Saturday 25 November 2023

Anna Christie (1923)

Director: John Griffith Wray under the personal supervision of Thomas H. Ince
Writer: Bradley King, based on the play by Eugene O’Neill
Stars: Blanche Sweet, William Russell, George F. Marion and Eugenie Besserer

In 1921, an original play called Anna Christie debuted on Broadway to much acclaim and, in 1922, it won Eugene O’Neill his second Pulitzer Prize for Drama. He still holds the record with four wins. In 1930, it became a sensation in the cinema, marketed as “Garbo Talks!” because it introduced the world to Greta Garbo’s voice.

However, it had been filmed before, in 1923, with Blanche Sweet as the title character, and it seems rather strange right now that I prefer it to its far more famous successor.

To be fair, it’s been a while since I watched all of Garbo’s sound films, but Anna Christie was easily my least favourite two of them, with the German language version faring a little better than the English one. I didn’t particularly like this either, but it was stunningly average for the time rather than annoyingly poor. Maybe I should revisit the Garbo versions.

What struck me watching this, so soon after Our Hospitality, is how fresh the Keaton picture is a century on while this feels utterly dated. It’s precisely the sort of silent melodrama that naysayers cite as the primary reason why they don’t like silent movies, with its exaggerated facial expressions, overt gesturing and drawn out scenes of overplayed drama.

Interestingly, the initial culprit for all those is George F. Marion, given that he doesn’t just play Chris Christopherson here, but originated the role on Broadway and reprised it in 1930, albeit only in the English version.

Christopherson is a Swedish sailor who has become doomed to never return to his family, a wife and five year old daughter, because he earns so little and spends so much on drink. It isn’t endearing and neither is the fact he keeps blaming it all on “that old devil sea” instead of taking any personal responsibility whatsoever.

Fast forward fifteen years and he’s captain of a coal barge in New York, spending his time hanging out with Marthy, “a lady of the port”, and drinking at Johnny the Priest’s bar. It’s at Johnny’s that he receives a letter from Anna, his daughter, to tell him that she’s on her way.

A century ago is long enough that bars like Johnny’s boasted separate rooms for men and women. That’s how Chris can leave without letting Marthy know and that’s how Anna can arrive to meet Marthy before her father. And that’s how we find out how much fun her past fifteen years haven’t been in Minnesota.

Blanche Sweet was a big name in 1923, as a leading lady for both D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, though she hasn’t been remembered the way that Garbo has. She does an excellent job and helps to ground the picture after the scenes with Marion and Eugénie Besserer, who played Marthy.

To be fair, Besserer does better when acting opposite Sweet than opposite Marion, even if we could be forgiven for believing that her part was written for Marie Dressler, who took it in 1930. She improves with the film.

I appreciated when she laughs at how Anna is a long way from what her father expects. Anna doesn’t have the famous Garbo dialogue: “Gimme a whisky, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby!” She merely asks for a whisky and lights up a cigarette, but she sells the role with both the sleaziness of the life she had in Minnesota and the hope that she’ll be able to change in New York. Marthy trashes that hope but restores it again, giving Sweet opportunity to demonstrate her range.

The good news is that, while Eugene O’Neill initially wrote Chris Christopherson, he changed it to Anna Christie and that means that Sweet is the star of this show, even if she moves onto her father’s coal barge.

The bad news is that we’re building towards that silent era melodrama, because a tug gets hit by a liner and the survivor, Mat Burke, has the good luck to be picked up and dropped off at the nearest vessel, namely Chris’s barge. He finds himself immediately smitten by Anna, to a degree that only works because he’s a simple man who can focus utterly on one thing until he gets bored with it and moves on.

Burke is played by William Russell, who had quite the history. He was on the stage at eight, earning fifty bucks a week in Chimmie Fadden, a huge sum in the late nineteenth century. He went on to appear alongside Ethel Barrymore in Cousin Kate, among many other major stars. He studied law at Harvard and hung out his shingle, but also taught boxing. He found his way to film in 1910, making over two hundred silent films as an actor, in addition to a few as a director and/or producer, but died in 1929 of pneumonia, just as the sound era was starting.

He’s a force of nature in this film, able and willing to manhandle anyone and continuing to singlemindedly pursue Anna, clashing with her father all the way. Chris has little power over her destiny but he refuses to let her fall for a sailor and so be caught up by “that old devil sea” like he was. Mat has other ideas.

The worst scenes in the film come late on, as Chris and Mat spar, physically and verbally, at great length, only to hide their antagonism when Anna comes in. These scenes run on and on. One starts with a knife fight between them and shifts into a proposal, a return declaration of love, a goodbye kiss, forcefulness, violence and the truth about her background. It’s much too much and it’s only when Anna steps up to give them a piece of her mind that it becomes bearable. Of course, it merely prompts more of the same and eventually escalates into more sheer melodrama.

Given how poorly this started, even if it had some excellent cinematography to counter the acting a little, I wasn’t particularly hopeful for much. It gets better once Anna arrives and the rest of the cast calms down a little around her. For a while, I got onboard with where it was going, only to regret that when it descended back into cliché.

Until I revisit the Garbo version, which does have a stellar cast, Charles Bickford and Marie Dressler joining Garbo and Marion, I guess I’ll have to think of this as the better film, based on my ratings. Certainly Eugene O’Neill felt it was superior, but then his source story may be the biggest part of the problem for me.

Blanche Sweet is a good part of the solution but she can only go so far. While this will hold an important place as a prominent adaptation, producer Thomas Ince paying a large amount for the screen rights, it was overshadowed by the 1930 version and Garbo’s voice. Even if it’s a better film, it’s not better enough to matter.

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