- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 1, 2005

Turner Classic Movies has timed its centennial tribute to Greta Garbo with commendable precision. The celebrated film actress, an enduring idealization of feminine sensibility and desirability, was born in Stockholm on Sept. 18, 1905. A TCM retrospective begins Tuesday at 8 p.m. and continues at the same time each Tuesday through month’s end, reviving most of the movies Miss Garbo made at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer between 1925 and 1941. Her career ended prematurely with a romantic farce titled “Two-Faced Woman” that flopped with a vengeance in 1941. This blunder spoiled a triumphant shift to comedy in 1939 with “Ninotchka.” Despite frequent rumors of a comeback in the middle and late 1940s — the possibilities ranged from “Madame Curie” to “I Remember Mama” — Miss Garbo remained not only characteristically hard to get, but impossible to get for the last 50 years of her life, spent in comfortable seclusion on the East Side of Manhattan. She died April 15, 1990.

The TCM series also anticipates this month’s release of “The Signature Collection,” a set of Garbo DVDs under the TCM Archives banner. It includes “The Garbo Silents,” three features on TCM’s Tuesday program (“Flesh and the Devil,” “The Mysterious Lady” and “The Temptress”) that will extend well into Wednesday morning. The titles sum up the studio’s single-minded notion of its alluring and elusive Swedish import when she first became a Hollywood asset.

“The Signature Collection” incorporates most of the durably watchable Garbo pictures of the 1930s: “Anna Christie” (her first talkie and the source of the immortal advertising line “Garbo talks”), “Mata Hari,” “Grand Hotel,” “Queen Christina,” “Anna Karenina,” “Camille” and “Ninotchka.”

These titles are more or less equally divided among the second, third and final dates on the TCM calendar and pretty much stick closely to chronological order. Miss Garbo’s two European features, made before she signed with Metro, have been omitted. However, TCM incorporates a fascinating duplicate: the German-language version of “Anna Christie,” shot concurrently with the Hollywood version.

TCM also has commissioned a new biographical compilation, called simply “Garbo,” that will be shown twice on Tuesday and repeated later in the series. Apparently confident of its freshness, the producers also will revive two earlier documentaries about the subject: “The Divine Greta Garbo,” completed soon after her death, and a two-part Swedish appreciation, “Greta Garbo: The Temptress” and “Greta Garbo: The Clown,” dating from the mid-1980s.

The noted movie historian Kevin Brownlow reaches into his own archives from the late 1960s in “Garbo,” which seems particularly authoritative when he speaks with the late Clarence Brown, who directed seven of the Garbo classics at MGM. Perhaps the most telling recollection is Mr. Brown’s summary of how he achieved rapport with the star: “I never directed Garbo above a whisper.”

He also confides that she frequently seemed better in rushes than, from his vantage point, on the set. “There was something behind the eyes,” he reflects. It’s also amusing to be reminded that Miss Garbo only enjoyed rushes when Mr. Brown offered to project them backward — that cracked her up without fail. This susceptibility testifies to a lighter side of Greta Garbo that intimates cherished, but it was rarely exploited in her lovelorn and soulful movie vehicles.

It’s a pity Mr. Brownlow failed to interview the late Billy Wilder on this particular subject. Mr. Wilder never got a chance to direct the actress, but he provided one of the most astute evaluations of her appeal and achievement to a biographer. “Her face is amazing,” he observed. “It has such … luminosity that it touches everyone. You read into it what you like. It may be the [biggest] put-on of all time, yet Garbo is the quintessence of what a star should be. … She said and did nothing and let the whole world write her story.”

The late Gore Vidal provides a case in point during the Brownlow film. He repeats the fond exaggeration, “Garbo’s face told you volumes.” A more precise compliment is that it flatters spectators to believe they can read volumes into Greta Garbo’s face during reflective or enigmatic close-ups.

Rouben Mamoulian designed the fadeout of 1933’s “Queen Christina” around a sustained image of that kind. He specifically asked Miss Garbo to confront the camera with an expressively suggestive blank slate that lent itself to infinite sublime speculation.

Like all great stars, Greta Garbo seemed to be a vaguely familiar original. Cast as a foreign exotic supposedly seething with destructive passion, she inspired comparisons to several reigning silent stars — but she looked unique while striking femme fatale poses.

She was remarkably tall and angular for the period, and part of her distinction derived from achieving slinky and graceful effects from a somewhat brusque and ungainly stance. She helped pave the way for later eccentric beauties such as Katharine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall.

Miss Garbo’s heroines were never sexually innocent and seldom expressed their drives from coyly flirtatious cover. In fact, it became a convention of Garbo love scenes for her to assume the dominant position in embraces, often cradling a lover’s head and lifting his face as if she were about to drink from a chalice.

It’s amusing to note in a “Garbo” montage that the only leading man who defies this gesture is Clark Gable. She had a neat back-arching trick that made it appear her characters were about to recline while still in erect embraces.

Yet Miss Garbo soon rebelled against superfluous roles as what she termed “bad womens,” the only type MGM envisioned at the outset. The studio always suspected that she was wasted as “good womens.” A compromise helped sustain and elevate her career in the last half of the 1930s: Miss Garbo as a tarnished or unfulfilled woman whose sufferings revealed an innate nobility of soul and stoic acceptance of fate.

Viewing schedule for TCM’s Garbo retrospective:

Tuesday and Wednesday: “Garbo,” 8 p.m.; “Flesh and the Devil,” 9:30 p.m.; “Garbo,” 11:30 p.m.; “The Mysterious Lady,” 1 a.m. Wednesday; “The Temptress,” 2:45 p.m.; “A Woman of Affairs,” 4:45 a.m.; “Love,” 6:30 a.m.; “Torrent,” 8 a.m.

Sept. 13-14: “Anna Christie,” 8 p.m.; German version of “Anna Christie,” 9:45 p.m.; “Romance,” 11:15 p.m.; “Inspiration,” 12:45 a.m. Wednesday; “Mata Hari,” 2:15 a.m.; “Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise,” 4 a.m.; “The Divine Greta Garbo,” 5:30 a.m.

Sept. 20-21: “Grand Hotel,” 8 p.m.; “Queen Christina,” 10 p.m.; “Greta Garbo: The Temptress,” midnight; “Greta Garbo: The Clown,” 1 a.m. “The Painted Veil,” 2:15 a.m.; “As You Desire Me,” 3:45 a.m.; “Garbo,” 5 a.m.

Sept. 27-28: “Anna Karenina,” 8 p.m.; “Camille,” 10 p.m.; “Ninotchka,” midnight; “Garbo,” 2 a.m.; “Conquest,” 3:30 a.m.; “Two-Faced Woman,” 5:30 a.m.

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