Greta Garbo had nothing to do with Broadway, other than serving out her self-imposed retirement within shouting distance. Even so, Garbo: The Signature Collection contains several items of peripheral interest to theatre fans.
This handsome box set contains ten films (including three silents), plus a full scale documentary, spread across ten discs. The highlight, for me, is "Ninotchka." This 1939 comedy came from the great Ernst Lubitsch, with screenplay contributions from the soon-to-be great Billy Wilder. "Ninotchka" sparkles, it's safe to say; the film is unalloyed joy. The dramatic Garbo is funny, even; "Garbo laughs," said the advertising, adding for the linguistically challenged "don't pronounce it — see it!" Melvyn Douglas, a familiar Broadway face, provides the perfect foil, and a bunch of character comedians add character. (Hidden away in the role of Gaston, the butler, is Richard Carle, a Broadway producer-director-librettist-star of the first decade of the twentieth century.) Broadway, not surprisingly, took "Ninotchka" and turned it into a mediocre musical, Silk Stockings. This one was helmed by top talents, namely Cole Porter and George S. Kaufman, but both former giants struggled through what turned out to be their final musical comedies. Garbo, needless to say, was not outshone by Hildegarde Neff.
The collection also includes one film based on a Broadway play and one based on a novel-turned-into-a-Broadway-play; both were ultimately turned into Broadway musicals, far less successful than the originals. The so-called Swedish sphinx first spoke — on film, anyway — as Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie." The film is presented in both its English and German versions (filmed with different casts and a different director); moreso than "Ninotchka" and "Grand Hotel," I suppose it shows its age (which is 75). "Grand Hotel" is far superior, tying "Ninotchka" in watchability. How could it not, with Garbo heading a quintet of M-G-M luminaries (the others being Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford and the Barrymore boys)?
Also of interest to theatre fans is "Queen Christina," in that it was directed by the masterful Rouben Mamoulian (of Porgy, Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma! and Carousel). When you're not in a Broadway mood, there is also "Anna Karenina" and "Camille."
AND IF YOU REALLY WANT TO LAUGH
Preston Sturges's The Miracle of Morgan's Creek holds a high place on the list of the screwiest of screwball comedies ever. This is the one about Gertrude Kockenlocker, Norval Jones and Ignatz Radzkywadzky. (The odds are that if you've ever seen this film, you are laughing already.) Eddie Bracken and a relatively subdued Betty Hutton star, and are extremely funny. The Sturges-Paramount stock company of comedians is present in full force, led by the redoubtable William Demarest, whose pratfalls are outnumbered only by his slow burns. The miracle of the title, if you must know, outdoes the Dionnes. (No, not the Supremes; the Dionnes.)
Bracken (1915-2002) was quite a comedian, of the sad-sack variety. A child actor, he graduated to George Abbott farces in the late thirties. Abbott brought him to Hollywood in 1940 for the film version of the musical comedy Too Many Girls. Bracken was an immediate success, playing nebbishy 4-F types in fourteen comedies over a five year-span. The most memorable of these are the twin 1944 Sturges classics, "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" and "Hail the Conquering Hero." Another film not to be overlooked is "Out of This World" (1945), in which our unprepossessing friend plays a band singer with the voice of Bing Crosby. (The uncredited Crosby dubbed the vocals, very obviously so, which makes the proceedings quite funny. The film features two Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer songs, the stunning title song — "You're clear out of this world. . ." — as well as the nifty counterpart duet "June Comes Around Every Year.")
But the war ended, and Bracken found himself all but washed up at 30. He moved back to the theatre, serving as star replacement in such comedies as The Seven Year Itch and The Odd Couple and musicals like Hello, Dolly! and Sugar Babies. He also set up shop as a producer, both on Broadway and in stock venues, with unrelenting nonsuccess. When last spotted, he was hopelessly searching for investors in a musical version of Sayonara. Bracken was a small and somewhat threadbare fellow of 70 at the time, but beneath his trim little mustache you could still see traces of Norval, and "Conquering Hero"'s Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith. This made him a familiar face, especially to those who grew up during WWII; but that very face made him a less-than-prepossessing businessman.
At any rate, "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" remains very funny, and a welcome addition to the comedy shelf.
—Steven Suskin, author of the forthcoming "Second Act Trouble" [Applause Books], "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.