Key Largo (1948):  Bogart & Bacall & Huston

Bogart and Bacall in Key Largo

Key Largo (1948)

Key Largo was made on the heels of Treasure of the Sierra Madre and in the shadow of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) Hollywood hearings.  HUAC was a committee put together in the United States House of Representatives to investigate organizations and individuals suspected of being communists.

Hollywood was under suspicion for making films during World War II that, in hindsight, could be seen as pro-Soviet propaganda.  In fact, some of these films were made at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s request to help soften American attitudes toward the Soviet Union, as FDR knew that the Soviets would be vital allies in winning the war.

But the war was over, FDR was dead, and the cold war had frozen out the better angels of the committee’s nature.  Ten Hollywood screenwriters and directors who refused to answer the committee’s question as to whether or not they were communists were held in contempt of court and spent a year in jail.

John Huston, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall (among others) started the Committee for the First Amendment, a group that strongly and publicly opposed HUAC on the grounds that it violated the first amendment.  They went to Hollywood to protest the hearings, but were ultimately painted in the press as sympathetic to communists (at best) and Reds themselves (at worst.)

When the bad press threatened to ruin Bogart’s career (he was by far the most prominent and public face on the committee) he backed down and issued a public apology for his role in protesting.

In the wake of the hearings, John Huston wrote Key Largo in an ill-tempered fervor.  He refashioned Maxwell Anderson’s play of the same name into a tense film about a man who finds his lost ideals and convictions. 

Bogart, Huston, and Bacall on the set of Key Largo

Bogart plays Major Frank McCloud, a man who’s been drifting since the end of World War II.  He’s looking for work, but makes a detour to Hotel Largo to visit the father James (Lionel Barrymore) and widow Nora (Lauren Bacall) of a young man who died heroically under his command.

James and Nora run Hotel Largo, and it’s immediately apparent that all is not well.  Despite being closed for the blisteringly hot off season, the hotel is filled with a small group of menacing characters who are ostensibly there to fish.

In a role that echoes back to Rick Blaine in Casablanca, Frank insists he doesn’t want any trouble.  But when a hurricane hits Key Largo and traps the lot of them together, trouble finds him.

Frank immediately recognizes the leader of the group as notorious exiled gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson).

The film crackles with tension, and Robinson is superb as the vicious Rocco.  He laughs when the wheelchair bound James is so enraged that he tries to get out of his chair and falls to the ground.  He whispers sexual innuendos to Nora so foul that she spits in his face.  She’s nearly killed for her disrespect until Frank intervenes.

But Frank is no hero—when Rocco gives him a pistol and challenges him to a duel, Frank begs off.  Rocco calls him a coward, and Frank sniffs that killing Rocco isn’t worth dying for.

There were sparks between Frank and Nora early on, but in this moment it’s clear she fears that Rocco is right and Frank is a coward.

It’s not so much courage that Frank lacks, but conviction.  Weary of war, he no longer believes in the ideals of his country.

Robinson, Bogart, L. Barrymore, Bacall

But he has a line of humanity, and Rocco crosses it in the film’s best and most remembered scene.  Claire Trevor (in a role that made her a shoo-in to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress) plays Gaye Dawn, Rocco’s girlfriend who has been ravaged by alcohol, time, and life with a vicious killer.

She’s pathetic, a falling-down drunk who can barely get through an hour—much less a day—without a drink.

Rocco’s disgusted by what she’s become and refuses her a drink.  Her hands shake and she begs him.  Rocco tells her he’ll give her a drink if she sings, as she was once a young and beautiful lounge singer.  Obviously embarrassed, Gayle sings for the group.  It’s uncomfortable and humiliating as she sings off-key and without accompaniment to the group while a hurricane rages outside.

When it’s over, Rocco refuses to give her a drink because she was so terrible.  It’s a move of pure cruelty.

Frank—who would not stick his neck out to rid the world of Rocco, finds his courage and gives Gayle a drink, knowing it may cost him his life.  Rocco doesn’t shoot him, but slaps him across the face.

Frank doesn’t react, as he has guns trained on him, but it’s clear that he’s found his sense of right and wrong and that he will prevail over the thugs in the end.

