Ninotchka [1939]

Who was Greta Garbo? For a while the greatest of all movie stars, then a celebrated recluse, always "the mysterious lady," Garbo purred, "I want to be alone," and people took her at her word. Of course, the real Garbo is actually the "reel" Garbo, the silvery, suffering creature on the movie screen--the way the light caught her eyes, and the way she slithered around in silk. There are other Garbo films to be seen, but Garbo: The Signature Collection is the essential Garbo, the alpha and omega for fans and beginners. This 10-disc package collects seven of her MGM sound pictures, three silents, and the Turner Classic Movies documentary Garbo, which gives a good career overview and warm testimony from friends and relatives (although more critical perspective on her talent would have been welcome). Some extras and commentaries are mixed in. The Garbo Silents disc features Flesh and the Devil, one of her sizzling box-office duets with John Gilbert; The Temptress, a wild number with Garbo as a man-killer who follows Antonio Moreno to the plains of Argentina; and The Mysterious Lady, a tight spy picture with Garbo as a Russian agent seducing the susceptible Conrad Nagel. When Garbo finally talked it was headline news, and if Anna Christie has aged a bit, the star's sultry enunciation of "Gimme a visky" retains its historic punch. (The disc includes a German-language version of the film shot at the same time.) Mata Hari continues the exotic storytelling of Garbo's silent years, as she does an eye-popping turn as the famous German spy. Grand Hotel casts her as a tired, tired ballet dancer, in a star-studded MGM project that played on her public image as aloof and mysterious. The movie was a box-office smash and took the Best Picture Oscar for 1932, and still stands as a glittery gem of the studio system. Under the sympathetic direction of Rouben Mamoulian in Queen Christina, Garbo flourishes in a tale of a Swedish royal who escapes the grind by disguising herself as a boy. She insisted that John Gilbert--his career in tatters and his life near its end--be her leading man. Garbo rarely seemed more spot-on, and the film's final grand adoration of her is justifiably famous. Anna Karenina is Garbo's second crack at the Tolstoy heroine, after the silent Love. It's a throbbing performance, even if the movie itself is one of those MGM productions that seems to doze under all its finery and respectability. Camille is scrumptious costume tragedy, with Robert Taylor as co-star and George Cukor as director. Finally, Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka (you know--"Garbo Laughs") is a bubbly comedy of frosty Sovietism meeting the champagne pleasures of Paris. Garbo retired two years, ending her reign but keeping the enigma intact. --Robert Horton

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