Garbo’s Hat: Recognising People’s Right to Be Wrong

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Greta Garbo was a Hollywood star of the silent era, adored for her luminous on-screen presence, her sophisticated beauty, her worldly-wise personality. With the advent of ‘talkies’ MGM became nervous. What would audiences make of her heavy Swedish accent? They delayed as long as they could. Then in 1930 Garbo played the eponymous heroine of ‘Anna Christie’. She walked into a bar, collapsed into a chair and demanded:

'Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby.’

The studio publicised the movie with posters proclaiming: ‘Garbo talks!’ The public were delighted, and ‘Anna Christie’ was the highest grossing film of the year.

Garbo subsequently performed in a succession of classics, including ‘Grand Hotel’, ‘Queen Christina’, ‘Anna Karenina’ and ‘Camille’. She consistently played melancholic and melodramatic heroines. She was compellingly serious, earnest, pensive. But gradually her popularity began to wane, and in 1939 the studio decided to change tack, casting her in an Ernst Lubitsch comedy, ‘Ninotchka’.

Buljanoff: 'How are things in Moscow?'
Ninotchka: 'Very Good. The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.' 

Garbo plays Ninotchka, a Soviet special envoy sent to Paris to organise a sale of royal Russian jewellery. She is sober, stern, judgemental; unimpressed by bourgeois capitalism.

Ninotchka: 'Why should you carry other people's bags?'
Porter: 'Well, that's my business, Madame.'
Ninotchka: 'That's no business. That's social injustice.'
Porter: 'That depends on the tip.'

Wherever Ninotchka goes in Paris, she is taken aback by its indulgent Western ways. All about her seems shallow and superfluous, petty and pointless. She spots a couture hat in a shop window. It looks rather like a lampshade.

Ninotchka: 'What's that?'
Comrade Kopalski: 'It's a hat, Comrade. A woman's hat.'
Ninotchka: 'How can such a civilization survive which permits their women to put things like that on their heads. It won't be long now, Comrades.'

 Ninotchka also encounters the debonair Frenchman, Count Leon (played by Melvyn Douglas). She recognizes that he is rather charismatic, but dismisses him as entirely frivolous.

 'Now, don't misunderstand me. I do not hold your frivolity against you. As basic material, you may not be bad; but you are the unfortunate product of a doomed culture. I feel very sorry for you.'

Gradually, however, Ninotchka is seduced by the charms of Paris and the Count. And soon she cannot resist the hat she recently found so contemptible.

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‘Ninotchka’ is a magnificent comedy, bristling with elegant witticisms and sharp social satire. It reminded me that, growing up in the midst of the Cold War, we were often prompted to consider the differences between Soviet and Capitalist societies. 

To teenagers like me Communism certainly had its appeal: the avowed commitment to equality, the intolerance of plutocrats, the celebration of the workers, the military caps with retractable ear-flaps. But we were also, of course, aware of the suppression of individual freedoms, of Stalin’s dark secrets. And there was a nagging sense that Communism was somehow dull, dreary and joyless; that it didn’t accommodate human foibles and foolishness - the insignificance of pop, the frippery of fashion, the triviality of brands and advertising. In short Communism didn’t seem to afford people the right to be wrong. And this seemed somehow very important to me.

If you work in the field of marketing or advertising and were fortunate enough to grow up after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it’s still perhaps worth reflecting on the differences between Capitalism and Communism. You may conclude like me that ordinary people are capricious, fickle and flighty. They oscillate between profound passions and shallow affections; between passionate commitments and superficial attachments. They can be both serious and silly; consistent and erratic. They can comfortably hold two mutually opposing ideas in their heads at the same time. And that’s what makes us human.

In the critical scene of ‘Ninotchka’ our heroine sits down in a restaurant and orders raw beets and carrots. The owner is unimpressed:

'Madame, this is a restaurant, not a meadow.'

Count Leon does everything he can to entertain her over lunch - all to no avail. Finally he resorts to a joke.

 'A man comes into a restaurant. He sits down at the table. He says, "Waiter, bring me a cup of coffee without cream." Five minutes later the waiter comes back and says, "I'm sorry sir, we have no cream, can it be without milk?"'