Nearly 75 years later, Key Largo has lost none of its punch.

Huston, Bogart, and Bacall were on a roll.

Key Largo (1948)

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.
  • Meyers, Jeffrey.  John Huston:  Courage and Art.  2011.
  • Bacall, Lauren.  By Myself.  1978.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Dinner at Eight (1933):  Focus on Ferber

Dinner at Eight poster (1933)
Dinner at Eight (1933)

Though she’s not as well remembered today, Edna Ferber was a literary giant of the early and mid-twentieth century on par with contemporaries Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner.

Seven of her novels were among the top ten best sellers in the year of their publication, and two topped the list, both feats that neither Hemingway, Fitzgerald, nor Faulkner accomplished.

She was primarily a playwright and novelist, her works encompassing the trials and tribulations of the American people, whom she knew and loved.  Her well-researched works covered a wide range of American life, from the struggle of Oklahoma statehood, to life on the Mississippi, the machismo of early twentieth century Texas, and the actors on the New York stage scratching out a living.

Edna Ferber
Edna Ferber

Her commercial and critical success ensured that Hollywood would come calling, and when it did she took the money and ran, having little to do with the making of most of her films.

So though you may not know the name Edna Ferber, you undoubtedly know the films based on her work.  Over the next eight weeks, we’ll cover the onscreen adaptations of this forgotten chronicler of the American experience.

Let’s start with Dinner at Eight (1933.) 

Ferber collaborated on nearly all her plays with fellow Algonquin Round Table member George Kaufman, and Ferber had long had the idea to write a comedy of manners with interlocking stories surrounding a group of couples set to attend a dinner party.  The play was a success, and it was adapted for the screen the next year.

Dinner at Eight was producer David O. Selznick’s first film with MGM after his successful stint at RKO.  Selznick wanted to prove his worth to father-in-law and boss Louis B. Mayer, and compete with golden boy MGM producer Irving Thalberg.  So he brought director George Cukor over from RKO, and they set about casting the successful play for the screen.

The similarities to Grand Hotel were known from the start—Ferber and Kaufman knew before writing the play that it would be compared to William A. Drake’s play, also made into an MGM film with an all-star ensemble cast, though Ferber insisted that she’d had the initial idea years before Grand Hotel was produced, but had to talk Kaufmann into doing it.

Both Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight have large star-filled casts with a history of stage acting.  Both have multiple storylines that intersect in funny, tragic, and surprising ways.  John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery star in both films.

Dinner at Eight begins simply enough—Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke, years before her unforgettable turn as Glinda the Good Witch) wants to throw a dinner party for her wealthy friends and acquaintances.  But there’s secrets among the group—affairs, looming financial disasters, and an impending suicide.  The film starts with the invitations, divulges the secrets, and gathers the group together at the Jordan’s home before ending just as the group goes into the dinner room for the titular dinner.

The cast of Dinner At Eight (1933)

It’s not as good a film as Grand Hotel.  There’s lots and lots of talking, and not quite enough action, even for a film made in 1933.  I gave the film two shots—viewing it several weeks apart, and I must admit that I fell asleep both times in the middle.

The film comes alive only when Jean Harlow arrives, and she doesn’t get nearly enough screen time.  She plays Kitty Packard, the low class wife of Dan Packard.  Millicent was forced to invite the Packards as her husband wants Dan to invest in his failing family business.

Jean Harlow, Dinner At Eight (1933)
Jean Harlow, Dinner at Eight

Kitty flounces around in her dressing gown, literally eating bon bons and having an affair with her doctor while her husband works to build his business empire.  She’s thrilled to attend the party, and arrives in an inappropriately tight dress.  She’s crass, laughs too loud, and doesn’t know how to hide her low-class breeding.

It’s a character Harlow perfected—the low class floozy—and the whole film wakes up when she slinks onto the screen.

Dinner at Eight has a distinguished pedigree—an all-star cast, great director, a producer who would go on to write his name in the Hollywood history books, and yet this film doesn’t have much to offer the modern audience outside of a view of Harlow, a star gone too soon when she died suddenly of kidney failure at twenty-six just four years after Dinner was filmed.

