Directed by Clarence Brown
Written by Frances Marion (based on the play by Eugene O'Neill)
There's a item in Anna Christie's release history that I think may set an actual, hard date for the death of silent cinema in America: it was on December 11, 1929, that an audience was ushered into what they believed would be a screening of Greta Garbo's and MGM's final silent film, The Kiss. But it wasn't: they were, instead, being treated to a preview of Anna Christie, Garbo's long-deferred synch-sound debut. I frankly can't imagine what it was like being in this audience's shoes—I surely can't imagine the mindset I'd have to be in to not walk right out of the theater, furious and likely to write a mean letter to Irving Thalberg, because what I'd bought was a ticket to a movie that was 62 minutes long that I actually wanted to see, not an 89 minute movie I might not ever have heard of. And if I didn't walk out, I'd have been angry anyway: The Kiss is a good movie, and Anna Christie is not. But apparently, in 1929, Garbo talking was such an amazing novelty that one would feel lucky—blessed!—to have gotten to hear her first. Nevermind that what she actually talks about in Anna Christie is the same thing her intertitles had always talked about on her behalf, that is, the shame of being held a whore in the early 20th century. Except this time there's nothing leavening it: no dangerous love triangle, no elegant aristocratic milieu, no sultry, shadow-soaked eroticism (no eroticism of any description, in fact), not even action. There's just the squalid miserablism of an immigrant prostitute looking for a better lot in life and finding such a thing only under duress, and only if you squint at her movie very, very hard. But one can't argue with numbers: upon its proper release in February 1930, Anna Christie turned out to be Garbo's biggest hit since Love.
There had been some debate over what movie would serve as Garbo's first talkie—and who would direct it. As for the former, they chose to adapt Eugene O'Neill's 1921 play (they weren't the first: First National had done an Anna Christie in 1923, which is also not very good), a play which O'Neill is said to have researched, or "researched," by lodging in a seaside bar where he could meet a number of seaside prostitutes. As for its director, they ultimately settled upon Clarence Brown. There was some discussion of Victor Sjöstrom, Garbo's director on her lost 1928 film, The Divine Woman, for Garbo liked Sjöstrom (one suspects as much out of expatriate affinity than any other reason), but Sjöstrom had returned to Sweden and Brown, the director of Flesh and the Devil and so (in a sense) Garbo's creator, had recently successfully managed her again on 1928's A Woman of Affairs. In later decades, Brown's entire reputation would get flattened into "Garbo's favorite director," which isn't even particularly accurate about how much affection she actually had for him, or he for her. They got along, and Brown knew how to work both sides of the equation—the studio and his star—and this was sufficient, along with Brown's attested skills at sex drama, to have MGM lock him and Garbo down for most of a year, during which time they made three films together, and certainly didn't always get along.
This being the first, it was probably the smoothest of the productions; it didn't hurt that Garbo was a little anxious about sound, and so was willing to submit more readily to direction and hadn't worked herself back into a state where she could only act on extremely closed sets and basically without anyone besides her co-stars looking at her. The downside was that Brown wasn't really quite up to speed on sound either, which is remarkable given his engineering background and technical bent, but there we have it; maybe this was a result of MGM slow-walking sound in general, and while Brown had made two talkies prior—the lost Wonder of Women and the abysmal Navy Blues, jointly representing his entire output for 1929—the former was only a part-talkie and the latter had been a studio-mandated salvage job. And so Anna Christie was, in a way, Brown's own first sound film, too. Well, it shows.
The story of O'Neill's play is almost offensively simple, and one of the reasons it's 89 minutes is that it has an opening scene that lasts 34. So: in what we know from extrinsic sources is supposed to be 1910—I don't believe the film mentions it, and I don't suppose it really matters, but I'm not sure the fashions suggest anything besides 1930 (admittedly, the existence of a saloon and an insert shot of a sailing ship do)—there exists Swedish-American sailor Chris Christopherson (George F. Marion, who'd played Chris in 1921 on the stage, and had played Chris on the screen in 1923, and, you know, I guess it's a living). Chris is the captain of a New York, NY coal barge, presently carousing with his... "girlfriend" is not quite the right word, but a local woman, Marthy (Marie Dressler), who lives with him on the barge itself. They disembark to get drunk (rather, drunker) at the local tavern, which is also Chris's mailing address. This is character embroidery, but also how the plot begins: this night, Chris has received a letter from his daughter Anna Christopherson (Garbo), "Anna Christie" to the Anglos, whom Chris abandoned many years ago on a cousin's farm out in Minnesota—the last time he even saw her, she was five. The letter apprises him that Anna has come east, and as she could arrive any moment, Chris goes off to get some stew in him to sober up, so that Marthy alone is there to meet the unwitting young woman, who winds up spilling the key details of her life story to her dad's paramour, namely that her cousins began raping her and in getting out she initially only managed to get as far as St. Paul, where she joined a brothel, before eventually getting arrested and going a little bit out of her mind.