Ninotchka is still not amused, but when the Count accidentally tumbles from his chair, she breaks into cascades of joyous laughter. Ninotchka’s defences have been breached by a ludicrous pratfall. And Garbo shows a hitherto concealed gift for comedy.

This time round the promotional posters were headlined: ‘Garbo laughs!’

'By the look in your eye I can tell you're gonna cry. 
Is it over me?
If it is, save your tears for I'm not worth it, you see.
For I'm the kind of guy who is always on the roam,
Wherever I lay my hat, that's my home.’

Marvin Gaye, Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home) (Barrett Strong/ Marvin Gaye/ Norman Whitfield)

No. 205


Grand Hotel: Why Not Put All Your Eggs in One Basket?

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'Grand Hotel... always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.’

Dr. Otternschlag, ‘Grand Hotel’

The 1932 movie ‘Grand Hotel’ is set in Berlin between the wars. It begins with an overhead shot of switchboard operators busily connecting calls. We cut to a series of hotel staff and guests on the phone: a Head Porter is worried about his wife who is giving birth at a local clinic; an industrialist plans a merger which he needs to go through to keep his business afloat; a maid announces that her Prima Ballerina mistress will not dance today as she is tired and overwrought; an aristocrat short of money is plotting; an ordinary fellow has only a few weeks to live.

And so we are introduced with elegant brevity to a range of personal stories that will intertwine and evolve as the plot unfolds.

It had been the convention for Hollywood studios to release films that featured just one or two stars. They wanted to prompt audiences to pay separate admission to see their favourite actors appearing across a range of titles.

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With ‘Grand Hotel’ MGM chief Irving Thalberg determined to feature five A-list stars in one movie: Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, the brothers John and Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery.

Inevitably the production attracted a great deal of publicity. MGM promoted it as ‘the greatest cast ever assembled’ and gave it a spectacular Hollywood premiere.

With its phenomenal line-up, lavish setting and romantic narrative, ‘Grand Hotel’ resonated with audiences that were reeling from the onset of the Depression. The movie gained notoriety for featuring Greta Garbo’s melancholy line,‘I want to be alone.’ And it quickly attracted parodies. It became one of the highest grossing films in studio history.

‘Grand Hotel’ was the first all-star movie vehicle. And it established a model for gilt-edged ensemble casting that was followed right up to the modern era by the likes of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, ‘Gosford Park’ and ‘Oceans Eleven’.

In business we are accustomed to the principle of spreading risk; of distributing exposure across a range of categories and markets. But sometimes it pays to consolidate our efforts.

 

The nineteenth century tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt initially acquired his wealth in steamboats. But when he saw the rise of the train, he divested from shipping and bet his whole fortune on the railroad. He became the richest man in America. John Rockefeller built Standard Oil by processing petroleum for kerosene used in lamps. When electricity began to eclipse kerosene in the domestic lighting sector, he could have diversified into the new technology. Instead Rockefeller concentrated his efforts on refining oil for gasoline in the emergent car market.

Sometimes the opportunity is such that it merits focus and weight, our full and undivided attention. 

Many years ago we were pitching for the US region of a business that we serviced in the rest of the world. Our competitors had been whispering in the Clients’ ears that awarding the whole global account to BBH would compromise them. Better, it was suggested, to keep an Agency roster and play suppliers off against one another. ‘You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket.’

Nigel Bogle began the pitch by recognizing that the ‘eggs in one basket’ concern had been playing on the Clients’ minds. He addressed the issue head-on: 

‘I’ve reflected on this, and I can’t think of anyone that doesn’t keep all their eggs in one basket.’

Sometimes it pays to consolidate and concentrate; to focus on the biggest opportunity; to put all your best eggs in the one most promising basket.

By the end of ‘Grand Hotel’ Otto Kringelein, the ordinary fellow with a terminal illness, has had a fine old time drinking, gambling and carousing in its opulent halls. He concludes with a toast:

'To life! To the magnificent, dangerous, brief, brief, wonderful life...and the courage to live it!  Baron, I've only lived since last night, but that little while seems longer than all the time that's gone before.'

No 196