In “Garbo,” the feature-length documentary included in Warners’ lavish DVD set “Garbo: The Signature Collection,” legendary director Clarence Brown succinctly evokes the actress’ appeal. “I never directed (her),” he says, “in anything above a whisper.” And how could he? As presented in the 10 films and numerous extras included here, Greta Garbo was a seductive mystery, a brilliant talent to be admired from afar. Hushed reverence seems the only way to speak of her.
After 70 years, her films do various degrees of service to her legend. Wisely, the collection includes standouts like “Ninotchka” and “Camille” to prove why she was the biggest star of her day. However, even her weaker films — like the overwrought “Mata Hari” — still burn with her sexual, intelligent power.
The extras put both her fame and her achievements in a fascinating context. They’re essentially divided into two sections: Greta the Person and Garbo the Legend. The documentary, helmed by Kevin Brownlow and narrated by Julie Christie, digs most fruitfully into her guarded private life. Stock footage and new interviews with surviving family and friends paint a woman who thrived out of the spotlight she famously shunned.
Brownlow’s film has excellent pacing, touching just long enough on the well-known details and reveling in the obscure facts of her work and life. The same is true of the commentary on silent classic “Flesh and the Devil.” Garbo biographer Barry Paris focuses on her affair with that film’s co-star, John Gilbert, and tells juicy anecdotes through the fascinating lens of the Hollywood studio system.
But the real treat for fans interested in Garbo’s studio life comes on the commentary tracks for “The Temptress” and “The Mysterious Lady.” A collection of film historians dissects each silent as an example of how the entertainment industry used to run, and the result plays like an outstanding day at film school. The commentators’ obvious excitement over, say, Garbo’s acting choices becomes infectious.
Along with these centerpieces, the set features fun asides like a long-buried musical parody of “Grand Hotel” and a German-language version of “Anna Christie.” Most of the attention, though, goes to the three silents. The seven talkies, all without commentary, are generally bundled with nothing more than trailers.
Putting the best features on the least-known films — and declining to sell the docu separately — is no doubt a Warner ploy to move more boxed sets. But at least customers who bite will own a package that does justice to a legend.