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(2005 docu)

Warner DVD
2005 / B&W & Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 86 min. / Street Date September 6, 2005 / (part of the Garbo Silents Collection)
Starring Barry Paris, Mark Vieira, Karen Swenson, Charles Busch, Gore Vidal, Gavin Lambert, Jack Larson, Sam Green, Mimi Pollack, Adela Rogers St. John, Clarence Brown
Film Editor Christopher Bird
Original Music Carl Davis
Produced by Patrick Stanbury
Directed by Kevin Brownlow, Christopher Bird

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Kevin Brownlow's reputation as the dean of documentarians on the silent era is reaffirmed by Garbo, a thoroughly absorbing look at one of the 20th century's most glorified and mysterious movie stars. The show's authoritative, fresh point of view gives us many rare visuals of the romantic actress in every stage of her life - Swedish newcomer, top MGM star and retired recluse.

Brownlow literally wrote the book on silent film with his groundbreaking volume The Parade's Gone By 35 years ago. With the advent of video and renewed interest in film history, the editor and filmmaker (It Happened Here) turned his talents to documentaries, starting with a 1979 miniseries on silent film called Hollywood. Previous docus on old movies had been nostalgia-oriented and lacking in academic research, as in David Wolper's old Hollywood and the Stars television series narrated by Joseph Cotten. Brownlow brought a wealth of detail and knowledge to the subject, based on personal research and dozens of excellent 16mm interviews with silent film personalities. This was decades before DVD featurettes and cable movie channels thought to investigate the filmic past.

Working with co-director and editor Christopher Bird, Brownlow starts the Garbo story from the beginning. Film clips of the star's big MGM productions are present but do not dominate, and the show never plays like a compilation of Best Screen Moments. When we see a clip, it's to make a specific point.

Garbo's beginnings in Sweden (as Greta Gustafsson) are charted in clips of the city and popular Nordic filmmakers including Mauritz Stiller, the man who would make her a star. We see advertising films in amazingly good condition that demonstrate her ability to win the camera's attention. For a big Stiller production Greta lost quite a bit of weight. Childhood friend Mimi Pollack remembers chiding the actress, and a rare clip shows a rather plump Garbo posing in a bathing suit.

The movie covers Garbo's awkward arrival in Hollywood and the sensation she caused when William Daniels' glowing soft-focus photography enhanced her new kind of screen eroticism. Thoughtful and well-considered interviews chart Garbo's unusual career path. She avoided the MGM publicity machine and steered her vehicles to literary material suggested by friend and fellow continental Salka Viertel. A wealth of first-person archival testimony is offered by personalities like Adela Rogers St. Johns and director Clarence Brown.

In a special scene, a 1920s camera and William Daniels' original 'trick' diffused lens are used to photograph an actress playing Garbo in a stage show. A comparison shows how the subtle distortion of the lens makes the difference between an ordinary portrait, and an idealized close-up where the light seems to caress the actress's face. Of such are legends born.

Garbo's eventual self-imposed retirement was originally brought on by the wartime loss of the foreign markets where her popularity was greatest. The docu analyzes Garbo's personality with piercingly direct opinions from people in a position to know, her relatives, friends, Gore Vidal, Gavin Lambert. Hidden telephoto cameras catch glimpses of Garbo strolling and shopping on New York Streets; Charles Busch vividly describes an encounter with her in a Japanese antiques shop. All agree that she wasn't much like her screen persona, the ever emotional, smoldering grand dame.

Garbo seems to have managed her money very well, for she never needed to return to the screen. A couple of false starts after the war permanently changed her mind against the idea. Garbo ends with some extremely rare film tests of her from 1948. She's still incredibly beautiful and her relaxed and smiling face makes us believe that, had she desired to work, she could have succeeded in adding completely new chapters to her career.

Warners' DVD of Garbo is a disc included in the The Garbo Silents Collection. It presents the full-screen docu in a perfect transfer that handsomely blends the older B&W material with newer color interviews. Brownlow and Bird frame their show with classy visuals, opting for a restrained but elegant title sequence. The flickering beam of light from a projection booth is used with slow dissolves to emphasize the miracle of Garbo's screen appeal. Turner Classic Movies and Turner Entertainment have been producing these star docus for years now, and Garbo is one of the most satisfying programs.

It's just a detail, but the packaging text misspells the name of able biographer-interviewee Karen Swenson.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Garbo rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 2, 2005

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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