Best Movies by Farr: Great Greta

November 9, 2010 | John Farr

John Farr investigates the mysterious Greta Garbo in three of her best roles.

Grand Hotel (1932)

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Stars Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery and John and Lionel Barrymore play out several interwoven stories, mixing intrigue, romance and murder, all occurring among the various guests at Berlin’s posh Grand Hotel.


MGM – the most prestigious studio from Hollywood’s golden age – paints on the gloss for this first class ensemble production. Garbo and John Barrymore stand out as the doomed lovers, who meet under most unusual circumstances. Brother Lionel is also memorable as a timid, terminally ill clerk on his last sprees. Grand Hotel was among the first MGM sound dramas to showcase two things: first, the studios’ undeniable flair for adapting serious literary material to motion pictures; and second, its unparalleled ability to attract and retain star talent. The movie still dazzles nearly seventy-five years after its release.

Anna Karenina (1935)

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Caught in a loveless marriage to the cold, formal Karenin (Rathbone), the stunning Anna Karenina (Greta Garbo) is in a vulnerable state as she travels by train to Moscow to visit her brother’s family. There, she meets the dashing Count Vronsky (Freidric March), a career officer, who immediately falls for her. Fighting her feelings, she returns to St. Petersburg, but Vronsky, undeterred, catches the same train. Anna soon realizes this sudden, obsessive love may cause her to lose everything, including her beloved little boy, Sergei (Freddie Bartholemew), but she seems powerless to control her feelings.


Leo Tolstoy’s epic romance, though significantly condensed, makes a fitting subject for this glossy, glamorous MGM film adaptation. Garbo, the studio’s biggest female star at the time, is perfectly suited to play the tragic heroine (in fact, this was a re-make of 1927’s “Love”, in which she essayed the same role opposite John Gilbert). Eight years later, with sound thrown in, she is only more mesmerizing. Sporting a pencil moustache, March assumes the Vronsky role with conviction and the requisite ardor, while Rathbone scores in a steely turn as the wronged husband. If you’re looking for a living example of what the top studio in Hollywood could produce during its Golden Age, check out the literate and sumptuous “Anna Karenina”.

Camille (1936)

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In 1847 France, Marguerite Gautier (Greta Garbo) is one of Paris’s most sought-after courtesans. On the night she is to be introduced to the fabulously rich Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell), she has an encounter with Armand Duval (Robert Taylor), a courtly, lovestruck lawyer from the provinces who promises he will love her till the day he dies. The free-spirited Gautier, ailing from a weak heart, becomes Varville’s lover and the recipient of his monetary favors, but Armand is persistent. Will he gain Marguerite’s pledge of eternal love?


Based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas, the tragic, oft-told love story of the Lady of the Camellias here gets the grand treatment from Cukor, MGM, and the resplendent Garbo – whose face, as always, seems lit with white gold by cameraman William Daniels. Taylor is solid and impossibly handsome as the starry-eyed suitor who pines for, wins, then loses the woman of his dreams, and Daniell downright odious as the wealthy baron, especially in a scene where he is pounding a high-spirited tune on the piano in a fit of barely suppressed rage. Scene-stealer Barrymore has a brief but important role as Armand’s father, and Laura Hope Crewes excels as Marguerite’s mercenary elder friend, Prudence. With splendid acting, brilliant direction, and lush production values, “Camille” will win your heart.

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