I tip my cap to all involved, but Dinner at Eight had it’s day, but it’s day is done.

Dinner At Eight (1933) Verdict:  Had Its Day, Its Day Is Done

Sources

  • Ferber, Edna.  A Peculiar Treasure.  1939.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Dinner at Eight poster (1933)

The Good Life

#20 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Director Frank Capra on the set of You Can't Take It With You (1938)
James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Director Frank Capra on the set of You Can’t Take It With You
You Can't Take It With You (1938) opening banner

Frank Capra was on a roll.  Starting in 1934 with It Happened One Night, he won the Best Director Oscar in three out of the next five years.  In 1938, he won his third and final Oscar with the ensemble comedy You Can’t Take It With You.  He also began to cement his legacy as a director who perfected a tone in his films that celebrated the best parts of the American dream and gave audiences wholesome and upbeat films to take their minds off their Depression troubles.

Capra was still working under Harry Cohn at Columbia, turning out critical and commercial successes without the benefit of the huge budgets and roster of stars his competition enjoyed over at Paramount and MGM.  In You Can’t Take It With You, Capra managed this by pulling sparkling performances by both young and up-and-coming actors and old favorites.

You Can’t Take It With You started out as a 1936 play by George Kaufmann and Moss Hart.  Capra and writer Robert Riskin expanded the play for the screen.

The film’s initial setup is simple enough—ruthless, greedy banker Anthony Kirby is planning to buy up all the real estate around a competitor’s factory to prevent expansion and put his competition out of business.  It’s an underhanded plan, but it is spoiled by the one eccentric old man who refuses to sell his family home.

Lionel Barrymore plays Grandpa Vanderhof, the lone holdout and benevolent patriarch of the eccentric Vanderhof family, a group of misfits that eschew convention in favor of spending their days—and thus their lives—doing exactly as they choose.  This includes daughter Penny Sycamore writing bad plays all day just because someone once left a typewriter at their house, her husband setting off fireworks in the basement, and granddaughter Essie dancing ballet in the living room, despite her teacher’s continued assertions that, “Confidentially, she stinks!”

Kirby’s dilemma is simple, and unsolvable:  He is a man who throws money at every problem, and the Vanderhofs can’t be bought.

Grandpa Vanderhof refuses to sell for the simple reason that he doesn’t want to leave the home filled with happy memories, and his refusal to sell protects the rest of the neighborhood from being evicted from their homes.

This clash of ideas about what makes a good life—Kirby has more money than he could ever spend but lacks fulfilling relationships with his wife and son, and treats his employees like dirt, while Grandpa Vanderhof lacks wealth and status but has the love and respect of family and friends—is the heart of the film.

Lionel Barrymore as patriarch Grandpa Vanderhof in You Can't Take It With You (1938)
Lionel Barrymore as patriarch Grandpa Vanderhof

Capra thickens the plot, of course.  The life philosophies of two old men might be interesting, but a Hollywood film needs youth, beauty, and romance.

In his first starring role James Stewart plays Anthony’s son Tony, the reluctant vice president and heir apparent in his father’s company.  Jean Arthur, also in an early starring role, plays Grandpa Vanderhof’s loving and slightly less crazy granddaughter Alice, who is a stenographer at the Kirby’s bank.

Unbeknownst to both old men, Tony and Alice are in love. 

And we’re off.

There is an inevitable clash of cultures when the Kirbys and Vanderhofs meet, a plot twist where Grandpa Vanderhof nearly loses the house but is saved by the senior Kirby’s dawning realization that Grandpa Vanderhof is the richer man, surrounded by people who love and respect him.  And of course, Tony temporarily loses Alice.

Don’t worry, he gets her back again.

It’s amazing to me that this film was nominated for seven Oscars and won Best Picture and Best Director.  Not because I think it’s undeserving—it certainly is (and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Barrymore wouldn’t have been out of line)—but a picture like this wouldn’t even have been considered for a nomination today.  It’s a comedy with a message so pure and positive it borders on corny.

Its complete lack of cynicism would invalidate its legitimacy in the minds of today’s Oscar voters.  As a critique, it says more about the trend of the Oscars than it does about Capra’s film.

