What’s Worth Watching: The Essential Greta Garbo

Ninotchka - Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas
Courtesy of Everett Collection

The Essentials: Greta Garbo (Saturday, May 2, 8/7c, TCM)

When Ernst Lubitsch’s classic film comedy Ninotchka was released in cinema’s banner year of 1939, the marketing campaign trumpeted this promise: “Garbo Laughs!” Rather significant, considering that the glamorous Swedish superstar of the 1930s had garnered fame, and two earlier Oscar nominations, for very serious films—including her debut in the talkies in 1930’s Anna Christie, which MGM promoted with the line, “Garbo Talks!” Turner Classic Movies devotes this week’s “The Essentials” lineup to Garbo, whose reputation far exceeds her modest output, having retired from movies in 1941 at the age of 35.

The tribute begins with Ninotchka (8/7c), a delightful showcase in which she plays a dour Russian agent who learns to love—and laugh—while in Paris. Then comes the title role of Sweden’s 17th-century Queen Christina (10/9c), featuring John Gilbert as her passionate lover, and finally her first audible speaking role (after a career in silent movies) as Anna Christie (midnight/11c) in an adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play. If that all sounds a bit heavy, stick with TCM into the wee hours, when the Garbo marathon is followed incongruously by a showing of 1979’s camp curiosity Roller Boogie (2 am/1c), a movie that almost certainly wouldn’t have made Garbo laugh. Or maybe even smile.