Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Anna Karenina (1935)

Director: Clarence Brown
Starring: Greta Garbo, Fredric March, Freddie Bartholomew, Maureen O'Sullivan

#42 on AFI's Top Passions
Venice Film Festival's Mussolini Cup for best foreign film

Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina by 1935 was hailed as one of Russian literature’s finest works, said to embody the pinnacle of realism fiction and had been produced, up to that year,  into three motion pictures, all silent, one Russian and two American produced. It is hear in Clarence Brown’s 1935 adaptation of Anna Karenina where the novel gets to flourish for the first time in a motion picture, with a full bodied story, not as abbreviated as the silent predecessors, with full dialogue, and the strong performance of Greta Garbo as the title character. At the time no other studio, but MGM along with its marquee actress would be able to do such justice to the Russian classic tale of forbidden love and ultimate tragedy. With lavish sets, wardrobe, and a notable cast in hand we are welcomed to what is considered the finest version of this story up to this point and even since its release.

Anna Karenina is a dramatic love story of a woman drawn to a new lover, which destroys her marriage, forbids her from seeing her loved son, scars her reputation, and ultimately leads to heartbreaking tragedy as she ends up feeling more alone than ever before. Played by the legendary Greta Garbo, Anna Karenina is a lady of fine means, a good wife and mother, who falls in love with another man, Count Vornsky (Fredric March), and cannot help to follow her passions, despite knowing it will destroy everything she had worked herself to be. Her affair estranges her from her husband who forbids her from ever visiting her dear son Sergei (Freddie Bartholomew) again. Though happy in love with Vornsky, it is clear that she has nothing else in the world as she is forever judged by all surrounding her. This strongly consumes her when she disapproves Vornsky’s wish to go to fight a war in Serbia, leaving her alone. Saddened by their small lovers’ quarrel as he departs to join the army, leaving her ever more empty to the point of committing suicide, the ultimate end to ultimate lose.

Considered to be the finest adaption of the Tolstoy novel, in concern to keeping closer to the source material and its root meaning, this version of Anna Karenina makes for a heart wrenching love story of a romance that never could have been without loss. Clearly seen is the production value put into art decoration, setting the correct place and time for the feature with sets and an expansive wardrobe, filled out by a noted cast, this production was meant to be one of those usual MGM lavish pictures, perhaps on the lesser end of the studio’s sumptuous scale. It takes a while to get into the feature’s story, unless you are one looking for film about 19th century  Russian elite class and their “problems,” it is the tragic love story that becomes enthralling as these two characters come together in a forbidden love they cannot stay away from.

Garbo would turn down the idea of playing the dying star character of Dark Victory, a role eventually filled by Bette Davis and released in 1939, to play the tragic character in Anna Karenina, finding the role to be deeper and more dramatic. Once again playing a saddened romantic woman, which came very naturally to her with her old soul ways and dramatic facial features, Garbo would be praised for her portrayal of Anna. To direct her was Clarence Brown, who had previously worked with the star back in her first speaking role in Anna Christie. He is able to capture her emotions as a strong woman with convictions, but is torn by losing her beloved son in the process of giving into this passionate affair. Not considered one of his finest works, Brown, by then already having been a twice nominated director, does not seem to grasp how to draw the people into the movie until the affair really starts to take over the film.

To play Garbo’s lover is cast Academy Award winning actor Fredric March in the role of Vronsky. Despite his known acting skill, March seems to lack the spark that makes audience be drawn towards him in his other works. His performance is drab and almost completely passionless. Obviously his character is having this romantic love affair with our main character, but March seems to fall short on his end of selling the idea, a lacking effort made up by the high skill of Garbo. March seems to phone it in, playing the nobleman that is enthralled with Anna.

The supporting cast would contain a few notable names as well. Maureen O’Sullivan, best known for playing Jane in the Tarzan features, was still a minor actress outside her vine swinging role, but we see MGM continue to try to push her towards the top in such roles as this. Playing Anna’s sister Kitty it is sad to see her character’s story cut so far down from that of the novel, as O’Sullivan does seem to provide a spark on energy to the screen when she is on it, providing a youthfulness that contrasts to the more melancholy state that follows Anna. But as with any adaptations, bulks of the source material must sit by the wayside as the film must focus on the more important story at hand. Also seen is young Freddie Bartholomew playing the role of Anna’s very beloved son Sergei. Freddie would have quite the year as he too appeared in the title role in David Copperfield, another large picture for MGM in 1935. This child actor was starting to turn heads. To play his father and Anna’s husband is Basil Rathbone, who this year was too getting many roles for MGM, but as supporting characters. His character acting leads to a rather two dimensional performance, coming off as snooty and a bit garish, though there are those that do enjoy his acting.

This tragic love story would make for a good film; good not great. It would do well at box offices with the draw of Garbo alone. Internationally the picture would gain strong attention, winning the prized Mussolini Cup at the highest film festival in the world in Venice, the trophy for best forgiven film during the festival. On top of that is the thought by many critics that this version still stands as perhaps the most highly regarded. What is is interesting it that Garbo had played this very same role before in the 1927 silent adaption, entitled Love. What makes this version more enduring is that it sticks more closely to the source of the novel. Of course it leaves out some nuances, but what adaption does not? This version would not take as many liberties. For example, Love in 1927 made many changes to the story, none perhaps stands out more than the fact that there were two separate endings produced for the feature, leaving the local areas and theatres to choose what ending they wanted to tack on, the sad ending, or a happier version. This heartbreaking 1935 Anna Karenina would be well enough thought of that it would make AFI’s Top 100 Passions list at #42 as one of the top love stories in American cinema. That makes a case to possibly watch this piece of Garbo history, otherwise if you do not, you will not feel you really missed much.

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