You Can’t Take It With You also serves as a changing of the guard in terms of Hollywood’s leading men.  Though he would act for fifteen more years, at sixty Lionel Barrymore’s best years and films are behind him.  He’s on crutches throughout the film, and this is explained by an accident, but the truth is in real life he was plagued by painful arthritis that would increasingly trouble him the rest of his life.

Barrymore is the heart of the film, and he gets all the best lines.  Yet he’s clearly passing the torch—however reluctantly—to James Stewart.  

Only three years into his nearly sixty year career, James Stewart is already oozing charisma and speaking in his inimitable stutter-step accent.  His wide-eyed Tony is head over heels in love with Alice and her crazy family.  Alice knows it is a bad idea to fall in love with someone whose family will never accept her, but really, what woman could resist Jimmy Stewart when he turns up the charm?

You Can’t Take It With You isn’t a perfect film.  It’s a little too long, and sometimes the antics of the Vanderhof family become irritating.

But honestly, let’s not quibble.  This is a movie made to distract you from your troubles.  You munch on popcorn while watching young people fall in love and old people coming around to the idea that love triumphs over money, and that the American Dream is alive and well.

What could be better than that?

Verdict for You Can't Take It With You (1938):  Film Buffs Only

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Director Frank Capra on the set of You Can't Take It With You (1938)

If It Doesn’t Fit…

#10 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Clark Gable and Norma Shearer sitting on a couch in A Free Soul (1931)
A Free Soul (1931) opening banner

Norma Shearer followed up her Oscar winning performance in The Divorcée with A Free Soul, the story of Jan Ashe, a woman who is caught between three men—her straight-laced, respectable fiancé (Leslie Howard), a charming and exciting gangster (Clark Gable), and the true love of her life, her father (Lionel Barrymore.)

Her father, Stephen Ashe, is a brilliant lawyer, yet his uppercrust family have shunned him due to his alcoholism and tendency toward representing criminals and lowlifes.  Loyal Jan stands with him against his family and tries to moderate his alcohol intake with little success.  Stephen loves his daughter and her doting, but because of his preoccupation with the bottle and the courtroom, he lets her run wild, the “free soul” of the title.

Early in the film, Stepen defends gangster Ace Wilfong of a murder charge.  The main piece of evidence condemning Ace is the hat found at the scene of the crime, along with witness testimony stating a hatless Ace left the scene shorty after the murder.

In a scene that made me wonder if Johnnie Cochran has seen the film, Stephen instructs Ace to stand and put on the hat, which turns out to be comically small for Ace’s head.

I could practically hear him say, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

Clark Gable with a too small hat and O.J. Simpson with a too small glove

Life imitates art, indeed.  For the benefit of our readers under thirty-five, I’m referring to the moment in the O.J. Simpson murder trial when O.J. put on the bloody gloves found at the scene, and held his hands up to show the jury that the gloves were too small.  Not as small as Ace’s hat, but both cases were won in that performative moment, regardless of the rest of the evidence.

Ace is handsome, charming, and trouble, so of course Jan immediately falls in love with him and breaks off her engagement with the loving and stable Dwight.  Jan and Ace embark on a whirlwind romance, complete with clandestine overnight visits.

Jan thinks the affair is great fun, but things turn serious when Ace tells her father he wants to marry her.  Stephen is outraged at the idea—he has no problem drinking Ace’s bootleg booze and getting him off for murder, but has no intention of letting his daughter marry a lowlife gangster.

Angry and insulted, Ace returns to his apartment to find Jan waiting for him.  When he proposes to her (without telling her of his encounter with her father), she too brushes off the idea of marriage, albeit with more tact.  Ace realizes Jan sees him as nothing more than her dirty little secret and has no intention of taking their relationship public.

He is angry, but when Jan lays back on the divan, arms outstretched and says, “C’mon.  Put ‘em around me,” he obliges.

When Stephen finds them together, he drags Jan away and she is stunned at his anger and the depths of his disappointment.  They realize they are both out of control—Stephen’s drinking has escalated, and Jan is entangled with the wrong sort of man.  They make a bargain:  Jan will never see Ace again if Stephen quits drinking.