These are the salient facts, and Marthy, who has already agreed to recede so as not to rub Anna's face in her dad's degeneracy, keeps them to her discretion, and so when Chris comes back he's delighted to welcome his only living relative, inviting her to come live on the barge with him instead. But as luck—or what Chris calls that "old devil sea"—would have it, they rescue castaway Matt Burke (Charles Bickford), who, let's say for the sake of convenience, falls in love with Anna at first sight, and she quickly thaws to him during the remainder of this voyage. Her father stands against this on the basis that he won't have his daughter marry a no-good sailor like her mother did; and Anna won't marry him with the secret shame she carries, either, and when they find out, things get even more out of hand.
I assume I must not like O'Neill's play much, because this is either exactly the play, or screenwriter Frances Marion just copied the scenario and continuity of the 1923 film, because it's identical. As far as comparison in style goes, then, the 1923 film benefits a little from having a vastly more open and robust sense of its world: it's not exaggerating to say that Anna Christie '30 has literally four locations for its entire 89 minute runtime, and that's counting "the bar" and "the ladies' backroom" as two separate locations—hey, I learned that segregated ladies' barrooms were a significant early 20th century phenomenon—whereas Anna Christie '23 has flashback footage plus location shooting on an actual barge, rather than an object or collection of objects that art director Cedric Gibbons kindly asks you to pretend could be a barge. On the other hand, Anna Christie '30 has some gimbols under Gibbons's set, and a water tank, and better fog effects, so while we never see a whole barge, we're perhaps more credibly on a barge.
We don't see a barge crew, though, and this play adaptation hasn't been adapted much, so that it never feels like its spaces are genuinely functional or, really, that anything exists outside of its principals' presence—it's downright jarring when a black silhouette just appears in a shot during Matt's rescue. I've seen this movie twice, and both of those times I thought it was a continuity error, accidentally editing it to put Garbo back out on the deck. (This is certainly not a movie with impeccable editing: there's a shot of Dressler standing up that hangs for five seconds on the empty space after she's left the frame.) Yet there might be any number of guys on this barge; this is despite the barge at all times appearing to be absolutely nothing besides one cabin with a kitchenette, and, potentially, some implied sleeping quarters in some notional offscreen space. Anna Christie '30 does manage to open its world up in a different way, at least, inasmuch as it actually sees fit for Matt and Anna to spend any time together before their drama can erupt; it does so in the most stereotyped manner imaginable for a film of this vintage, a "let's go to an amusement park" date of no special imagination in Marion's script and not too much in Brown's direction. I can't imagine, anyway, that Brown actually invented that shot where you put a camera at the top of a high striker game.
This could have at least been intimate. The 1923 film, being a 1923 film, isn't replete with interesting camerawork and isn't too ashamed to adopt a proscenium-based visual scheme; but seven years of revolutionary aesthetic development later, with the advent of sound we're right back to where we started, and Brown, still preoccupied with the learning curve, is pretty much content with just a series of dioramic slabs. That's perhaps a little unfair—there's a nice tracking shot at the beginning that takes us through photographer William Daniels's shadow-slathered rendition of a dockside; meanwhile there's yet a third contemporary version of Anna Christie (I have seen far too much Goddamn Anna Christie), this being MGM's German-language edition directed by Jacques Feyder immediately after principal photography concluded on Brown's version, and Feyder's is somehow even drearier. The main difference between the two versions—Garbo, a German-speaker who'd briefly been in the German industry, starred in both versions, though different actors filled the other roles—is that Marthy is played as less of a broken-down wreck in that one, and I don't count that as an improvement. I'll stick to Brown's, then: strikingly, this is a film with rather few actual close-ups of Garbo, owner of a face built for close-ups, and he runs out of dynamic set-ups as soon as he leaves the bar; mostly, Anna Christie is variations on medium shots in one single block-shaped cabin on a barge.
Sometimes medium shots in block-shaped compositions on the deck.
For all that, modest genius does occasionally shine through, sometimes even using the boxy aesthetic as a tool: I genuinely love, for example, the quietly confident way Brown emphasizes that Marthy is Anna's symbolic future just by positioning them across an empty barroom from each other and sitting in contemplative silence with them for a moment, and there's cleverness to this, in that it gets the jump on a script that artlessly states this aloud just a few minutes later. The best shot of the film—an actual great shot—elaborates on this idea, when during a moment of will-she-won't-she tension for Garbo at the amusement park, Brown has Dressler shamble out of an out-of-focus background, Anna's past and future self come to haunt her in her moment of happiness, framed by lights and the circular distortion of the lens. For this one shot, it feels like psychological horror and, more to the point, a film someone cared about.
