MGM famously waited until 1930 to put Greta Gargo in her first talkie. The studio picked Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie as the perfect material for the first time audiences would hear her voice. They also made another wise decision, assigning director Clarence Brown to the project. Brown directed some of Garbo’s biggest silent hits, so that would also make the transition easier. Of course, it all worked out. The moment Garbo ordered a whisky (ginger ale on the side), MGM gave a sigh of relief. Despite her thick accent, audiences loved her still. Anna Christie was a big hit in the U.S. and even earned three Oscar nominations.
At the time, Hollywood commonly made foreign-language version of films for the international markets. In those days, Hollywood didn’t think of dubbing actors. Instead, they used the same sets in Hollywood and found actors who could speak the languages to fill out the roles. It worked best if the main star of the English-language version could also speak a second language.
That was the case with Anna Christie. While many of these foreign-language versions no longer exist sadly, the German version of Anna Christie does. Thankfully, Warner Home Video did include it on the 2005 DVD release of Anna Christie, so we can compare the two.
The differences are quite remarkable. Directed by Jacques Feyder (who would go on to make the Marlene Dietrich/Robert Donat movie Knight Without Armour), the German Anna is a much more fluid, vibrant movie. Brown’s film is noticeably static, with the camera clearly bound by technology. But Feyder managers to get more out of the camera and uses chiaroscuro effectively. Brown’s editing is also clunky, with scenes not quite fitting together.
One of the biggest differences is Garbo’s entrance into the film. In Brown’s film, Garbo is wearing a lighter shirt and she’s lit, but in Feyder’s, she is in all black and appears to come in through the shadows. It makes her entrance much more striking and memorable.
Garbo is also surprisingly much more at ease when speaking in German. She appears more comfortable and more down-to-earth, while her performance in English makes her feel more aloof. It’s as if she always thinks she’s better than the world she comes from in the Brown film.
While it’s true that no one can be better than Marie Dressler and Charles Bickford in their roles, it is interesting to see how different George F. Marion’s German counterpart plays Anna’s father. Marion, who originated the role on Broadway, plays Chris Christopherson as a bumbling fool just trying to do his best. But Hans Junkermann plays Chris more seriously, harping on the pathetic aspect of the character.
Still, it’s worth noting that neither film moves as brisk as they should. Both were made during the very early talkie period, when a subject that came from Broadway would often feel like a filmed play. And make no bones about it, both Annas feel like filmed plays. Feyder’s version is just a bit more pleasing visually, with a darker tone. It’s not clear if that’s just because of the quality of the print that survives and made the DVD, but that tone is much more effective.
All that said, would I really watch Feyder’s film again instead of the Brown one? I’m not too sure…considering how one has to really be in the mood to take this drama. The Brown one still has two things going for it – Dressler and Bickford. But I’m glad the Feyder version still exists. One can only wonder how many other Hollywood foreign-language movies that are lost that are just as interesting as Feyder’s Anna.