Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Ultimate Fantasy Girlfriend: Greta Garbo

My great comedy heroes, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, probably invented the concept of the 'Fantasy Girlfriend', or created it for me, at any rate, when I first heard this celebrated skit of theirs at about the age of 12. My French teacher at school had a huge library of recorded comedy, mostly radio shows from his own youth, and would treat us to extended sessions of this rather than continuing with lessons in the last week or two of term, after our exams were out of the way. This provided my first exposure to a lot of classic BBC radio comedy like ITMA and Round The Horne and Hancock's Half Hour, and also to the great monologists like Gerard Hoffnung, Victor Borge, Peter Ustinov, Alan Bennett, and Bob Newhart. But it was Pete & Dud, already known to me from scattered recollections of some of their TV shows in my very early childhood in the late '60s and early '70s, that I loved the most - and this skit in particular.

This was my first introduction to Greta Garbo as an ultimate romantic fantasy figure. At that time she was known to me only as a name, the unforgettably alliterative name of someone famous yet at the same time obscure. I think I was perhaps dimly aware that she was now chiefly famous for her reclusiveness. There was no Internet back then, so we didn't have ready availability to the luminous portraits of her which later so beguiled me. She wasn't featured in advertising. Her films, which, I suppose, were felt to have dated rather badly, were not shown on TV. I think I had no idea, really, who she was or what she had looked like, until quite a bit later, sometime in the second half of my teens.

I have the film historians David Gill and Kevin Brownlow to thank for introducing me to Garbo properly. Hollywood, their exquisite 13-part documentary series for Thames TV on the silent movie era in America aired in the autumn of 1980, when I was 16; it was a life-changing moment for me. I was utterly enraptured, not just by Garbo, but by all the other almost-forgotten greats of that period. As a result of the success of this series, BBC2 and Channel 4, our minority 'artsy' TV stations, began to show some of these classic silent films. The superb physical comedian Harold Lloyd was a particular favourite of mine (a decade later, Gill and Brownlow produced a three-part series devoted to him, placing him alongside Chaplin and Keaton as The Third Genius of silent comedy); but we also got to see some D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, and Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks, and, of course, the bewitching Garbo. 

And then, finally, one Christmas, I think, round about 1982, BBC2 got around to showing a short season of her talkies: Anna Christie, Grand Hotel, Queen Christina, Marie Walewska, and Camille. It was, no doubt, the tragic aspect of these roles, her nobility in suffering, which attracted me quite as much as her limpid eyes and sculpted cheekbones. Bravery in facing pain, dignity in enduring injustice always inspires - even if it's merely being acted out on the stage or screen. In a woman, it invokes the male's protective instincts as well, I think, something which is often the beginning of love. That enigmatic and aloof quality of hers, the Scandinavian froideur (I wonder what the Swedish word for that is? I bet it sounds sexy!), the provoking unknowability was part of the magic too. Yes, these are dangerous and frustrating qualities for a boy to become attracted to, but there it is - what can you do?

Ever since I started this series (crikey - more than 5 years ago!), I knew I'd have to do a post on Greta Garbo one day. Ever since my blog friend JES did this post two-and-a-half years ago, I knew what the culmination of it would be. In that post he introduced me to this montage of scenes from her 1928 film The Mysterious Lady (playing opposite Conrad Nagel), and I was blown away by it. It is quite simply the sexiest video I have ever seen, and perfectly encapsulates how utterly compelling Greta Garbo was.

The hauntingly Satiesque piano music here is an arrangement of the Pixies' song Where Is My Mind? by French musician Maxence Cyrin, from an album called Novo Piano in which he gave several contemporary songs a classical makeover. He also created this ravishing video. You can check out more of his work on his Youtube channel.

There are a few other nice montages of images of Greta here and here and here, and a couple of great collections of photos here and here. You could also check out the New York Times obituary on her, and this radio programme of reminiscences about her by her nephew Scott Reisfield. And I have just learned that Kevin Brownlow made a documentary tribute to her in 2005; I want to see that.

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