Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Random Production Notes From Queen Christina

Just in case 2800 words about Greta Garbo and Queen Christina wasn't enough for you, here's the stuff I left out!

● For the first time, Garbo consented to rehearsals and extra takes—although not without some fuss. Director Rouben Mamoulian described the process to George Stevens, Jr., a conversation recounted in Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood's Golden Age:

"Garbo said to me, 'Oh, I don't rehearse. If I rehearse I become stale. If I do more than one take, I become empty inside.' So I said, 'Miss Garbo, this is incredible. Let's make a deal. I'll do it your way. If that works out it will be marvelous, because I will earn the reputation of being the fastest-shooting director in Hollywood. I'll get through the picture in four weeks instead of eight. But if it doesn't work out you will try to do it my way.

"So I rehearsed the two men for an hour and a half. Then she came in and I told her, 'You start here, you do this, you go there, you do this.' 'Fine.' So we made a first take. Afterwards, I said, 'Well, how do you feel about it?' And she said, 'Fine! Fine!' As she was about to walk past me, she stopped and said, 'Well, how do you feel about it?' I said, 'No good. It's all wrong. Let's rehearse.' She said, 'Believe me. I'll get worse.' I rehearsed the three of them for over an hour, and with each rehearsal she said, 'I'm getting worse. I am completely empty. There is nothing there at all.' Then we shot eight more takes, and I said, 'Print take eight, and print take one also Now, Miss Garbo, tomorrow morning, take one, yours, and take eight, the one I like, will be in projection room. You go in there alone. You see these two takes and then you tell me which I should use in the picture, and I promise to abide by your judgment.' She started walking out and leaned close to my ear, whispering, 'Please do not print take one.' From then on it was wonderful."

And which directors had a good working relationship with Garbo? Clarence Brown, Mamoulian, George Cukor and Ernst Lubitsch, who directed, respectively, Flesh and the Devil, Queen Christina, Camille and Ninotchka, which also happen to be the best movies Garbo ever made.

● Of Garbo's acting technique, Mamoulian said, "There are actors who are intuitive and actors who reason. Sometimes they are a combination of both, but that's rare. The greatest thing is intuition. For instance with Garbo, I would say to her, 'This mood is like the purple sunset, when the leaves turn their shadows, and now and then a yellow falls down.' She would say, "Oh, I know.'"

● The studio offered Leslie Howard, Franchot Tone, Nils Asther and Bruce Cabot as leading men. Garbo settled on Laurence Olivier based on his performance in Westward Passage. But after a disastrous rehearsal made it clear Garbo would never warm up to Olivier, she insisted on her old co-star John Gilbert in the role. Despite the fact that his career was in eclipse, Garbo's contract gave her complete control over all aspects of the production; she was comfortable with him and also felt she owed him a shot at commercial redemption given his role in promoting her early career; so over Louis B. Mayer's strenuous objections, Gilbert wound up playing the Spanish envoy, Antonio.

Contrary to Louis Mayer's slander, Gilbert had a fine voice, but by 1933 audiences were no longer willing to give him a chance. He made only one more picture then died of a heart attack in 1936.

King Vidor, who directed Gilbert in The Big Parade, speculated (again to George Steven, Jr.), "What I believe happened was that he was the image of the aggressive lover, and they thought he could just speak the same words he did when doing silent scenes that nobody actually heard. He would arouse himself by saying things like 'I love you, I adore you, I worship you. I can't wait to get you alone tonight,' the kind of things that were funny when you heard them. So I think it wasn't his high voice but that you couldn't just take an image and suddenly change it by putting a lot of words on the soundtrack. The words destroyed the image. You'll see that a lot in life—somebody will look like something and then they'll start to talk with maybe a deep Texas accent and it changes the image."

● The scene where Garbo wanders around the bedroom, touching everything and commenting "In the future in my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room," was choreographed like a dance and performed to a metronome.

● The famous last close-up which begins as a medium shot then zooms in and holds on Garbo's face was shot with a 48mm lens, a lens which would typically, as GarboForever.com puts it, make the pores of her face look like the craters of the moon. In order to achieve the sharp focus of the medium shot but the soft focus of the close-up, director Mamoulian held a long strip of glass, clear on one end, gradually becoming more diffuse at the other, in front of the lens and as the camera dollied in moved the glass across it.


Clara Fercovic said...

Wow, this post was very interesting. Thanks for sharing. I've always found that story about Gilbert very sad. Oh, and I want Garbo to borrow me her face from the fourth picture :p

Mythical Monkey said...

Garbo was gorgeous, wasn't she. I also especially like that fourth picture of her, the one with John Gilbert. Wow!

KC said...

I've never heard that story about the glass over the camera lense before. It's so clever. I guess you'd think up things like that if you worked with cameras all day.

Mythical Monkey said...

I find that sort of thing fascinating, KC -- the degree to which the mechanics of making a movie enter into what we think of as acting. As my friend, Mister Muleboy, who is a trained actor, often tells me, an awful lot of movie acting depends on factors entirely out of the actor's control -- where the director points the camera, how the scene is edited together, what music score is added, etc. And of course the quality of the script and the actors with you in the scene. It really is a collaborative process.

nakis said...

Thank you for this wonderful information about one of my very favorite films with the incomparable Greta Garbo. Everything about this actress and woman is absolutely fascinating. What I find most thrilling about her is the mystery of her art. How did she do all these extraprdinary scenes we see on film? Memorising the room in the inn in Queen Christina, the death scene in Camille, the scene at the hospital with the flowers in Woman of Affairs etc. Total mystery. She was a true genious I believe, intuitive yet technically an expert in performing before the camera. And she had that mystic quality about her acting which made her unique. I cannot think of another actress who combined all those qualities. A truly great actress, an incomparable beauty, a true star and a goddess with an unparalleled erotic presence in films.