Monday, March 14, 2011

Losing it with Garbo and Gilbert


Did something quite special for my birthday yesterday.

Jenn and I traveled through time, back to the '20s, thanks to Ron Carter, Clarence Brown, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert and the Tennessee Theatre.

Knoxville's grand old movie palace is hosting an excellent Silent Film Sundays series, honoring Brown, our fair city's most famous director. Today's picture was "Flesh and the Devil" (1926), a good ol' good one, starring John Gilbert and the stunning, sensuous Greta Garbo.

The movie alone would have been enough to get me there, but the icing on the cake was Carter, a renowned organist and retired Georgia law enforcement official, who played the silent film's original score on the Tennessee's Mighty Wurlitzer. What a treat.

They showed a digital print, which I normally hate. Call me crazy, but movies on the big screen are meant to be seen in 35 millimeter. In this case, however, it was perfect. The digital print had been restored. It looked fantastic.

"Flesh and the Devil" was the first picture to pair Gilbert and Garbo, two of Hollywood's biggest stars during the Roaring Twenties. And it's easy to see why they were so hot. Their onscreen chemistry is palpable enough to cut with a knife.

Both were destined for lonely lives. Garbo successfully made the transition from silents to talkies, but became more and more reclusive. She retired for good in 1941, having made only 27 films, and lived in seclusion until her death in 1990.

Gilbert notoriously crashed and burned during his first talkie, "His Glorious Night." Audiences reportedly laughed out loud upon hearing his voice. Here is a clip. Judge for yourself. (I don't think it's all that bad.)

Some swear his decline had nothing to do with his voice. He reportedly feuded for years with Louis B. Mayer, even by one account going so far as to hit the MGM boss during Gilbert's aborted marriage ceremony to Garbo (who didn't show). Gilbert died, of complications from alcoholism, at age 38 in 1936.

The surprising thing about "Flesh and the Devil" is that Gilbert's acting outshines even the great Garbo. She was one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the silver screen, but Gilbert had everything it took to be a silent film star. His emotive and inspired performance needed no words.

Carter pointed out before the picture that Brown's trademark was getting natural performances out of his actors, even during the silent era. Silent film acting almost by definition is melodramatic (one has to make up for the lack of sound) but Brown's style was such that the performances in "Flesh and the Devil" are as realistic as a silent film is going to get. (Compare them to, say, those in "The Birth of a Nation.")

Carter did a masterful job on the Mighty Wurlitzer. Ten minutes into the picture, I forgot he was there.

It was a trip to yesteryear, a memorable moment, a perfect period to a perfect birthday weekend. Like Pauline Kael, I lost it at the movies a long time ago, anyway.

With Garbo and Gilbert, it's easy to get lost.

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