Thursday, April 28, 2011

Garbo Garbles: "Anna Christie" (1930)

"The first film that Greta Garbo spoke in" is the only reason this old chestnut should be sought out.

Based on the play by Eugene O'Neill, New York City-based drunk barge captain Chris (George F. Marion) waits for his long lost daughter to arrive. He dumps equally drunk galpal Marthy (Marie Dressler), and Anna arrives in the form of Garbo.

Anna joins Chris on the barge circuit, and Chris loves having his daughter around. Anna begins to warm up to the father she has not seen in fifteen years, but she also has a deep dark secret. She was not working as a nurse back in St. Paul, she ran away from some amorous cousins on the farm and ended up in a brothel.

Anna and Chris rescue shipwrecked Irish sailor Matt (Charles Bickford), and Matt and Anna soon fall in love. There is no love lost between Matt and Chris, as both are protective of their good little girl. Marthy shows up long enough to make Anna feel guilty about her soiled past. Matt offers Anna a marriage proposal, and in the finale, Anna sits Matt and Chris down and has it out with the both of them. The final confession changes her relationship with both men.

Filmed in 1930, this movie does not move well. The script's origins are obviously stage bound, and Brown's direction never gets very imaginative unless Brown is allowed to take his camera out of the set. Nice scenes include Anna and Matt's date at the carnival, and a storm scene. Also interesting is seeing the New York City skyline of almost seventy five years ago. Frances Marion's script bogs down in slow scenes with bad pacing.

Garbo succumbs to theatrical acting, constantly grasping her hair and trying to wear her emotions on her sleeves. Bickford is okay as Matt, although he sometimes seems more concerned with getting his Irish accent right as opposed to understanding what his lines mean. Dressler plays Marthy for laughs, although this fat alcoholic woman is more sad than humorous. The early sound technology is horrible, and all the European accents are very difficult to understand. Brown also tries some backscreening processes that fail miserably.

This leaves George F. Marion as Anna's father, and he is incredible. He originated the role on Broadway, and played him in a silent film version, but his performance is fresh and likable. He is so comfortable as Chris, he makes the characterization effortless, as opposed to the often hysterical overacting of the rest of the cast.

Eugene O'Neill has been filmed better, check out John Ford's "The Long Voyage Home." The idea of a sullied woman trying to escape her past has been done before, and better.

"Anna Christie" should be avoided, unless you are a big Garbo fan, or would like to see Marion turn in one of the most underrated film performances of the 1930's. (* *) out of five stars.