During the halcyon days of the talkie revolution, Hollywood studios took to producing non-English remakes of their films to export to foreign markets. Subtitles and dubbing soon proved to be much cheaper and more efficient methods, but for a few years, the practice of re-shooting films on the same sets, with the same stars if they happened to be bilingual, was surprisingly widespread. Cinema had only just learned to talk, and suddenly here came a pentecostal deluge.
Silent films, for obvious reasons, had been much easier to export. But as the twenties ended, silent cinema gradually disappeared. The stars of the silents all had to reckon with the changing times. Some made the transition smoothly, and others did not. One of the last holdouts was a Swedish actress who had been a major Hollywood star since 1926. For her first speaking part, she chose the title role in an adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play Anna Christie. On the one hand, she’d be playing a Swedish-American character; on the other, the stagy production would require a lot of talking. Nervous about how well her accent would go over, she asked to star in a German version of the film as well, German actually being her second language. Whatever insurance that provided was unnecessary, because the English Anna Christie became the highest-grossing film of 1930, allowing Greta Garbo to embark on a legendary decade of screen performances.
The first entry in this series, The Gold Rush, involved a director subtly re-editing and adding narration to a preexisting film. In the case of Anna Christie, the question arises whether we’re actually talking about two separate films. The English version was released in February 1930, with the German version getting shot later that year and released in December. They share a top-billed star, the same sets (the German film even reuses a few establishing shots), the same cinematographer and costume designer. But not the same director. Watching Clarence Brown’s and Jacques Feyder’s films back-to-back, one finds superficial similarities that can’t hide the illuminating differences.
The Hollywood version is more circumspect with the subject matter, for one thing. While it’s definitely a “pre-Code” film, taking a stance on a morally questionable issue that wouldn’t be permissible when the censors got organized a few years later, nothing remotely similar to the words “prostitute” or “rape” is ever uttered. The German version took me by surprise with its relative candor. When Marthy, the companion of Anna’s father, accosts Anna with, “At least I never walked the streets,” I had to rewatch the English-language scene to see if I’d missed that line somehow. In that version, she stops after the word “never.” Even small details reveal the differences in viewpoint from one continent to another. Contrast the sinuous strands of cigarette smoke Garbo exhales in one film with the bold billows of dragon’s breath in the other.
Intriguingly, though, the single most “pre-Code” moment in the English version doesn’t appear in the remake. Anna, having taken a liking to the Irish sailor Matt, spends a day with him at Coney Island. There he tries to impress her with the classic tests of a prospective suitor’s virility: carnival games. The last of these involves throwing a ball at one of two targets to send one of two girls wearing slips tumbling out of their beds and down a ramp. Matt misses, but they taunt him into trying again, and he succeeds. This is the second of two scenes that were cut from the German-language movie; otherwise, that film follows its predecessor almost beat for beat. The first scene, which opens the original film, involves the second most famous performer on the screen.
Marie Dressler, a veteran of the early days of silent slapstick comedy, saw her career briefly revive after the success of this film. She won an Academy Award the next year for another movie and continued to act until she died of cancer in 1934. Opinions of her performance as Marthy in the English-language Anna Christie run the gamut. There’s definitely a genuine weariness to her that fits the character. But she also mugs for the camera a little bit. The opening scene, in which she attempts to stifle a bout of hiccups, is painfully unfunny, although the blame for that rests with the staleness of the gag itself and the uninspired direction of Clarence Brown. Salka Steuermann, in the German version, doesn’t have the same charisma as Dressler, but she blends into the rest of the film better.
Garbo herself was a big fan of the second film and not particularly proud of her work in the first. It’s easy to see one as a dry run for the other, although the original was treated as definitive and the German film was only rediscovered in the nineties. Jacques Feyder’s film is more visually expressive, with more (literal) darkness in the frame and less of a reliance on close-ups. Finn Ulback’s editing is more sophisticated than Hugh Wynn’s, cutting on movement and avoiding the occasional dead air of the first film. The atmosphere of violence is thicker without the gloss that Brown provided. For the final scene, each film has one element that the other doesn’t include. In the remake, it’s some threatening business with a gun; in the original, it’s a joke about Anna swearing on a crucifix even though she’s Lutheran. Really, the only thing the English-language film has firmly in its favor is verisimilitude. (Why is everyone in America speaking German? I thought the Huns lost the war.)
Still, I can’t elevate either version too far above the other, since they share so much DNA. With a script written by the prolific Frances Marion (translated into German by Walter Hasenclever and Frank Reicher), Anna Christie is a declamatory piece of work. Typical of the first few years of sound — when movies were stretching their vocal cords and couldn’t concentrate so much on making sure they, you know, moved — it’s a stilted affair. The themes, being repeated many times, are impossible to miss. Not that they’re bad themes, of course. As a variation on the old Tess of the d’Urbervilles double standard, Anna Christie has something valuable to say. But it takes a long time to get there. In the end, it makes perfect sense that nothing in the actual film is as familiar today as MGM’s immortal tagline, “Garbo Talks!” The movie, whether in English or German, is more important for what it represents than what it accomplishes. One of the greatest movie stars of all time promised to break her silence at last. She appears in a doorway with a suitcase, slowly walks into the bar and takes a seat. She pauses, tantalizingly. Then she orders a drink.