Quivering slightly I entered the theater to see the "new Garbo" who would be as approachable as good old Annie Morningstar (girl right down the block) and as modern as Eleanor Roosevelt.
I sank into the seat, comfy as a hound, and gazed briefly up at the Turkish-Bavarian Baroque magnificence of the movie house with its echoes of San Vitale and a bordello in one of those novels that used to be written by dreaming women.
"Ninotchka" commenced. Garbo's film of 1939. I was 16. For the first time -- all the critics assured me -- I would see Garbo not in some 18th or 19th-century costume role but as a living breathing modern woman.
And sure enough, there she was all done up in tweeds and a sable hat and she walked here and there like a regular lady (not a queen of Sweden or a tubercular courtesan or a Vronsky-smitten suicide) and she laughed. Just like a modern woman. Gee.
Furthermore, the screen itself looked different. Instead of the well-loved old black and white -- the white of moonstuck rice powder and the black of pansy flowers deep and velvet -- I saw a screen full of grays, pearl and dove, verging occasionally into what we all now know as Bergman Bleak, the depressing drained gray of some more modern films.
But the new Garbo was like the new Nixon or the new South in this sense, she was utterly recognizable as her old self and utterly the same.
The memory of "Ninotchka" arose at the news that Greta Garbo turned 75 yesterday. She made 20-odd films and has not worked or opened her mouth for the past 40 years.
There is always talk, of course, that she is going to make another movie. She will play, you are used to reading, Mother Teresa among the poor of Calcutta. Or Samson, pulling down the temple. Or Peter Pan or John Paul Jones or Maude, queeen of fairies. Or whatever.
She was not the most popular actress in America; some distributors considered her box-office poison. She was more famous than she was popular, and more popular, I suspect, than well-beloved. In her great days, I don't think I ever heard a woman say anthing flattering about her. Nevermind.
She was the same Garbo and I did not ask for a refund.
Nowadays you find perceptive (utterly wrong, too) critics who have reflected on the distance she seemed to put between herself and her roles. Some have attributed this to her failure of concentration -- as if she were not quite with it when she performed a role -- or even that she was not awfully competent learning and delivering her lines.
Now I have always known Miss Garbo had all the concentration anybody could wish, and she was flamboyantly into her roles. It's just that her roles were not quite what her producers and directors thought.
She was always all there. It's just that her there was not quite what the innocent cameras were grinding away at.
Wasn't it Margaret Webster who once thundered that an entire Shakespeare play could be ruined if one of the spear carriers lost his concentration on his small role? Well, ever since, critics have loved to growl at actresses for failing to sustain concentration.
I know it doesn't sound flattering to the actress for me to recall my 16-year-old judgement that the play was not the thing and that it made no great difference whether she was supposed to be a queen of Sweden or a tubercular courtesan or (though she never played this great part) Lincoln's doctor's dog.
Tough critics -- critics bust their backs to sound tough and me-Tarzan, nowadays -- would say I was merely a specimen of the pimpled populace when I loved Garbo and required nothing more than a movable celluloid pin-up. w
But I say my perception of Garbo at 16 was as good as theirs today. Better, damn it. It's true I admired her beauty, and it's true I was no great student of the theater then or since (for no man can be all bad) but it's too easy a brush-off to say of me, and the others who ogled, that we just wanted a pin-up.
As it happened, the night of Garbo's birthday, I was thinking all these deep thoughts, desiring to articulate, if I could, my 16-year claim that Garbo was a wonderful actress, even though what she was doing was rarely or never captured on the screen.
And as I mused, I say my old record player was back from the repair shop (only cost $100, which was not bad when you consider it took 12 minutes to fix it) and since it was late at night I chose gentle music for this revived machine.
The strains of "Cosi Fan Tutte" rose sweet and clear, considering the record is as poor technically as any I have ever possessed, but back to Garbo:
FLASH. In a flash I saw it:
Garbo was like Mozart.
As you know, Mozart always had trouble distinguishing between a "Sanctus" and a seduction scene with wine-stained wenches. No, he didn't have trouble telling the two apart; he merely ignored any differences that more conventional composers might see there.
In "Cosi," you probably one knew, there are two loving couples. The boys decide (for they are stupid) to test the faithfulness of the girls. They disguise themselves as new suitors from Albania. The girls fall for them like a ton of Adriatics. Everything goes round and round and ends well with a flourish of toodley toots. Even by the lax standards of Italian opera, the plot is a mess.
Not to worry, Mozart pays it no attention, and the work is glorious. Oh, I don't say some tough critics here and there haven't complained they can't tell from the music if a pious soul has just taken off for Heaven or whether a lecher has scored anew.
You could say the composer wasn't really paying attention. Wasn't really advancing the action of the drama with his music. I mean gee, if your can't tell from the harmonies whether a man is fomenting a revolution or an old lady is admiring a new litter of Irish setters, something's wrong (a critic would argue) with the composer's brains or concentration or technical competence.
Mozart's all there, all the way through, and there's nothing wrong with his concentration, either. It's just that his there has nothing to much to do with the action of the opera, and he would grind out the same message whether the play was "Lizzie Borden" or "Forty Days and Forty Nights."
I cannot now tell you the exact plot of Garbo's "Ninotchka," which I do not think was all that memorable, but I remember fairly well how it went in the movie palace with the pearly screen
Behold, we are at the bottom of a cool sea, and the drowned city with its towers is over yonder and on a chariot of dolphins and roses, glilding along at a nice rate, if the goddess. Miss Garbo. What a surprise. The soft current streams out her hair and a beautiful light filtered through amber gleams along her flank and etc.
The synopsis, as reported in film archives, is quite the other. Which just shows you how unreliable archivists are.
She turns her head a little and smiles. The dolphins. . . .
Well, Miss Garbo among her other merits does not sit for interviews. Yesterday she took a morning walk at some place in Switzerland where she is briefly staying, and she had lunch which probably consisted of food and drink.
Who really wants to hear what she says on her birthday?
"I do enjoy shopping," she would certainly say, "especially at Cartier's and Sunny's Surplus. I have tea at 5 o'clock and rather enjoy smelts."
What good would that do any of us? and yet, if she spoke now, she would hardly begin with the drowned city and the light on her shoulder and the dolphins all haltered with roses. She would hesitate to speak of such things, I suspect, to some brash and callow felow from an electronic place.
No. It is better as it is. We wo have lived among the corals and roses at the depts of the sea -- we prefer our own silences.