This movie calls to mind Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle, another story of a daughter who idolizes her alcoholic father.  As with A Free Soul, the daughter runs wild and the most poignant scene involves young Jeannette asking her father to give up drinking.  In Jeannette’s case, she has asked him to stop drinking as her tenth birthday present.

In both stories, the fathers make the promise to stop drinking, knowing they cannot keep it.

In Jan’s case, she returns to Ace when her father starts drinking again.  But Ace’s wounded pride has made him both violent and possessive, and when Jan again refuses to marry him, he promises to expose to the world that they have slept together, marking her as a ruined woman no decent man would want.

Except good old Dwight still wants her.  Though meant to be heroic, Dwight comes off as a bit of a patsy when he takes it upon himself to shoot Ace dead to protect Jan’s nonexistent virtue.

This sets up a dramatic final courtroom scene, where an off-the-rails Stephen pulls himself together enough to defend Dwight.  He puts Jan on the stand and she confesses all.  She is distraught and ashamed of her behavior, and Stephen takes the blame, saying that she had no choice but to grow up wild with a drunkard who associated with criminals as a father.

It’s a rousing speech, one that won Lionel Barrymore his only Oscar.

The film also garnered Shearer’s third of an eventual five nominations for Best Actress.  

It was also one of the films that catapulted Clark Gable into leading man status.

Overall, it’s a very good film that holds up over time.  Shearer is delightfully charming, and Gable is Gable in all his glory.

It was, of course, hugely controversial at the time.  In particular, the scene where Jan holds out her arms to Ace was nearly universally cut by the regional censors.

Though the censor board was mostly ignored in the pre-code era, after the Warner Brothers films and A Free Soul, the board insisted the studios not make anymore gangster films.

It’s funny that A Free Soul is the straw that broke the camel’s back.  It’s much less violent than Little Caesar or Public Enemy, but it committed two sins that those films, for all their transgressions, did not.

First, Little Caesar and Tom Powers pay for their crimes with their lives.  And while Jan is humiliated in open court, she ultimately gets a happy ending when Dwight is acquitted and they go off to New York to start a new life together.  

Second, and most damningly, A Free Soul glorifies a woman having sex outside of marriage.  More shockingly, she refuses when Ace proposes.  

The studios, fearing government-mandated censorship, complied with the edict and put the gangster films on ice.

But as we’ll see next week, there was a way to make movies outside the studio system.  If you had enough money and enough moxie, you could make whatever picture you wanted.

Twenty-six year old business magnate Howard Hughes had plenty of both.

A Free Soul (1931) Verdict - Give It A Shot

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Clark Gable and Norma Shearer sitting on a couch in A Free Soul (1931)

More Stars Than There Are In Heaven

#5 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Grand Hotel (1932) title card plus shots from the film
Grand Hotel (1932) opening banner

Before 1932, movies usually had only one or two stars to anchor the film and draw an audience.

But MGM—as we’ve discussed and they once boasted—had “more stars than there are in heaven,” so they came up with a simple but brilliant idea—instead of having one or two leads, what if they stuffed a movie full of stars and let them play off one other?

The experiment produced Grand Hotel—the first ensemble film and a precursor to modern films like Ocean’s 11 and Boogie Nights.

MGM pulled out all the stops for Grand Hotel.  They started with the grandest sets ever constructed.  The lobby was the film’s crown jewel, complete with a circular check-in desk and a dizzying spiral staircase.  The entirety of the film takes place inside this luxurious Berlin hotel, temporary home of the rich and famous.

Then they studded the cast with the highest quality stars from their stable.

John Barrymore plays Baron Felix von Geigern, an amiable thief who steals a necklace from Greta Garbo’s Grusinskaya, a temperamental Russian ballerina whose inevitable aging is impacting her career.

After disappearing and missing one of her performances without explanation, Grusinskaya shows up at her room and Garbo utters her most famous line:

“I want to be alone.”

Garbo wants, as always, to be alone

The Baron and Grusinskaya ultimately fall in love, but before they do, the Baron engages in some surprisingly sexy flirting with Joan Crawford’s Flaemmchen.  

Upon learning she is a stenographer, he asks:

“I don’t suppose you’d take some… dictation from me sometime.”

