Directed by Clarence Brown
Starring Greta Garbo, Charles Bickford and George F. Marion
Produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (MGM)
Chris, an old barge captain brings his female… companion Marthy down to the local bar. We know immediately he’s a regular and does not need much excuse to drink, but tonight he’s in a celebratory mood. His estranged daughter Anna is coming from Minnesota to visit him.
The sailor steps out for a few minutes and in walks Anna to share a drink with Marthy. Chris eventually returns and we learn that Anna spent the last 15 years in a forced servitude with extended family, escaped to St. Paul as a nursing aide, fell ill and was recently released from the hospital. Her dad offers to let Anna stay on his boat and she reluctantly accepts.
Chris dreams of getting a place for his daughter inland and living out his years away from “that old devil sea.” Anna however seems to have rediscovered herself on the water. She loves living on the boat.
One foggy night, the barge encounters three men floating on a listless piece of debris in the open ocean. Anna and her father rescue the men and she begins to fall for Matt, one of the burly ship-wrecked sailors.
Anna ultimately finds herself in a tug of war between her father’s desire to make up for lost time and Matt’s gruff love for her. Will she choose either of the men? And what terrible secret from her past will be revealed before it’s all over?
Anna Christie holds a special place in film history. It’s Greta Garbo’s first speaking role in a movie. The German-born actress was a late-comer to talkies as she had to learn English first. The marketing for the film was a simple yet elegant two-word sentence: “Garbo speaks.”
Important is one thing. Good is something completely different. And this is not a good film.
The film centers around a coal barge, which seems an apt analogy for the entirety of the film. It’s slow and plodding. It literally feels like it’s being dragged along. It’s ugly and messy to watch and listen to. And no one says “barge” and thinks excitement. This is dull, dull, dull.
Garbo is pretty much terrible. Her every line reading seems muffled and garbled. There were moments where Anna’s demeanor reminded me not of a sultry temptress, but of a character Kristen Wiig might play on Saturday Night Live.
George Marion’s Chris manages to make Garbo look like Meryl Streep. His character is annoying. His every mannerism is frustratingly juvenile and his voice is the cinematic equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. I came close to shutting the film off just to escape him.
The only saving grace in the film is the performance of Marie Dressler as Marthy, Chris’ friend and prostitute. Marthy is constantly drunk and can turn from playful to belligerent on a dime. Her screentime is limited which probably adds to her charm. I imagine two hours of her would be as grating as Marion, but here it is just enough.
The film is staid and stagnant as shot by Clarence Brown. Even in storm and fog sequences, there’s no tension, no sense that anything is happening at all. It’s conventional in almost every aspect. The only time Brown seems to have fun at all with his camera is during Anna and Matt’s date at the carnival. Brown mounts a camera on a roller coaster and looks down the tower of a strongman game as Matt swings the hammer to ring the bell.
By the time Anna Christie sputters to its climax, Garbo is forced to reveal a secret to the two men in her life and I could have cared less. I didn’t like any of these people to begin with. They are all pretty vile in their own ways. Am I really supposed to find any pathos, treagedy or redemption in the closing moments?
Ultimately, we get what was advertised here. Garbo does indeed speak. I only wish she had something to say.
*1/2 out of *****
Photo from All Movie