Sometimes reviewing Oscar films isn’t an easy business as the academy often throw me off with their decision-making especially in the early years when the event was still trying to find its feet. The Best Director field is a particularly interesting one as there were revisions made after the first ceremony, which we’ll get to in later posts however there is another issue at the third ceremony concerning our old friend Clarence Brown. Oddly, Brown’s nomination came from directing two films with both representing his directorial work over the past year but neither counting as separate nods. Therefore, I’ve decided to include the movies in the same post primarily because they make up the same nomination but also because they feature the same star in the form of Greta Garbo.
Anna Christie is by far the more famous of the two films as MGM’s promotion of the movie was two inform the audience that they would see silent movie actress Garbo talk for the first time. The transition to the talkies for a lot of the silent movie stars hadn’t gone swimmingly so the decision to have Garbo talk for the first time was a big one. Brown had been drafted into direct the movie as he and Garbo had worked together on numerous occasions previously and therefore the actress felt she could trust the director. Interestingly, in both these movies, Garbo isn’t on screen for at least the first ten minutes with Anna Christie beginning with the introduction of brash drunken characters Chris Christofferson and Marthy Owens. Coal barge skipper Chris is awaiting the arrival of his daughter Anna who he hasn’t seen for years since she went to live with relatives and he believes she’s been working with a nurse. However when Garbo’s Anna first appears on screen she’s presented as a sickly woman with a dark past a realisation that is instantly clear to Marie Dressler’s worldly Marthy. The film explores Anna’s relationship with her father and later with Charles Bickford’s belligerent Irish sailor Matt, who wishes to marry her after a brief courtship. Although Anna and Matt seem to form a bond, he clashes with her father and the pivotal moment in the movie comes when she reveals her past to both men. This revelation of Anna’s past as a prostitute felt incredibly dark for a movie released in 1930 and made the film a very memorable one for me.
Conversely, Brown and Garbo’s other collaboration that year was a rather unremarkable movie albeit one that featured another tense relationship like the one portrayed in Anna Christie. The film is told in flashback by the character of Tom Armstrong to his grandson; a young man of strong heritage whose wish to marry an actress hasn’t set well with his parents. Tom informs his grandson of a similar story of when he was a young rector and met Garbo’s opera singer Rita Cavallini at a party thrown by Cornelius Van Tuyl; an older mutual friend of theirs. As the title would suggest, the pair then embark on a whirlwind romance with Tom being entranced by the glamorous singer who is different to anyone who he’s previously encountered. The sting in the tale of this particular story comes when Tom discovers that Rita had previously been Cornelius’s mistress, a fact that he struggles to come to terms with. Tom eventually rejects Rita, although has a change of heart when he learns she’s about to leave the country and attempts to spend one last night with her. The film ends on a tragic tone in some regards as the older Tom learns of Rita’s death however, there is also hope for the future as his grandson decides not to be as cautious as his grandfather and marry his actress girlfriend.
After having watched both movies I’m not sure why Garbo and Brown were nominated for both Anna Christie and Romance as it’s clear that the former is the better movie. Anna Christie has memorable well-rounded characters whilst Romance consists of both stereotypes and a slight story with a rather predictable conclusion. What I loved about Anna Christie was the frank depiction of its central character, with Garbo excelling at peeling back the layers of the protagonist. If I’d gone into Anna Christie blind, I would’ve never known that it was Garbo’s first talking role as she brings a confidence to the part and never stumbles over her words once. The supporting cast in Anna Christie is also a strong one with George F Marion being particularly memorable as the drunken Chris and Marie Dressler stealing numerous scenes as his partner-in-crime Marthy. Anna Christie’s other nomination was for its cinematography which includes some engaging set pieces most notably the one in which Anna and Chris rescue Matt from drowning. Romance is inferior in every way to Anna Christie as it features no real visual set pieces and primarily consists of people sitting around talking in rooms. The only way that Romance has the edge on Anna Christie is the fact that Garbo doesn’t only talk in the movie but also sings in a couple of scenes. But, even though her character does engage in an affair with a married man, Garbo’s Rita isn’t nearly as damaged as Anna and Tom isn’t as captivating a romantic lead as Anna Christie’s Matt.
If one of these two movies were to be nominated as Best Picture at that year’s awards then it should definitely be Anna Christie, as it’s a film that is both historically significant and captivating in several ways. Of the five Best Picture nominees that year I would’ve probably replaced Anna Christie with Maurice Chevalier musical The Love Parade which I found interchangeable with the star’s other movies. Both Anna Christie and Romance show another side to Brown’s directorial style and his work on the former proves that he was a director that was ahead of his time. I’ve found this part of the project to be an interesting one as it’s allowed me to explore the work of directors I’d previously had little knowledge of such as Brown who I’ve found to be a pioneering director who is much more than just a man to helm cute pictures centring around humans bonding with an animal.
And now I’m into the home stretch with only ten movies to go and next up is an iconic gangster film from the 1930’s that I’m really excited to see for the first time.