“Gif me a visky, ginger ale on the side, and don' be stingy, baby.”
Greta Garbo started out making films during the silent era. When she came to America from her native Sweden she was this gorgeous mysterious actress who captivated not only men but women as well. Garbo was MGM’s number one commodity well into the thirties, in fact she was only actress from the silent era who was an even bigger hit in sound. MGM put off making a talkie picture with the star because of her accident. Even Garbo was nervous about having to talk. Eventually a Garbo talkie had to happen since silents were passé and MGM did not want to lose money or see their biggest star fall. The actress’s first talking film was Anna Christie made in 1930.
The film opens up on a drunken Marie Dressler as a tramp named Marthy Owens. Marthy is sitting in a rocking chair listening to a record. In walks Chris Christofferson the man who she has been living with for time on his coal barge. They head off to a local bar to drink some more. The bartender gives Chris a letter. The letter is from Chris’s daughter Anna (Garbo) who he has not seen in fifteen years. She does not tell him much just that she is coming from St. Paul Minnesota to visit.
Chris goes to get something to eat to sober up a bit before Anna arrives. Marthy stays at the bar drinking away her beer. Not long after Chris leaves a young blonde woman enters the bar. She sits down at a table and orders a drink. Marthy gets to talking with her and she discovers the woman is Anna, Chris’s daughter. Anna tells Marthy that she is not expecting much from her father since he left her and her mother years ago. In that time Anna has not had it easy: she was left with family who did not really care for her and one of the cousins had his way with her. After that incident she left to work in St. Paul as an escort. She was thrown in jail where she got sick and had to be taken to the hospital. Anna tells Marthy that all she wants is rest she has nowhere else to go.
Marthy hears Chris come back into the bar. Before he can get into the sitting room she tells him Anna is waiting for him. She does not betray what Anna had told her but she tells Chris to treat Anna right. Chris has nothing but love for his little girl. Anna is hesitant with her father because after all he left her causing her a miserable life. He tells Anna he lives on a barge, she is not too sure and asks if it is safe for girls. She takes a chance and travels on the barge with her father.
After a few days on the barge Anna comes to love it and being on the sea. One night they hear a man shouting in the fog. They see three men on a piece of debris and take them aboard. Their ship had gone down in a bad storm and they have been floating for five days. The captain is an Irishman named Matt Burke (Charles Bickford). Almost as soon as he gets aboard he is harassing Anna. He takes her in his arm but she fights back and pushes him sending him backwards. Matt tells her after that push he would rather be friends than enemies with her. As they sail back to New York Anna and Matt flirt with each other. Matt tells her that once they get on land he is taking her out. When they get back he takes her out to Coney Island.
Matt asks Anna to marry him. She is not sure how she feels for him and does not want to marry him. She and Chris talk it over. He does not Anna marrying Chris because he does not want what he did to her mother to happen to her. He also does not want to see her waiting around for him on land not knowing if he will ever come home again. Matt is furious that Anna will not marry him. When he goes to speak to Anna he and Chris literally fight over her pulling her arms. She has enough and breaks down and tells them what has happened in her life. Both men are now upset with her- Chris for what his actions did to her and Matt over the fact that she was an escort. Anna tells Matt that his love for her has made her clean. He makes her swear that she really loves him and she does.
In the end Anna agrees to marry Matt and is very happily in love.
For this being Greta Garbo’s first speaking role she was amazing. Her entrance was nothing mind blowing but from the moment the door opens to reveal her standing there she just commands your attention. Garbo had those eyes that were mysterious they were soft and big and conveyed that there was something hidden underneath them but you did not know what. That part of her was attractive you could not look away but when she opened her mouth and spoke with her husky voice mixed with her Swedish accent you are hooked. I cannot even imagine how amazing or shocking or stunning it was to finally hear Garbo speak for the first time. Sure I have seen two of her other talking pictures but just knowing this was her first speaking role is incredible and her first scene still kind of hits you in the face. Greta Garbo was twenty-five years old when she played Anna Christie. She was wonderful and absolutely incredible. I would like to see a twenty-five year old actress pull off this role today. There would be no way.
I will say had to laugh a bit when Garbo said some American slang with her accent. She did not sound bad and I hate to say they sounded funny. I laughed a bit when she said to Chris and Matt “I am my own boss. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”
Marie Dressler in her two scenes almost steals the film away from Garbo. If I were an actress and I needed to be a sloppy messy fall down drunk I would go to Dressler as Marthy Owens for my inspiration. She did such a great job she was so believable as this tramp who if you saw on the streets you would avoid like the plague.
Charles Bickford as Matt and George F. Marion as Chris were alright. Bickford was perfect as the tough Irish sailor. Marion had played his role in the stage production in the 1920s. He was good but I did not particularly care for him… nor Bickford either.
Famed screenwriter and sometimes director Frances Marion wrote the script from Eugene O’Neill’s play of the same name. The film is very static making it feel like a filmed stage play. But I think that can be forgiven how this is an early sound film. Marion was one of Irving Thalberg’s favorite writers and went to her often to adapt stories. This is one of Thalberg’s several successful films he produced without ever giving himself screen credit.
Anna Christie is an exceptional film. There is no doubt that this film belongs to Greta Garbo and no doubt that she was an extraordinary actress from an early age. Although I really did not care for the story Anna Christie is a very good film that I recommend seeing especially for the performances.