It was only a matter of time before I walked across the Netflix ballroom and introduced myself to the great Greta Garbo. It turns out we’ve already met; it was decades ago when Daddy Warbucks took Annie and me to see Camille (1936). At the time, I was able to put aside my crushing fears of Miss Hannigan and enjoy the Rockettes’ introduction to the performance Garbo herself acknowledged as her best. Although Annie (1982) provided only a snippet of Garbo’s film, those few minutes invaded my young, impressionable mind, and she remains a cherished part of my childhood. Later on I would fast-forward the Camille moments of Annie simply because I couldn’t handle watching the final curtain of poor Marguerite.
Although she received an honorary Oscar in 1955, none of Greta Garbo’s performances earned her an Academy Award. She was nominated four times (two of them in the same year), but we do have to file her under the “Too Good for an Oscar” column, along with Judy Garland, Cary Grant, and Lauren Bacall. Long overdue is my coming to know Garbo, so I figured I would start with the Oscar nominations. In Anna Christie (1931), the silver screen played Garbo’s voice for the first time — she schleps herself into a bar, falls into a chair, and strongly mutters “Give me a vhiskey!” Along with the crackling sound of the film reel that provides Anna Christie with its soundtrack, that deeply recognizable voice of Garbo’s immediately set a new standard in the world of film.
Moving on to her penultimate role in Ninotchka (1939), truthfully I felt awkward laughing at Greta Garbo as much as I did. Of all the words I could use to describe this woman’s striking talent, “funny” was never one of the first that sprung to mind (Marguerite’s death must have been too much for me!). But when Garbo laughs in Ninotchka, she’s not alone. Along with the constant cigarettes that light up a black-and-white screen, the drinks flow as easily as the smoke, and the hard-headed Ninotchka gets properly smashed on champagne. When she confesses to her drinking buddy the guilt she feels for enjoying herself, she tells him he should “stand her up against the wall.” Merrily he blindfolds her and does as she asks before he turns to open another bottle. The moment he pops the cork, she slides down the wall with a dancer’s grace, riddled with audible bullets . . . the next day my thumb hurt from all the rewinding.
Our courting has just begun, mine and Garbo’s, but I couldn’t resist sharing an Annie-sized snippet of our introduction. Certainly there is more to come, but for now I’m afraid you must leave us — we want to be alone.