Now, so far I've only really described "a movie from 1930 that isn't All Quiet on the Western Front," and the truer point of failure is this script—frankly, just this material—and I earnestly don't know what the purpose of any Anna Christie is. On the back of nine (possibly ten) fallen woman movies for Garbo personally and God knows how many churned out by Hollywood by 1930, the thing that's unique about this, to the extent it's unique, is merely its impoverished milieu, which only makes it worse and scabbier. There's a stink of poverty porn about it: Dressler's and G. Marion's performances are committed and self-effacing, to be sure, but the observation of their lifestyle is a carnival grotesque even before it explicitly commits to grotesquerie at a carnival; likewise, once Anna shows up, Garbo's first talkie inflicts upon her a curious combination of semi-broken English and several-years-too-early jazz-baby slang that I'm sure O'Neill and/or F. Marion would prefer you described as "naturalistic." The most interesting thing the movie ever does, thematically, is emphasize the very un-Brown (even very un-MGM) idea that the rural heartland can be a hellhole, too, and that there's no devil in the sea, only men who blame it for their sins; this isn't that interesting. (I'm also very annoyed how Marthy is not actually one of its principals: the play seems to have even less use for her than Brown's movie does, but even Brown's movie ultimately forgets she existed.)
I do not disapprove of it, however, until Anna's redeeming relationship flops his way onto the Christophersons' barge; but once it does, Matt is endlessly unappealing, with Bickford leaning into every thuggish tendency the script affords him, a sailor combining the worst stereotypes of rough proletarian manners and bourgeois sexual morality into one threatening body, a figure who at any given point seems as likely to rape Anna as to woo her and as likely to kill her as to rape her—it's no great surprise to learn that Bickford didn't like Garbo and didn't want to be here, though in his defense he's scarcely worse than either of the other actors who played Matt, so evidently it's simply the standard interpretation of the character, but at least in Anna Christie '23 William Russell sometimes combs his hair, whereas they never manage to make Bickford look like anything besides what they fished out of the Atlantic. (And, really, I don't know what social class Matt thinks he's in, but it's not in that much higher an echelon than "ex-prostitute.") It would be hard for the movie to recover as "a romance" from their first meeting (a handsy assault), but not altogether impossible, but it hardly seems to try. For argument's sake, we could call this a romance, but it stretches the term to its breaking point; it's not too much to say that Matt exists solely as a complication by which Anna's past must be revealed, to her men's horror. I honestly don't even know if the film wants you to take its ending as satisfactory; and whatever its intentions were, it's not satisfactory.
As for Garbo, hypothetically, she could've drawn on experience this time: Anna Christie—a working-class Swede who came to America and never liked it—was the closest Garbo's roles ever got to resembling her own biography. Yet to some degree she seems to have resisted much specificity—though asked, she ultimately refused to caricaturize her accent or even stress it, but the script's still the script, and it's really just one more thing that makes the dialogue sound wonky. I won't compare Garbo's two cross-lingual renditions of the role, except to say that in Feyder's German version she seems more fatigued, just not on behalf of the character.
But as far as "transitional roles" go, Garbo acquits herself fairly well. There's a surfeit of occasions for her to look down at the floor while her unusual brow furrows diagonally into those dagger-like points, so that her face becomes a hash of stress lines all pointed at the center (it's one of her best tricks, after all), but she's not devoid of the hammier gesticulations of a silent actor—somehow, she does more hammy gesticulation than was usual in her silent career, a number of scenes centering around her clutching her hands to her forehead. But then, as her freakouts are the only things in the movie that affect me at all, I'd rather praise it; there's not really much that's humane in Anna Christie and so even Garbo's showboatiest evocations of vulnerability wind up worthwhile. (I don't like, however, her reliance on ticcy vertical shoulder movement as brute shorthand for "I'm a low-class prostitute"—I'd rather not use the word "stereotype" three times in one review, but you can see what kind of picture this is if I'd feel the urge to.) I suppose I'm still fairly pleasantly surprised how naturalistic and full of weariness she manages to make the very first spoken of line of dialogue in her career—"Gimme a viskey," you know how it goes—as I had previously assumed it had taken on iconic significance by virtue of being forced and posturing.
But there's not really much to recommend about Anna Christie beyond its historical importance, and watching it more than once is an absolute mistake: at one point, and probably more out of my fandom for Brown and Garbo alike, I could have called it "good," but even then it was borderline; and so, naturally, with the slightest push, it tumbles right down, into "actually, it's pretty bad."