And yes, he means exactly what your dirty mind thinks he means.

John Barrymore to Joan Crawford: “Are you reducing?”

Though Flaemmchen likes the Baron very much, it turns out she is more than just a stenographer for Preysing, a lying and ruthless businessman played by Wallace Berry.

Berry makes Flaemmchen a rather indecent proposal, but as a working girl who can only afford one meal a day, she grudgingly accepts.

Meanwhile, Lionel Barrymore is Otto Kringelein, a poor factory worker who is dying.  He decides to spend what time and money he has left in the grandest hotel in the world.

Kringelein befriends both the Baron and Flaemmchen before discovering Presysing’s presence, and denouncing the businessman who has abused Kringelein and all the other workers in his factory.

If you can’t follow all that, suffice it to say that these great actors play off one another brilliantly in scene after scene as their lives intersect in surprising ways.

This was the first film starring both Barrymore brothers.  The Barrymores are an acting dynasty. John, Lionel, and their sister Ethel were all actors.  Their father and mother, Maurice and Georgia Drew Barrymore, acted on the stage in the late nineteenth century.  

Both of John’s children, John Jr. and Diana Barrymore, also became actors.

By the time John Barrymore’s seven-year-old granddaughter Drew showed up in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), she was the fourth generation of actors in the Barrymore family.

But back to Grand Hotel.

Grand Hotel (1932) film premier showing crowds outside the theater.
Grand Hotel Premiere

Just in case the “greatest cast ever assembled” and gem-filled script weren’t enough, MGM staged a lavish premiere party at Grauman’s Chinese theater.  While hoards of fans watched, all of MGM’s stars—whether they were in the film or not—dressed up in their finest and paraded down the carpet.

The studio recreated the film’s circular lobby desk for the premiere and had each star sign a huge hotel register book.  Each then gave a sound bite to the press and their adoring public.

Everyone who was anyone was there.

Except Garbo, of course.

It worked.  Grand Hotel was an exceptionally good movie, a box office smash and Best Picture Winner.  Interestingly, it remains the only Best Picture Winner with no other nominations. All those stars and no acting nominations.  Perhaps it makes sense, because they were so good that none shined brighter than the others.

Grand Hotel is my favorite of the films I’ve reported on thus far for this project.  It teeters just on the edge—but doesn’t quite make—a “Timeless- Watch It Tonight” rating.

But we’re all still stuck at home and if you’ve blown through Tiger King, you might want to give it a shot.

Grand Hotel (1932) Verdict:  Film Buffs Only

Birth of the Talkies: The Early Films of the Sound Era

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Grand Hotel (1932) title card plus shots from the film

Garbo As Garbo

#3 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

TV screen with the title card of Mata Hari (1931) starring Greta Garbo and Ramon Novarro.
Garbo as Garbo opening card

For Greta Garbo, Anna Christie was only the beginning.  She followed it up with a string of talking hits, and became the most powerful movie star in the world.  Her success at the box office gave her unprecedented power over her contract, her roles, and her co-stars.

It wasn’t just her movies that fascinated her public—it was Garbo herself.

Dubbed the “Swedish Sphinx” by the media, Garbo shunned publicity.  More than shunned—she had absolutely no desire to interact with fans or the press.  She didn’t answer fan mail, rarely gave interviews, and never attended an Oscars event.  It wasn’t just fans—Garbo didn’t really like people. She didn’t attend parties, didn’t socialize with Hollywood regulars, and kept to herself on set.

While there are some current stars who shy away from the spotlight, there is really no modern equivalent to Garbo’s reclusiveness.

And as is the way of the world, her want of privacy made her the most elusive and desirable woman in the world.

While her solitary nature was undoubtedly sincere, the studio heads soon realized that playing hard to get was always a winning strategy for attention when you’re young and beautiful.  Thus, they leaned in and cast her in movie after movie where she played a version of her public persona.

In the three films I watched this week, she plays a series of beautiful, unknowable Ice Queens whose hearts are finally melted by the love of a good man.

