Saturday, August 6, 2022

The Savvy Sphinx: How Garbo Conquered Hollywood

The Savvy Sphinx
How Garbo Conquered Hollywood
by Robert Dance
University Press of Mississippi
Hardcover ISBN: 9781496833280
288 pages
November 2021

Greta Garbo was extraordinary in many ways. She was one of the most beloved and sought after celebrities of her time. Her level of fame was astonishing for the era and nearly unmatched today. Despite coming to America not speaking English and also despite her deep aversion to publicity, she quickly became one of MGM's most bankable stars and was embraced by the public. Everyone knew who Garbo was and audiences flocked to see the majestic star on the big screen. MGM carefully curated her silent film career and her transition to talking pictures. With her growing fame and continued success at the box office, she gained more control over the particulars of her career. In an age when many actors fell victim to movie studio machinations, Garbo thrived at MGM and never worked anywhere else. When her career ended in 1941 when Garbo was 36 years old, her celebrity persisted in the decades that followed. Her elusiveness made her an object of curiosity for the press and the public. She never embraced fame and preferred to live a private life with a small circle of confidantes. Even so, she remained one of the most recognizable movie stars even though she never worked again.

Portrait collector and film historian Robert Dance's book The Savvy Sphinx: How Garbo Conquered Hollywood explores the many facets of Garbo's fame and how it conflicted with her personal life. The book boasts extensive information about Garbo's acting career in particular, one that lasted through the 1920s and 1930s. We also get a peek into her personal life, her romantic relationships, her friendships and her retirement years. Because of Dance's interest in portrait work, readers are also given extensive insights on how movie studios utilized photographers like Clarence Bull, George Hurrell, Ruth Harriet Louise, Arnold Genthe and others. The book is slightly oversized, printed on glossy paper and features many professional portraits of Garbo as well as personal photographs of the star from over the years. 

Arnold Genthe portrait of Greta Garbo, circa July 1925

Here are some interesting takeaways from the book:

  • Garbo preferred to associate with European ex-pats or those who respected her need for privacy. She was quick to kick someone out of her inner circle.
  • Swedish filmmaker Mauritz Stiller was Garbo's mentor and pivotal to bringing her to Hollywood and getting her a contract with MGM.
  • Garbo chose her scripts, her romantic leading men and which portrait photographer she would allow to photograph her. She would also only agree to short term contracts. This level of control was quite rare in the era of the Hollywood studio system.
  • Garbo avoided fans, autographs and any kind of publicity. She preferred focusing on her work.
  • She was considered for films like Red Dust, Dark Victory and Song of Russia.
  • Flesh and the Devil (1926) made Garbo a household name thanks to her on screen and off screen chemistry with her costar John Gilbert.
  • The Divine Woman (1928) is the only Garbo film considered lost.
  • For Anna Christie (1930), they decided to warm up the audience with 5 minutes of Marie Dressler before they introduced Garbo in her first speaking role.
  • She frequently got out of MGM obligations including group photographs as well as bit parts in studio productions like Hollywood Revue of 1929 and The Christmas Party (1931).
  • Garbo insisted that Laurence Olivier be replaced with John Gilbert in Queen Christina (1933).
  • She played Anna Karenina twice: Love (1926) and Anna Karenina (1935).
  • Irving Thalberg was a pivotal player in Garbo's career at MGM. When he died in 1936, it was the beginning of the end for her studio career.
  • Despite starring in many serious dramas and prestige pictures, her final two films Ninotchka (1939) and Two-Faced Woman (1941) were comedies.

And here are some of my favorite quotes:

“What is clear is that Garbo possessed great ambition and self-assurance, two qualities critical for success.” 
“Garbo’s voice turned out to be ideal for sound pictures. Her deep alto with its rich timbre and slight continental accent, not quite Swedish, but not quite anything else, recorded beautifully.”
“Here was a new sort of screen siren. Blond, beautiful, irresistible to men, and irresistible to audiences, Garbo displayed an overt sexuality that was revolutionary. Never before on screen had a woman been depicted as an equal romantic partner.”

