The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: Anna Christie

Greta Garbo as Anna Christie

Next up on the list of important O’Neill plays is Anna Christie, which won O’Neill his second Pulitzer Prize, just two years after he won for Beyond the Horizon.  It was also the first play of his to be adapted to the screen, in a 1923 silent version directed by John Griffith Wray, produced by Thomas Ince, and adapted by Bradley King.  It stars Blanche Sweet as Anna Christie, William Russell as Mat Burke, and George F. Marion as Chris Christopherson.  Unlike the play, the movie starts in Sweden, giving a little bit of back story for Christopherson and his family.  From the moment when Christopherson receives Anna’s letter, the rest of the film follows the plot of the play fairly closely.  Even seeing a silent adaptation of the play, I got a sense of how much O’Neill’s character development and plotting had improved since Beyond the Horizon.  The intertitles even copy his vernacular way with dialogue (and may have been lifted directly from the play).

If I had lived anywhere else on the planet, however, seeing the 1923 silent version would have been almost impossible, thanks to the next two versions that came out, both of which star Greta Garbo.  As it is, the silent version I saw is on DVD-R, replaces a soundtrack with excerpts from classical works (which often doesn’t fit the mood of the scene), and — while the picture quality isn’t bad — could use a remastering.

Garbo’s take on Anna Christie was also her first talkie (“Garbo talks!” screamed the ad campaign). Technically, her first two talkies, since she starred in both an American version (in English) and a German version. She preferred the German version, which was less censored than the English-language one.

While both versions include Garbo, the same sets, many of the same or similar shots, and the same opening music; differences between the director, the actors, and the language lead to a more satisfying movie experience with the German version, even if it’s missing some frames (though luckily not full scenes) and is more damaged than the American version. On the other hand, you can relish O’Neill’s words spoken in their original language in the American version (despite some difficulties in understanding it, what with Chris Christopherson speaking with a Swedish accent and Matt speaking with an Irish one), something that can’t be said for the German or silent film versions.

In the American version, directed by Clarence Brown, Anna is played by Garbo, Chris by George F. Marion, Matt (notice the different spelling) by Charles Bickford, and Marthy by Marie Dressler. In the German version, directed by Jacques Feyder, Anna is once again played by Garbo, Chris by Hans Junkermann, Matt by Theo Shall, and Marty (pronounced “Marta”) by Salka Viertel. The American Chris and Marty play their roles more broadly (especially their drunkenness) than their German equivalents do. Matt is tougher in the American version but lacks tenderness, while the German Matt may not be as tough but is more tender (and a better actor). You believe both Garbo and Shall are in love in the German version; you’re not quite sure about Bickford in the American one. And then there’s Garbo, who also acts bigger in the American version and more subtle in the German one.

The directors go about their movies in slightly different ways, too. While some of the shots are shared, and the screenplay in both films were adapted by Frances Marion, notable differences exist. For example, the opening scene with Marty in the barge is removed in the German version, which cuts from a foggy night to her being helped down the gangplank by Chris. Garbo’s famous first words onscreen in the English version are, “Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy baby” (which is an exact quote from the play). In the German version, she says (according to the translation), “Whiskey, but not too short.” Feyder loves using close-ups more than Brown does, especially on Garbo, which gives her performance more of a chance to breathe, as well as focus on her reactions versus who’s talking. Brown tends to frame the shots as if you were watching a play, while including a few tracking shots to remind you that you are watching a movie. Feyder frames his shots so that you’re more often watching one person in a scene even when two or more share the scene, and in the middle of scenes, he’s more likely to cut between shots, which creates a more cinematic language. His framing is also less straight-on than Brown’s.

And then there’s the differences in dialogue. When Anna is telling Marty in the American version about life on the farm, she says the boys were “women crazy” and “one of the sons came back” when she was in the house alone, so she left for St. Paul. She then mentions she was in the hospital, because while the judge gave all the girls “30 days,” she got sick. When she gives her big speech at the climax on how no one owns her, she says to her dad that “one of those cousins you think of as such nice people had started me wrong.” She says that’s the reason she got a job “as a nursemaid” in St. Paul. And then she reveals that the last two years, she wasn’t a nursemaid, but was in “that kind of a house” that sailors visit when they come to port.

Contrast that with the German version, which is a bit more blatant. When Anna is telling Marty about her life on the farm, she says the Swedish boys were “all hungry for women.” Like the American version, she mentions that she was alone in the house when “one of the sons came back.” She talks about running away to St. Paul, but she wasn’t able to get a job. One day, she was out with “the girls” and the cops caught them, giving them all 30 days, which “the others were used to.” In the scene with her big speech, she starts with Matt, where Matt and Chris’s positions on either side of the table have been swapped from the American version. She says she will tell him one thing, and then she will go. And then, like the American version, she lays into her father for abandoning her on the farm. In this version, she says, “One of your nephews that you are so proud of…he was the one that seduced me, a bull like you. I couldn’t stop him.” She then runs away to St. Paul to become a nursemaid, where she only met “decent men.” Then she asks her father, “Do you know where I was? In a house. The kind of house you always go to — You and Matt. In a port, where all sailors go! Where all men go!”*

The major difference, however, is in the scene after this one, when the men come back one-by-one to say that they’ve signed up for a ship sailing for South Africa, not aware they signed up for the same one. The German version has Chris bring a gun back with him that he was gonna use on Matt because he thought everything was his fault, but he promises Anna he “won’t do it.” Anna then pulls the gun on Matt when she thinks he’s going to do something other than talk to her. He dares her to shoot him. Then “This miserable life will come to an end,” he says. The entire confrontation with Chris over the gun and Anna pulling it on Matt aren’t in the American version. In fact, in the American version, there is no gun.**

Of the three versions, the American Garbo version frames it the most like a play, the silent version treats it the most like a movie, and the German version is the best of both worlds. All three are worth seeking out.

*Though the German version is more blatant, the American version is actually closer to the original dialogue.

** The incident with the gun is in the play.

Further reading:  O’Neill on Film by John Orlandello, which discusses the 1924 and 1930 film versions of Anna Christie

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