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A pretty good made for TV movie about early Hollywood
I haven't seen this film on TV or anywhere else in 30 years, yet it has stuck in my mind all of this time for some reason. I saw it by accident, because I was on an extended business trip in a strange town and had nothing else to do that night but watch TV, and this was on.
Moviola was a series of three films based on the book by the same name. One made-for-TV movie was about the search for Scarlet O'Hara, another was about Marilyn Monroe, and then there was this one about the love affair between John Gilbert and Greta Garbo. Oddly, everyone who had a major part in this film was pretty well-known at the time - 1980 - except the lead actress that played Garbo. That part was given to a Swedish actress who largely only had small parts in her career and is thus pretty much unknown today - Kristina Wayborn. Maybe this was because Garbo is such an enigmatic figure in film history that the producers didn't want audiences to look into the face of a well-known actress and bring with them any preconceived notions.
At any rate, the film starts out with Garbo coming with Swedish director Mauritz Stiller to Hollywood, and at first the two are living in the same house, although it is shown as a platonic arrangement. The studio is horrified and forces them to live apart due to public perception of this situation. One of the oddest scenes in the film is Stiller trying to explain this to Garbo, who is portrayed as a child-like innocent who can't quite grasp the concept. The film goes on to portray the romance between Garbo and Gilbert, the wedding that doesn't happen because Garbo doesn't show up, and the punch that Gilbert lands on Louis Mayer after he insults Garbo when it is obvious Gilbert has been stood up, along with the famous promise Mayer makes at that point to destroy Gilbert's career.
Later, at Gilbert's house, you see Garbo drive up from wherever she's been, explain that she doesn't see why marriage has to ruin a perfectly good relationship, and Jack pretty much accepting that they'll never be married. Also the film shows Gilbert drinking heavily during their conversation, implying that this is where and why John Gilbert began to have a problem with alcohol.
Next come the talkies, and Gilbert is the first of the two to take the plunge with the now infamous "His Glorious Night". At the premiere Gilbert is shown sitting in the audience with Garbo, while everyone in the audience laughs at a Mickey Mouse-high voice. Mayer is shown in the audience laughing too, but laughing just a little too slyly. The implication is that Mayer did indeed pay off the sound technician to ruin the pitch on the recording of Gilbert's voice. Gilbert's buddy Irving Thalberg investigates, but can never find anything definitive.
Garbo's talkie premiere, "Anna Christie", of course goes completely differently as she is a big hit. Gilbert is shown going downhill steadily with his drinking, even coming home from a hospitalization caused by his drinking and opening a bottle as soon as he enters the house. At this point Garbo says she won't stand by and watch him kill himself and leaves him.
The film fast forwards a number of years to 1936, and Garbo is on the set of yet another film when word reaches her that John Gilbert has died. She mentions that Jack said he never wanted to grow old, and now he wouldn't. I can't remember too much about that final scene, but I thought that line was an odd one.
I'm not sure exactly how many liberties were taken with the facts here, but for sure they got John Gilbert's talkie debut and the length of his intimate relationship with Garbo wrong, probably for dramatic reasons. Gilbert wasn't at the premiere of his first talking film. He was on his honeymoon with his new wife, Ina Claire, when he got the bad news. He and Garbo had ceased being a hot item some time before, but it is something that happened gradually and the two were always friends.
Also, I've seen some scenes from "His Glorious Night" and Gilbert had a perfectly fine speaking voice, probably just not quite as deep as what you would expect had you been watching him act silently for the past five years. The people who should have been ridden out of town on a rail was whoever wrote the dialogue, which were probably the exact same words that Gilbert had been saying on the silent screen to get himself worked up for the love scenes but look rather ridiculous when spoken for all the world to hear. What makes matters worse is that Gilbert's leading lady, Catherine Dale Owen, is completely wooden even as Gilbert speaks passionately to her. Then, of course, ultimate responsibility has to be laid at the feet of Lionel Barrymore, who directed "His Glorious Night" and a few others for MGM, before he realized - too late for John Gilbert - that his real talent was in front of the camera.
Warner Brothers has put one of the Moviola films - "The Scarlet O'Hara Wars" - out on DVD in their latest re-release of Gone With the Wind. They say they're going to eventually empty their vaults into the Warner Archive, and they have been good about putting out their TV properties using that venue. Thus I'd expect this film to show up there in time. When it does I'd say it's worth a look for the history of it all. Plus, Harry Gould is absolutely terrific as Louis B. Mayer. He really captures the vindictive nature and closeted fiendishness of the guy.
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