“To looks and talent must be added to Garbo's magic. Something happens in the space between the faces projected on the shimmering silver screen and the eyes of the patrons filling movie theater seats.”

The Savvy Sphinx is richly rewarding. I came away from the book feeling like I just graduated with a degree in all things Greta Garbo. Reading this book cover to cover will take a while as there is quite a lot to take in and absorb. But it's well worth your time.

I did have a few problems with the book. There were typos scattered throughout which hopefully will be fixed on future reprints. The author is protective of his subject which at times can be frustrating because of the inherent bias. Garbo's romantic relationships, especially with John Gilbert, are downplayed a great deal. Even with that said, I still enjoyed the book immensely.

I highly recommend The Savvy Sphinx to anyone who already loves Greta Garbo or anyone wanting more insights on her special brand of celebrity and fame.

This is my third review for the 2022 Classic Film Reading Challenge.

Thank you to the University Press of Mississippi for sending me The Savvy Sphinx for review.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Girls on Film by Alicia Malone

Girls on Film
Lessons from a Life of Watching Women in Movies
by Alicia Malone
Mango Publishing
Paperback ISBN: 9781642506563 
March 2022 
224 pages 

This review was originally published at the Classic Film Collective Patreon in June 2022.

As movie lovers, what we watch during the different stages in our lives really shapes the person we become. This can have both positive and negative effects on our emotional well-being. Especially for women and minorities, who may see themselves reflected poorly or not represented at all in the movies that they consume. 

TCM host and author Alicia Malone explores the films shaped her life in her new book Girls on Film: Lessons from a Life of Watching Women in Movies. This book is part memoir, part film analysis with a special focus on women in movies, a topic that Malone has been passionate about for many years. Each chapter in the book chronicles one pivotal stage in Malone's life and the movies that influenced her perception of society and herself. For example, watching National Velvet (1944) as a child helped introduced Malone to classic movies, especially ones about "heroic young girls. Her early fascination with Marilyn Monroe led her to film analysis. Learning from movie reviewers like Leonard Maltin and movie hosts like Bill Collins (Mr. Movies) and Robert Osborne led her to a career in television. Learning about Ingrid Bergman and Malone's encounter with a contemporary movie star helped Malone realize what she truly wanted out of life.

The chapters each have their own themes that tie into a time in Malone's life with mentions of several related movies and an in-depth look into a couple films in particular. These include: Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), Woman of the Year (1942), The Enchanted Cottage (1945), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962) etc. More contemporary movies include: Carrie (1976), The Little Mermaid (1989), Smooth Talk (1985), Mad Love (1995). etc.

Some of my favorite quotes from the book include: 

"The curiosity about Marilyn Monroe led me to read film books for the first time and begin to consider beyond the images I saw on screen: to stop watching passively and start to question what was being presented to me, particularly when it came to women." — Alicia Malone

"Classic cinema felt like my secret. It was special, and my own experience—my private way of escaping life when I felt I needed to." — Alicia Malone

 "Watching classic movies with modern eyes can be a confronting experience, but one of the biggest ways we can keep classic films alive and relevant to the next generation is to engage with them. Society changes as the years go on, and our own attitude shift too, but classic films remain locked in their moment. They're time capsules, filled with relics of the past..." — Alicia Malone

They say that the more specific the story is the more universal its appeal. This definitely rings true with Girls on Film. While the book focuses on Malone's personal journey with movies and how it led to her different life decisions along the way, readers will find her story incredibly relatable. 

