100 years of Garbo
September 18 is the 100th anniversary of Greta Garbo's birth. But Warner Home Video isn't waiting until then to deliver the present: On September 6 they released The Greta Garbo Signature Collection, a gargantuan box that fans can enjoy from now until her centenary and still have leftovers for the party.
The set collects half of the features Garbo made in the sound era along with a trio of her silent films. Anything approaching a household-name title is here, with overlooked gems thrown in for good measure. And in what is getting to be enjoyably common for Warner Bros. box sets, these high-quality discs are a bargain even at retail - if you catch a good sale, the set averages under $7 a film.
Setting the stage is Garbo, a feature-length doc about the icon, made by Turner Classic Movies and narrated by Julie Christie. A bit of biography is more welcome here than usual, as the actress was famously private. Friends and family try to fill in personal gaps while film clips from her early work in Sweden show us a legend in the making.
Three silents from the late '20s make up the second and third discs: The Temptress, The Mysterious Lady, and the thrillingly titled Flesh and the Devil. (Nine minutes of 1928's The Divine Woman, the uncut print of which is believed lost forever, are also included.)
Given the mystique built up in those movies, it's no surprise what an event it was when Garbo finally spoke on screen. "Gimme a whiskey" are the first English words audiences heard from her, but it's not enough for Warner to issue her talkie debut in Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie - they use the disc's flip side to present the German film of the same story, made by a different director with a different cast. Mata Hari has no such bonus features, but who needs them when the movie oozes with exotic sex appeal?
Next up is Grand Hotel, the all-star glamourfest in which Garbo is joined by John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, and Joan Crawford. Grand Hotel was available before this box's release, but the set wouldn't make sense without it, and the bonus features are strong. Queen Christina presents the amusing notion of Garbo posing as a boy, and a queen passing for a commoner to boot.
Next is Tolstoy, by way of legendary producer David O. Selznick: Anna Karenina sets Garbo's decorous wife against Fredric March's Count Vronsky, who makes a shambles of her life. There's nothing proper about Camille, in which our heroine is a courtesan working the scene in 19th-century Paris. Again on this disc, we get two versions of the same tale - not English versus German, but Garbo's 1936 outing paired with a silent version from 1921 starring Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino. If only more DVD producers would pair saleable titles with unknown productions wasting away in their vaults, this would be a far happier world for film buffs.
Finally, the often glacial Garbo appears in her first comedy - and with masters of the form, at that: Ninotchka was directed by Ernst Lubitsch from a Charles Brackett/Billy Wilder screenplay, and tells the story of a straight-laced Soviet gal who falls for a smooth Parisian. It took a long time for Garbo to go for laughs, and she retreated from the public eye after just one more movie, but this Signature Collection certainly explains the fuss over one of the movies' most enigmatic stars.
Contemporary film buffs who still can't connect with the reverential attitude America once had toward larger-than-life stars might appreciate the very different perspective presented in Paris Is Burning (Miramax), Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary about "voguing." More than a Madonna hit, voguing was a lifestyle in which men were so inspired by the glamour of Hollywood's heyday that they started their own private world of drag balls. Things get just as catty as any Garbo/Crawford/Davis egofest, even if this scene remained - one documentary and one hit single aside - an underground phenomenon. •
John DeFore on DVD