Warner Bros. // 1934 // 85 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // July 5th, 2013
It's only because I don't want to make brutal mess of it that he's still alive.
The novels of W. Somerset Maugham have been made into a number of great movies, from the silent days to more recent times. The style of his writing makes adapting his work pretty clear cut; his characters are strong and there's a lurid edge to them that makes them attractive for actors. Maugham's writing was also very mannered, though, and without care from screenwriters, the stories can easily become trite and lifeless. The first film version of The Painted Veil, from his 1925 novel of the same name, suffers from this very problem. It's an interesting story that was turned into a total bore.
Katrin (Greta Garbo, Queen Christina), lonely after her sister's marriage, breaks down and agrees to marry Dr. Walter Fane (Herbert Marshall, Foreign Correspondent), a friend of the family and her father's research assistant. Immediately after the wedding, he whisks her off to a post in China, where she meets Jack Townsend (George Brent, Jezebel), a diplomat friend of Fane. They quickly become friends and, in her husband's frequent absence, it soon becomes more. When they are caught together, Fane pulls Katrin to a remote outpost where he can treat a cholera outbreak and keep his wife away from Townsend. Despite her hatred of what he's done, Katrin soon learns an important lesson about marriage.
Not only is The Painted Veil a completely boring experience, there's a terrible message about love and marriage that might have been acceptable in 1934, but today rings false and odious. Basically, in reverence of the Hayes production code, the story was drastically changed to indicate that, even if you didn't wed for love, even if you cheat on your spouse with somebody you actually do, and even if you come to hate the person, sticking it out will eventually result in your loving and respecting him or her.
The message is bad enough, but it's even worse how easily you can see it coming. Once they head out to care for the Cholera victims, no matter how much Katrin may hate Walter, it's patently obvious that tragedy will strike and, as a result, Katrin will eventually come around, likely within the final moments of the movie.
Richard Boleslawski (Clive of India) directs the film with no style whatsoever and the performances all around are dull and lifeless. The only point of interest for me in the entire picture is a poorly done special effect showing a Chinese dancer shoot flames from his hands. It's certainly an amusing effect, but it also brings up the bad Orientalism shown in so many movies of this time, which comes off terribly today. There's nothing about this movie that I enjoyed; it's one of those early films that is obscure for good reason.
The Painted Veil comes to DVD on-demand from Warner Archives in a release that's better than most on the label. The 1.33:1 image is surprisingly strong given the film's age and the track record of the label. It's quite clean, with good contrast in the relatively solid black level and fairly clear whites. There is a minimum of damage to the print and, while there are a few specks here and there, it looks nice and clean. The sound isn't quite as good, with a bit of background noise and dialog that wavers at times. It's not terrible, and an improvement over much of their catalog, but it isn't anything special. There are no extras on the disc.
I'm sure there will be viewers out there who appreciate the simplicity of The Painted Veil's story and the stick-it-out message of the movie. I found the movie dull, predictable, and often intolerable. There's a reason why this isn't one of the better known features of Garbo's career, and that's because it's simply not very good.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 1934
MPAA Rating: Not Rated