The Bootleg Files: Garbo

BOOTLEG FILES 583: “Garbo” (1969 BBC documentary narrated by Joan Crawford).

LAST SEEN: An unauthorized posting is on YouTube.



CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It was announced for a 2005 release, but that never happened.

Around 1985, I was walking down First Avenue in New York City when I noticed an elderly woman coming down the street. I immediately recognized this woman – for many years, she had been the elusive object of tabloid photographers eager to snap her picture. I debated whether I should make any acknowledgement of her presence and decided that it would be best to allow her to maintain the legendary privacy associated with her name. And thus, in less than a New York minute, I had my encounter with Greta Garbo.

Garbo was unique among the A-list stars of Hollywood’s Golden Era in being among the very few leading ladies who retired while still at the peak of her talent. But the off-screen Garbo continued to fascinate the media – and, one may assume, her fans – if only because her creative output was so distinctive and her persona was so unusual that it felt as if her retirement was a cruel interruption to a divine dream. (In comparison, there was very little post-film curiosity for the likes of Norma Shearer or Marion Davies, although one could argue that both reigned on screen due to influences beyond mere talent.)

In 1969, Garbo’s mystique was still strong enough to warrant a BBC documentary detailing her life and work. Alexander Walker, the Northern Ireland-born film critic (and later Garbo biographer) was hired to write the screenplay, while Fred Burnley was recruited as producer (and, possibly, director, although the finished production had no director credit). In an interesting touch, the BBC brought in Joan Crawford to serve as the on-screen narrator and host of the film. For Crawford, this was something of a prestige gig. By this point in her movie career had deteriorated into silly horror movies – she was paid $10,000 for this film and it appears that she filmed her “Garbo” footage when she was in London making the execrable “Trog,” her sad final flick. In “Garbo,” Crawford could regain some degree of recognition as being among the stellar icons of a distant cinematic epoch.

In retrospect, there might have been a little too much Crawford in “Garbo,” as she is on screen for nearly half of the film’s running time. And if her line readings are bit too gushy and theatrical at times, she nonetheless looked gorgeous and she offered a much-needed link to the enigmatic subject at the center of the film.

The most entertaining aspect of “Garbo” involves the rarely-seen early films that the Swedish beauty made prior to her elevation to stardom. Her career began in retail at a Stockholm department store, where she was recruited to appear in a 1920 filmed advertisement. She later appeared in an advertisement for a pastry company, where she was set among a table of pretty young girls happily eating cake for the camera. A graduation from advertising happened in an obscure short called “Peter the Tramp,” where Garbo was a bathing suit-clad decorative presence – Crawford’s narration refers to her “plump fresh charm.” The concept of the sexy, strange Garbo was nowhere to be seen, but the jolly girl in these throwaway flicks seemed like a lot of fun.

Garbo might have been stuck making Swedish nonsense had it not been for Mauritz Stiller, the filmmaker who cast her in “The Saga of Gösta Berling,” a 1924 epic. Crawford’s narration tactlessly informs the viewer that despite Stiller’s Svengali-type control over the young actress, “women didn’t interest him sexually” – why was it necessary to pull up that queer trivia? Stiller then loaned Garbo to German filmmaker G.W. Pabst for “Joyless Street” (1925). Oddly, the clips presented in this documentary from the Stiller and Pabst do not show Garbo as a performer on the cusp of stardom – the scenes culled here are, quite frankly, rather dull and her acting seems limited. Nonetheless, Garbo must have made an impression, as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio boss Louis B. Mayer brought her and Stiller to Hollywood.

If the clips presented in “Garbo” are any indication, Garbo’s on-screen persona was a work in progress during her early months in Hollywood. “Torrent” (1926) finds her as a Spanish peasant who smiles joyfully over the songful attention from small birds. In “The Temptress” (1926), Garbo’s seductive motions are created, according to Crawford’s narration, with the “kind of animal directness Americans had never seen before in their films.” Well, that is being charitable – the clip shown here is anything but erotic. (Stiller was supposed to direct Garbo, but was replaced on the project and he would later work briefly at rival Paramount Pictures before leaving Hollywood and returning to Sweden.)

It was not until “Flesh and the Devil” (1927) that the big screen Garbo came into her own. Crawford’s narration insisted that the “horizontal love scenes” between Garbo and John Gilbert were highly provocative for its time – and even at this late date, the romantic segments possess an extraordinary magic. Oddly, “Garbo” only touches briefly on the off-screen Garbo-Gilbert romance or her insistence on casting Gilbert in “Queen Christina” (1933) after he was written off by the studio as a failure.

“Garbo” offers a quick rundown of the star’s sound films, including her legendary opening dialogue in “Anna Christie” (1930) and a few of her lesser-known endeavors including “Susan Lennox” (1931) opposite a young Clark Gable – the lack of chemistry between them is astonishing – and “As You Desire Me” (1932), where she is given a horrible Mika Brzezinski-style haircut and dye job. Crawford claims that Garbo was disappointed they did not share any scenes in “Grand Hotel” (1932), which is the only time the narrator makes herself part of the narrative. More interesting are rare newsreel clips of Garbo and conductor Leopold Stokowski trying to avoid the press during a sojourn in Italy. “Garbo never shunned the company of men,” Crawford insists. “She needed them.”

In a bit of wobbly planning, the film waits until its final stretch to bring in people that worked with Garbo at MGM – directors George Cukor and Rouben Mamoulian offer some mild insight, with Cukor commenting on how Garbo “had her own brand of sex appeal” while Mamoulian admits her aversion to rehearsing. One could imagine that the BBC could have interviewed Garbo’s leading men Charles Boyer and Melvyn Douglas for further insight, but they are nowhere to be seen.

Garbo’s last film, “The Two-Faced Woman” (1941) failed at the box office because, according to Crawford’s narration, it opened after Pearl Harbor and audiences did not want to see a frothy comedy. “Garbo” abruptly ends with the actress’ final role – there is no discussion of her life in retirement. “It is hard to believe she deliberately quit film for good,” Crawford exclaims – and, of course, she didn’t, but this documentary does not mention her aborted comeback in 1949 in Walter Wanger’s production of “La Duchesse de Langeais.”

“Garbo” was broadcast on the BBC in late 1969, and some sources claim that it was also shown on U.S. public television. To date, there has never been an official home entertainment release of “Garbo” – plans to include it in a 2005 DVD packaging of Garbo’s films fell through. A blurry video with a time code on the screen can be found on YouTube, which is the only way people can see both the continuing allure of Garbo and the last hurrah of her one-time MGM rival Joan Crawford.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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