Part 3

The Classics You Should Have Seen By Now

by PopMatters Staff

17 February 2009


Renee Jean Falconetti and more

Renee Jean Falconetti The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)

Consider how many have stumbled when playing the seminal Maid of Orléans. Then consider the limitations enforced upon Falconetti (also known as Maria, or Renée Maria—such is her enigma) by the brilliant Dreyer. When bereft of dialogue, makeup and body language (the film relies upon a heavy use of incisive close-ups) another performer might have stumbled—but Falconetti soars. Her face transforms into an emotional sieve that redefines expressivity, single-handedly negating the necessity for mise-en-scène. From doubt to devotion and from despondence to defiance, the actress organically conveys an encyclopedia of feelings behind an umbrella of ardent naiveté that motivates Dreyer’s textured editing style. With the utmost integrity, she undercuts the myth of Jeanne d’Arc and replaces it with an alternative: that of her own. Many actresses have achieved greatness in cinema, but to date, this unknown Frenchwoman remains the only one to have discovered pure transcendence. SB

Greta Garbo Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1934)

After an 18-month hiatus from film, there was in revived sense of playfulness and adventure that showed on Garbo’s face. Set in the American pre-code era, Garbo laps it up as Queen Christina ruling over 17th century Sweden. It is a very masculine portrayal by Garbo; the Queen was raised as a boy and ascends the throne as a child. Her androgyny would have been quite confronting during that time and we see a kind of transition from the masculine attire to dresses as a sort of awakening. Her great love Antonio tells her that there is a mystery in her and indeed, when we cut the final shot of her staring into the great expanse of the sea, we wonder what she could possibly be thinking and what other adventures might be in store for her. KL

Garbo may have given better performances in Camille and Ninotchka, but nowhere is her mystique captured more engrossingly than in 1933’s Queen Christina. Has her androgynous beauty ever been used as mischievously as in her deliciously subversive drag routine here? Whether woman, monarch or transvestite, the star’s stern yet sensual allure overwhelms the opulent settings; ensuring that her presence seeps into every corner of the frame. Garbo’s enigma may forever be the subject of scrutiny, but only a talent of her magnitude could locate intimacy in such distance from the viewer. To watch Queen Christina is to become consumed by her, and to accordingly comprehend the star system’s greatest success story. As the camera zooms in on her implacable face during the staggering finale, one realizes that it’s not the titular character that’s setting sail at all—it’s Garbo, sailing beyond the frame and into the annals of cinema mythology. SB

Judy Garland A Star is Born (George Cukor, 1954)

Garland was many things: child star, actress, addict, icon, singer, and mother. Cukor’s sensational remake of Star showcases all of Garland’s natural charisma, and proves to be her most un-affected, biggest performances of all. She is able to emote with sincerity, belt out show-stoppers and ballads with equal authority, and she is also, curiously, able to transcend the “Judy Garland” myth that plagued her career –- Vicki Lester might be a character in a remake, but the hyphenate makes the character her own. Singularly “Judy”, but also her most expertly-realized character. One viewing of her soulful rendering of “The Man that Got Away” or the dynamic, color-splashed “Born in a Trunk” sequence, will leave you literally breathless –- it’s a legend at her most vulnerable, relying on her own personal heartache but also her joy, going for broke, and finally earning proper cred as one of the premiere dramatic performers of her time. She was able to do this through voice, choreography and dialogue alone, never relying on her “legend”. Garland here is the very definition of go-for-broke and it works very well. MM

Janet Gaynor Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, 1928)

Murnau’s canonical Sunrise thoroughly deserves the “greatest ever” accolades so frequently bestowed upon it. History has done little to diminish the power of silent cinema’s most magical fable—and nor has it tainted the beauty of Gaynor’s performance within it. Her diminutive figure ironically lends a tremendous amount of weight to the vulnerability that emanates from her delicate, doll-like face, thereby vitalizing the archetypal mould of “The Woman” that she’s asked to embody. Her unrefined purity generates a personification of innocence that’s unabashedly sentimental, yet never once maudlin. The audience witnesses the pain of a broken heart, but it’s the actress’s ability to locate The Woman’s irrepressible light during her healing process that resonates above all else. If Sunrise is a “song of two humans”, then Gaynor is surely the one that’s singing it. SB

Lillian Gish The Wind (Victor Sjostrom, 1928)

Sjostrom, who would later go on to be the male lead of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, first gained notoriety as a director of silent films. In his take on a Texas transplant’s descent into madness as “the wind” and the dirt conspire to destroy everything, the Swede gives trains his camera on Gish’s isolated Letty –- a woman in a wild, foreign place who is literally being battered by the elements. Gish brought this property to the attention of her studio, hand-picked the director and her leading man, and, in decidedly anachronistic feminist fashion, fought with the studio when they wanted to give the film a happy ending (she lost at the time, but newer versions show both endings). Letty lives a bleak existence on the prairie. When she arrives to live with her cousin, she quickly finds out that times are tough and there are enough mouths to feed without her intrusion. She then marries a man she loves out of necessity. This desperate chain of events quickly wears Letty down and leads to murder. Complex, visually stunning and expressively, wordlessly acted by the ghostly Gish, at the height of her powers, The Wind is disturbingly not available on DVD. MM

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