Let’s start with Mata Hari, where Garbo plays the real-life World War I exotic dancer and spy who is ultimately executed by a French firing squad.  We are introduced to Mata Hari as she is dancing seductively on the stage for a group of soldiers.  While watching, I couldn’t help but think how this same scene has echoed throughout movie history. A powerful woman using her sexuality to seduce and destroy men.  Most recently, we see a version of this scene in Hustlers, when Jennifer Lopez’s character is introduced doing an extremely athletic strip tease.  (Even if you didn’t see the film, you got a taste of it during this year’s Superbowl Halftime Show.  Huge sporting events…remember those?)

Garbo as Mata Hari uses and discards men, until she falls in love with a soldier whose purity cuts through her cynicism and pierces her heart.  

But as Mata Hari’s boss reminds her, “A spy in love is a tool that has outlived its usefulness.”

Mata Hari’s love for her soldier ultimately has disastrous consequences for them both.

In Queen Christina, Garbo plays another historical figure:  Queen Christina of Sweden, who took the throne at the age of six and ruled during a long war.

Though Camille is often considered her best performance, Queen Christina was my favorite of the Garbo films.  It is the sad tale of a woman who has more interest in literature, art, and sculpture than war.  Queen Christina longs to escape her endless duties and impulsively dresses as a boy and takes off for a few days.

She meets a man, Antonino, who first believes her to be a man.  He soon discovers she is a woman and they share a passionate night together.  He is a Spanish Ambassador, and does not know he has spent the night with the Queen he is on a diplomatic mission to meet.

In one of my favorite old movie scenes, after they spend the night together, Queen Christina knows (as he does not) that they can never be together.  She walks around the room, longingly touching the desk and the walls. She lays on the bed and puts her head on the pillow. Then she gets up, studies the painting on the wall and finally presses her face into the bed post.

“What are you doing?” Antonio asks, amused.

“I have been memorizing this room,” she says.  “In the future, in my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room.”

After she returns to her palace and Antonio learns of her true identity, they cannot deny their love.  But as Queen, Christina is not free to follow her heart. Her people desire her to marry her cousin Charles, a war hero, and to continue fighting for the glory of Sweden.

But Christina is tired of war and duty.  She longs for peace and love.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown, indeed.

In a scene that truly shocked me, instead of doing her duty, Christina abdicates her throne and dramatically places her crown on Charles’ head, giving up her kingdom for Antonio.

For love.

And if that doesn’t melt your heart, you probably aren’t going to enjoy this series.  The Golden Age of Hollywood is nothing if not melodramatic.

Finally, I watched Camille, Garbo’s last great film.  Garbo plays Marguerite Gautier, a woman who hides her frail health, poverty, and desire for love as she charms and laughs her way through society on the arms of rich men.

(Old movies can be tricky for modern audiences.  We’re used to having everything spelled out for us, and they’re often quite subtle.  I was about three quarters of the way through the movie before I understood Marguerite was a courtesan—a prostitute with wealthy clients—and not just a woman who had pulled herself up by her bootstraps.)

Armand Duval sees through Marguerite’s masks and the two fall deeply in love.  But the circumstances of her position in society make it impossible for his family to accept her, and she sacrifices her love for him at great personal cost.

All three of these movies end in the tragic death of one of the leads.  So while each Ice Queen is melted by love, she never gets her happy ending.

Greta Garbo’s heart never melted—she never married, never had children, and lived most of her life alone.  She had a romance with her Queen Christina co-star John Gilbert but refused his marriage proposal. 

Garbo retired abruptly in 1941.  She was only thirty-six, and had made twenty-eight successful films.  She spent the rest of her life—nearly fifty more years—without any occupation.  She disguised herself and took long walks in New York City, and spoke in letters discovered after her death of long periods of melancholy.

But she remains an object of public fascination, nearly eighty years after her last film.  Like James Dean, we’re left to mourn all the films she never made. Though unlike Dean it was not death but her own reticence that cut her career painfully short.

It is unclear if she got her happy ending—she did often say she wanted to be alone, so perhaps she did.

But we’ll never stop wondering.

Verdict for Garbo films.  Mata Hari - Had It's Day, But that Day is Done.  Queen Christina - Film Buffs Only, and Camille - Film Buffs Only.

Birth of the Talkies: The Early Films of the Sound Era

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