Appellate Judge James A. Stewart still wants to know what happened to the governess.
Our review of Anna Karenina (1961), published May 14th, 2009, is also available.
"You've never considered me as a human being. Your social position, your reputation. These must be kept up at what cost to those around you? At what cost?"—Greta Garbo, as Anna Karenina, to Anna's husband, Karenin
When Stiva, Anna Karenina's brother, has a dalliance with his children's governess, no one considers it a big deal. "Everybody loves him. People will be sorry for him," says his wife Dolly. "Men like Stiva aren't really conscious of deception at all. They put their wives and homes in one compartment, and these other women into another," says sister Anna. Stiva does have a few tense moments eavesdropping at the keyhole as Anna hashes things out with Dolly, but soon all is well at his house. At least for everyone except the governess.
But a circle dance at the ball digs a big hole for Anna (Greta Garbo, Flesh and The Devil, Ninotchka) when she falls for military man Vronsky (Fredric March, Death Takes A Holiday, The Barretts of Wimpole Street). She tells him she's returning home to St. Petersburg to her husband and child, but he changes his plans, ending up on the same train. When they meet again on the croquet pitch, the romantic tensions between them attract an audience. She still protests, "I have a husband and a son," but she agrees to meet him in private. By the day of the riding exhibition, where Anna leaps to her feet in horror as Vronksy tumbles from a horse, to the delight of the gossips and the outrage of her husband, Karenin (Basil Rathbone, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Casanova's Big Night), her marriage is in jeopardy. Karenin knows she loves Vronsky, and orders her to reject him or leave his home—and her son—forever.
Although I haven't read Count Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, it was immediately evident that there's a lot missing here. A quick check of the novel's plot on Wikipedia reveals that tons of material (including an out-of-wedlock pregnancy) was lost, between the condensation of an epic novel into 93 minutes and the restraints of the Hays Code. Thus, it was hard to fathom how a woman who had one dance with a soldier in Moscow could, upon their next on-camera meeting, be ready to consider leaving her husband and son for him, especially since sparks of passion between Garbo and March are rarely seen. At times, the movie sounded like the Reduced Shakespeare Company version of Anna Karenina, as it stuffed in the exposition.
That said, Anna Karenina has some good things going for it. More than a tale of passion, it's a tale of loss, as Anna is separated from the son she dotes on. In their scenes together, Garbo shines as a smiling, laughing mother who delights in everything son Sergei (Freddie Bartholomew, David Copperfield) does. When she returns home after a late-night rendezvous with Vronsky, he's up waiting for her. "You didn't come in to kiss me goodnight. You know I can't sleep until you kiss me goodnight," he tells her. "Will you always love me?" the guilty mother asks. A scene in her garden makes the choice clear. As she's talking with Vronsky, Sergei comes in, chattering about the horse show. When Sergei leaves, Anna tells Vronsky she can't leave her son. Vronsky leaves, with Anna calling after him. In the distance, we hear Sergei calling Anna, and the choice she's about to make echoes in viewers' minds as well. Rather than a vampy temptress, Garbo appears throughout as a troubled woman making a terrible choice.
As Karenin, Rathbone embodies a stern, cold husband in a picture-perfect portrait of unforgiving anger. At first, he genuinely stands by his wife, but he grows angry as the gossip grows and it becomes clear whom she loves. But it's not passion for Anna that fuels his anger. Karenin sees a divorce as a way to "justify a sin," and the gossip surrounding Anna and Vronsky as a professional inconvenience. "To subject me to annoyance at a critical time like this is inconsiderate," he tells her. Another standout here was Maureen O'Sullivan (The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Tarzan Escapes) as Kitty, Dolly's sister. Like Garbo in her silent peak, she tells pages of story with a glance in the ball scene. She dances with Levin, who loves her, but she watches longingly as Vronsky enters the room. Though she does get a chance to dance with Vronsky, she wants to dance the circle dance with him, rejecting Levin and several other eager suitors. When she sees that Vronsky has asked Anna for that dance, she bursts into tears and runs off. Throughout the dance, her looks of feigned happiness dancing with Levin tell the story. The one weak spot is March, who, as Vronsky, seems more passionate in volunteering to go fight for the Serbs than he ever appears toward Anna, the woman he's risked his commission for.
The movie excels at mocking the gossips who snipe at Anna and Vronsky. As the two share a box at the opera, the ladies in the other boxes have their opera glasses trained not on the stage, but on the adulterous couple. As the women whisper about the brazen pair, a man notes Vronsky's courage, while another answers, "That's not courage. That's suicide." Even in the early scenes, such as the croquet match where the situation is summed up with a couple of lines ("At this rate, they won't finish before dark," a woman says, answered by, "Possibly that's their object."), the onlookers take their toll. "We're being devoured," Anna tells Vronsky, with a delivery that hints of Garbo's real-life dread of the spotlight.
Director Clarence Brown, who helmed Garbo's silent Flesh and the Devil, treats us to some illustrative scenes that reminded me of great silent filmmaking, echoing some of Garbo's silents in places. The movie opens with hands grabbing at a bowl of caviar. Soon after, we see the camera pull back along a long table to show the Russian soldiers lined up, reminiscent of the dinner scene in The Temptress. When Anna first meets Vronsky, we see Garbo through the steam from a train—shades of her first encounter with John Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil. Silent-film-like lighting is used throughout the film to make Garbo's face glow, although here it adds to the martyred look of a mother who will never see her son again.
The black-and-white print suffers from some grain, and lines run through it here and there. The mono soundtrack is adequate for both the music and the dialogue. Except for a theatrical trailer, with an appeal to audiences from Freddie Bartholomew, there are no extras.
Garbo's Anna Karenina barely scratches the surface of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and suffers from lack of romantic chemistry between the leads, but I still enjoyed it. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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