The story of Hollywood's transition to talkies is well-known, and has been the subject of its own movies, Singin' In The Rain and The Star are obvious examples. Silent stars such as John Gilbert and Clara Bow crashed and burned in the face of the new technology. A major question mark hung over one of MGM's biggest attractions, Greta Garbo. Would Garbo survive the move to sound?
Well, Ms Garbo was a smart operator. Her last silent film, The Kiss, premiered in 1929, was also MGM's last silent release and is often regarded as the 'official' end of the silent era - Chaplin and others' wordless films were not true silents. Rather than being thrown into any old film that would let her talk (the cause of Gilbert's downfall, not - as the legend has it - a high-pitched voice unsuited to his romantic image) she waited until 1930. The technology, microphones and recording quality had already improved from the early days, and she made sure the studio gave her the right vehicle for her talents. So, her first talking appearance was as a Swede, where her accent wouldn't cause problems, in a piece of quality drama, an adaptation of a Eugene O'Neill play.
In terms of publicity and meeting audience expectations, it was a splendid debut. The only problem today is, it's a pretty poor film. As an early talkie, it is obviously studio-bound and the camera is stuck firmly in the front and centre. Exterior scenes are made possible through back-projection which is obvious but forgiveable, given the production date.
The performances are almost all far too broad and theatrical. You get heartily tired of George F. Marion's references to “dat ol' devil de sea” (he is supposed to be Swedish, too), and Charles Bickford's seaman is straight from the “Begorrah, sure, an' is it not yerself, be Jasus an' aal the saints?” school of stage Irishman. Even Garbo is overwrought and unconvincing as a man-hating ex-prostitute (although her first line: “Gimme a visky, ginger ale on the side. An' don' be stingy, baby...” is a show-stopper). Garbo actually found the whole thing vaguely ridiculous and is supposed to have said: "Who ever saw Swedes behave like that?"
The liveliest performance comes from Marie Dressler as Marthy Owens, old 'wharf rat' and booze-hound. She gives the most natural delivery of her lines and combines humour and pathos in a way that wouldn't sit too badly in a film of today. Garbo was so impressed she sent Dressler a bouquet of flowers – an unprecedented gesture from a notoriously aloof personality.
The story is set mostly around the New York docks. Anna 'Christie' Christofferson arrives to meet up with her father, captain of a coal barge. After her mother's death, he left her with a Swedish farming family in Minnesota and has not seen her for 15 years. On the farm she was treated almost as a slave and eventually raped by one of the family's sons. Escaping from the farm she then worked in a brothel for two years. Her father takes her in, and they sail with a cargo of coal up the New England coast. One foggy night they rescue an Irish seaman. He falls in love with Anna, but her father does not want her to marry a sailor. The dramatic conflict comes to its climax when Anna confesses to both of them about her past. Initially the sailor rejects her, but when she swears it is all in the past, takes her back. They will marry and she will keep house while husband and father are at sea, faithfully waiting for their return.
The film is not just technically dated. The subject, setting and 'social realist' approach are dated, too. What must have seemed gritty, kitchen-sink stuff in the 1920's, 'real life' brought to stage and screen, is now as much a relic of its times as a 19th Century drawing room comedy.
Over the next few years the image of the “Divine Garbo” would be established. She soon learned that when acting in talkies less was definitely more. She became remote and mysterious to the point where audiences read her thoughts for her. She could retire in 1941, aged 35, and remain a legend for the rest of her life (another half century) and beyond. This film can only be viewed for its curiosity value, as Garbo's first talking picture and as a completely different role from any other she played.