There were several moments throughout the book where a story Malone related triggered a core memory within me. I would put the book aside and stop to think about my own journey. It made me think of those halcyon days during high school and college when I would spent countless hours at a local Blockbuster perusing the shelves and picking just the right movie to watch. When she spoke of The Little Mermaid, I remembered how obsessed I was with that film as a girl. I played my VHS tape so many times (including 7 times in one day) that it broke. Back then Disney would limit their VHS releases of their major movies and it broke at a time when the movie wasn't available to purchase. So my mom bought be a Disney Singalong tape with an Under the Sea theme so I could at least watch a couple scenes from the movie. It held me over until I could watch The Little Mermaid again. And like Malone, Marilyn Monroe was one of several catalysts for my interest in classic film. 

Alicia Malone is a very private person and Girls on Film is a small glimpse into her world. I was particularly interested in reading about her early career in television, her work at press junkets, her start at TCM and her recent move to New England. My only complaint about the book that there weren't more stories about her work as a movie presenter.

Girls on Film is touching, relatable and ultimately grounded by a deep understanding of film history. A must read for any TCM fan.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Armageddon (1977)

 After the sudden death of his younger brother, repairman Louis Carrier (Jean Yanne) acquires a large inheritance and he sees an opportunity to make something of his life. Louis has always lived in obscurity and poverty. With his new found wealth, he concocts a plan. He wants the celebrity that comes with being an international criminal. Louis recruits his buddy Einstein (Renato Salvatori) to be his sidekick. Einstein, who wants to help his friend but isn't fully aware of the gravity of the situation, learns photography skills in order to be Louis' personal paparazzi. Einstein photographs Louis in public settings alongside well-known figures. These photos are printed, packaged with threatening letters and recordings, and sent to officials under the pen name 'Armaguedon.' Louis is threatening to commit mass murder and begins practicing on people whom he thinks are either disposable or a threat. Dr. Michel Ambrose (Alain Delon), a psychiatrist skilled at working with exceptionally difficult mental health cases, is hired to analyze Armaguedon's words and actions, track down his real identity and help the authorities find Louis before he poses a real threat to the public.

Armageddon/Armaguedon (1977) is a heavy-handed crime thriller that tries to do too much with an ultimately flimsy plot. All of the action comes at the expense of any real character development. I'm reluctant to call this a psychological thriller because even though one of the protagonists is an actual psychiatrist, there is very little conveyed to the audience about Louis' psychosis. We learn more about Dr. Ambrose' techniques but very little about him as a psychiatrist or even as a person. There is one scene where we see him with his wife and two children. Later in the film, he and inspector Jacques Vivien (Michel Duchaussoy) are seen in bed with prostitutes. No context is given. They're just expected to cheat on their wives because they're professionals who work high stress jobs and need to unwind? In general the female characters are depicted as sex objects or they're just a pawn to move the plot forward. The way the gay characters are depicted is even worse. Overall, there is no complexity or nuance with any of the characters other than some with Louis and his buddy Einstein. 

The performances are a bit of a mixed bag. Delon seems to be sleepwalking through his performance. Jeanne Yanne, on the other hand, does an excellent job conveying Louis' increasing mania and downward spiral.

The movie was directed by Alain Jessua and produced by Alain Delon. They both worked on the script, adapting David Lippincott's novel The Voice of Armageddon to screen. From what I've gathered, Jessua and Delon butted heads. According to unit manager Alain Depardieu (Gerard's brother), Delon didn't even want to breathe the same air as Jessua. This must have made for a lot of tension on set and could explain why the end result was a mess of a movie. This was Delon and Jessua's second collaboration, Traitement de choc (1973) being the first. Delon hired Astor Piazzolla to compose the film's score. French is the movie's main language but Italian, English and German are also spoken. Armageddon/Armaguedon did well at the French box office. It doesn't seem to have gotten a US release.

Armageddon/Armaguedon (1977) is worth watching if you're an admirer of Alain Delon or you're looking for a movie about the psychology behind mass murderers. Otherwise, this weird, macabre and ultimately empty thriller is one you may want to skip.

Armageddon/Armaguedon (1977) is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. The Blu-ray edition comes with subtitles, trailers and audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson.

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