Film review, by Jason Day, of the 1935 version of Leo Tolstoy’s classic, Russian tragic romance starring Greta Garbo as his adulteress heroine Anna Karenina. Co-starring Fredric March and Basil Rathbone.
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Russia, late 19th century: Stiva (Reginald Owen) has yet another affair with a silly society girl, angering his wife Dolly (Phoebe Foster) who threatens to leave him. Her sister-in-law Anna (Greta Garbo) convinces her to put her family and children above mere personal happiness.
Ironically Anna, a society beauty, lives a romantically frigid life with her boring, cold but faithful civil servant husband Karenin (Basil Rathbone). Her very existence is enlivened only by the love she holds for her adoring son, Sergei (Freddie Bartholomew).
A chance meeting with the dashing cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Fredric March) changes all of this and she falls deeply and passionately in love with him, in spite of the strict social conventions of the day and the wrath of her husband, who thinks only of outward appearances and not the happiness of his wife. Anna and Vronsky must both deal with the repercussions of their love.
Review, by Jason Day
Anyone who knows me knows that my cinematic tastes are tickled into overtime by a few things: disaster drama, zombie horror, silent movies and classic Hollywood grande dames.
There was none so grande as Garbo, nor glorious when she as in full filmic suffering and she found her true cinematic milieu as the romantic heroine imperilled by social circumstance in films like this, her second stab at Tolstoy’s Anna (after Love, 1927), Camille (1936) and Conquest (or Marie Walewski, 1937).
I adore Garbo, but her second Anna Karenina is hardly her most worthy picture.
Film critic Pauline Kael used to taunt Meryl Streep with the epithet ‘android’ on account of what Kael deemed Streep’s all too obvious ‘technique’ of accent, carriage, impersonation and physical mannerisms.
The same might also be said here of Garbo, aided and abetted by MGM’s choice squadron
of technicians who surrounded her as she went into battle on the studio floor.
Garbo, you see, was terrified of public performance and averse to being watched, so she demanded (and got) a closed set on her later films with only a select few allowed to view ‘the divine’ one in action.
Despite the obvious problems this can cause to a busy film production ever mindful of being on budget and on time, MGM’s PR office went into over-drive, highlighting the mysteriousness of this ‘behind the screens’ filming style and how much more special this would make the final product.
Despite being a huge fan of Garbo’s and admiring of how she took on the studio system and won (for a while), the more I look at her performances, created behind a veil of studio secrecy, the more I come down on Kael’s view of cinematic acting.
Here, in Anna Karenina, Garbo’s style is painfully obvious.
It’s almost Garbo, stiff backed but stoop shouldered, is wheeled in front of the camera and manipulated at the touch of a button by some unseen force (for it was not director Clarence Brown. He very rarely pushed her and hardly spoke above a whisper when directing her):
Smoke clears, eyes open at normal, mouth slightly agape, mouth closed. Alight train, eyes fully wide, look around in delight, smile gloriously. Speech – lilting, chirping, as if singing slightly.
During sadder moments: Head tilts back (key lights shift), eyes swoop down, eyelids half close, eye-lashes cast shadows over the face. Speech = stentorian and clipped.
I adore Garbo, but the more I watch her performances the more I feel she was not a great actress but merely a very competent one. An dizzyingly beautiful woman who photographed perfectly but whose force of personality rendered her peers unable to perform. Disabled in front of the camera, Garbo appeared magisterial in comparison and, thus, the greater Garbo reigned supreme.
Certainly, March as a too old (he was eight years older than Greta in real-life) and callow Vronsky could not be relied upon to help stoke the flames of passion.
Rathbone, a supporting actor whose on-screen villainy would soon give way to the Victorian heroical sleuthing of his most famous incarnation, Sherlock Holmes (1939-1946) snarls and sulks as Anna’s panto relief hubby, obsessed with propriety.
On set he, like most of the cast, were cowed into uncertainty as if, as soon as ‘she’ walked in front of them, no one quite knew what to do with themselves, if she would be able to perform in front of them. What if she walked off set?
It has been written before that Garbo’s best ‘love’ scenes are those she played with the child actors who played her sons. She only ever really comes alive as the doomed Anna during her electric scenes with the admittedly irritating and prissy Freddie Bartholomew and the extras who play the children in later scenes.
An another matter that always troubled her, and her devoted audience – her pathological aversion to dancing. Garbo moved like the most sinewy of animals: hips thrust forward, long strides, shoulders back, as if she were being dragged across the floor by some forcefield locked in on her groin.
Awkward at moving, dancing proved to be a problem and she rehearsed as little as possible for these scenes in her films, often away from the rest of the cast. This shows in the ‘Mazurska’ scene, possibly the worse choreography in any of her movies, with the cast seemingly dancing several different moves, all out of sync.
From this Reader’s Digest adaptation of Tolstoy’s multi-layered, multi-boring epic novel (I tried reading it once. Don’t bother…page upon page about Russian agricultural methods in the late 19th century will make you fall asleep), you won’t get much sense of the point he was trying to make about the hypocrisy that existed (to some extent, still exists) in our treatment of men and women who operate outside of normative social conventions.
Garbo’s favoured writers collaborate to produce a script that has all of the hallmarks but none of the heritage of the writer whose world they fail to capture, but dialogue writer Sam Behrman manages to wring out some delectable words. When we first see Anna, Vronsky’s mother (May Robson), who has shared a train carriage with her, announces:
You, my dear, have the divine gift of silence.
Later, Anna delivers a riveting valediction to Karenin:
Your honour, your selfishness, your hypocrisy, your egotism. You’ve never considered me as a human being. Your social position, your reputation, these must be kept up, but at what cost to those who are around you. At what cost?!”
Director Clarence Brown, the man who would assume the megaphone duties on more Garbo films than anyone else (seven), accomplishes some exceptional photography during this movie. The reverse tracking shot over the officers’ dining table, stuffed with candelabra and caviar; the first time we see Garbo, her face wreathed in smoke; the steeple chase with Garbo, face hidden by enormous binoculars but clearly panting with excitement as Vronsky’s dashes to the finish line, her husband sat next to her.
So, there we have it, my verdict on my idol. But despite my pernickety look at Garbo’s acting, why will I keep watching her performances, why should I continue looking at her? For one reason – she was and will remain the most magnetic of movie madonnas.
Through a perfect combination of physical beauty, an expert team of movie-makers, a politely pushy personality and some good luck on her side, she was the most dazzling of divas. And long may she remain so.
Cast & credits
Director: Clarence Brown. 1hr 35mins (95 mins). MGM. (U).
Producer: David O’ Selznick.
Writers: Clemence Dane, Salka Viertel. S.N. Bohrmann.
Camera: William Daniels.
Music: Herbert Stothart.
Sets: Cedric Gibbons.
Greta Garbo, Fredric March, Basil Rathbone, Maureen O’Sullivan, May Robson, Freddie Bartholomew, Reginald Owen, Phoebe Foster.