laughing with delight.  Anna Christie was the top grossing film of 1930.  Despite their worries, a talking Garbo put more money in their pockets than a silent one.

Anna Christie is a faithful adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s 1921 play of the same name.  Anna reconnects with her father and falls in love with a sailor.

When Matt proposes marriage, Anna is forced to admit to him and her father that she was raped by a cousin on the farm and has spent the last two years as a prostitute, shattering their vision of her as an innocent even as she finds redemption in the sea and their love.

Anna Christie is really a filmed play.  The shots are long, and the actors don’t move around much, partially because the primitive sound recording equipment picked up background rustling.

The themes of Anna Christie are relevant to modern times–how men often abuse women then blame them for a lack of purity.  It’s enjoyable to watch Garbo transition from cynical prostitute to redeemed woman.  Yet beneath that cool exterior she harbors a simmering rage that occasionally boils over. The movie shines brightest in the third act when Anna lets that rage loose, throwing her past in the faces of the two men who’ve put her on a pedestal, and then breaking apart as she hopes against all experience that they will forgive her past transgressions.

The movie is best enjoyed as a historical artifact, a memory of a time when movies rested squarely on the star’s shoulders, and one woman delivered when the whole world was listening as well as watching.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s