Photographing Greta Garbo
Daniels achieved a major triumph in photographing Garbo in Flesh and the Devil. This cinematographer elegantly tailored his style, which called for the heavy use of gauzes and filters, to capture the sophisticated beauty of Garbo. He often lit Garbo with sidelights in half-tone, creating a chiaroscuro effect in which one half of the actress's face is lit, the other in shadows. However, unlike the way Lee Garmes consistently lit Dietrich, Daniels varied his lighting—often showing great imagination by improvising effects that can only be called romantic, in the broadest sense. These effects often lend the subtlest detail, and Daniels felt that the invention of details was his contribution to the director's vision.
It is no surprise that of the sound films made by Garbo, the most significant were photographed by William Daniels. In Anna Christie Daniels and Garbo achieved moments of real poetry—in spite of some stiffness caused by the relative newness of sound. In the adventurous film adaptation of Luigi Pirandello's As You Desire Me, Daniels was again working with von Stroheim—as well as Garbo. Considering the difficulty of the original play, the finished result is fascinating. Queen Christina is a masterpiece. This film includes one rare moment of pure cinema: the famous scene showing Garbo moving around the room in the inn where she first knew love. Daniels freely admited that the realistic elements were added under the influence of von Stroheim—the sources of light placed so as to seem as if the fire were the only source of light. The cinematographer, however, failed to acknowledge that the lighting and filming have an expressive side, which transcends the actual. In this scene, Daniels achieves the goal of conveying the drama through light as the director does through speech and action. In Anna Karenina we feel the lighting's aptness both for the reality and the psyche of the film—whether it is a tryst of lovers in a sun-dappled, leafy arbor or a flashing light of a passing train on Garbo's face. Even the virtuoso tracking shot over the officers' banquet table has the dramatic purpose of creating the elegant brutality of Tzarist Russia—a world of contradictions that eventually crush the protagonist. Ninotchka , for all its shallowness, is a flawlessly photographed and lit apotheosis of cinematic Art Nouveau. It is these films' magical mixture of Daniels and Garbo, of the actual and the glamorous, that represent the best of what is quintessentially Hollywood. It would be wrong to perceive Daniels merely as the best glamor director of the most glamorous of studios—MGM. He never lost touch with the deeper dramatic, psychological significance of a shot.