You don't find good mysterious temptresses anymore, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart laments, as he reviews three Greta Garbo classics.
"When the devil cannot reach us through the spirit…he creates a
woman beautiful enough to reach us through the flesh."
Greta Garbo arrived in Hollywood toward the end of the silent era, but her foreign allure and elegance—and a 1941 departure from the screen that made her a real-life "mysterious lady"—make her one of the silent era's most enduring actresses.
Facts of the Case
The Garbo Silents Collection preserves three films from Garbo's silent film career. In each she plays a "vamp"—a loose, self-centered woman who brings down the men who love her; perhaps several in one film. The best-known picture here, Flesh and the Devil, gets its own disc, while the two secondary titles, The Temptress and The Mysterious Lady, share Disc Two. While Flesh and the Devil truly is the best of the three movies, full of cinematic tricks that modern directors still trade on, the most passionate Garbo fans might prefer The Temptress because of its hints of a developing screen persona. Mysterious Lady has a storyline that will pique the interest of noir and Hitchcock fans. The two-DVD set from Warner Home Video has the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) stamp of approval on it, and lots of extras.
Flesh and the Devil is the story of two men, Leo (John Gilbert, Queen Christina) and Ulrich (Lars Hanson, The Divine Woman), whose lifelong friendship is severed by the wicked Felicitas (Greta Garbo, Grand Hotel). Leo meets her at a ball and immediately begins a passionate relationship, only to find that she's married. Her husband, Count von Rhaden (Marc McDermott), demands a duel, which he tells people is over a game of cards. Leo wins the duel, then returns to military service, asking Ulrich to comfort the widow Felicitas while he's away. He returns to find that Ulrich, not realizing that the duel was about an affair, has taken his request further than Leo would have liked by marrying Felicitas.
The Temptress finds Garbo as Elena, the wife of the Marquis de Torre Bianca (Armand Kaliz, who played small roles in talkies such as Ninotchka and Topper Takes a Trip). At a masquerade ball, Manuel Robledo (Antonio Moreno, The Searchers) falls for her, only to discover later that she's married. He heads back to the Argentine to complete work on a dam, but when banker Fontenoy (Marc McDermott) commits suicide over her, pampered Elena and her scandalized husband turn up in the pampas. When she attracts the attention of bandit Manos Duras (Roy D'Arcy, Under Strange Flags), fate plays its hand.
In The Mysterious Lady, Capt. Karl Von Raden (Conrad Nagel, The Kiss) plans a night at the opera with friend Max (Albert Pollet, Under Two Flags), but finds the show sold out. When a ticket is returned, Max urges his friend to take the last ticket. Karl finds himself sharing a box with Tania Federova (Garbo), who seems disinterested in him, but asks to share a hansom ride home when she "discovers" that she forgot her money. Karl begs off when first invited into her home, but returns when he finds she left her gloves in the cab. At this point, you might realize what his uncle later tells him—she's a notorious Russian spy. She's after the unspecified plans that must get to Berlin!
There are many reasons why Flesh and the Devil was put out front here. No doubt some of them had to do with the fact that she first fell for co-star Gilbert here; still, it's a fascinating piece of cinema. The movie starts at a leisurely pace, establishing the friendship of Leo and Ulrich through a prank they pull in a military barracks and a childhood flashback to the day they became blood brothers in a ceremony presided over by Ulrich's good-girl sister Hertha (Barbara Kent, Vanity Fair). If you liked the amusing antics of Asta in The Thin Man and its sequels, you'll like the dogs who emerge from a doghouse as if heading into formation, used here to echo the rush of the soldiers from their barracks.
Garbo appears briefly in a train station meeting, but the focus isn't on her until about 30 minutes in—and then she's in the spotlight (literally, thanks to the studio lighting that gives her a unique glow) throughout. A romantic encounter in a moonlit garden becomes magical here, even before she and Gilbert kiss. After we watch the duel in silhouette, her appearance in widow's veils tells us who won. Later, her ghostlike head (a representation of her thoughts) appears to Leo as a vision as he travels home by horse and train to see her. The vision, the motion of train wheels, and her name flashing on the screen (if you didn't get the message), give Leo's return home from the war a sense of urgency.
Two effective sequences show off George Fawcett (The Son of the Sheik) as Pastor Voss, who sees the love between Leo and Felicitas. Early on, when the two lovers meet secretly in an unfamiliar public square just after her husband's death, Voss watches from a park bench. Leo turns up his collar and looks away, even before Voss focuses a knowing and disapproving look on him. In church, when he notices Leo coming in with Felicitas and Ulrich, his genial, boring tone shifts to red-hot anger. By the end of his sermon, he's pointing with a fervor that makes Felicitas faint.
The Temptress opens with Elena (Garbo) as the reluctant center of attention at the masquerade ball. "Fontenoy, don't you understand—I do not love you—I never shall," she tells the man who has showered her with attention and jewels. There's a dreamlike quality as she tries to leave; the revelers seem to follow her through the ballroom and appear and disappear in the garden outside. Robledo has followed her into the garden as well. She seems politely reluctant at first, but takes on the role of a temptress as she asks him to wish upon falling stars, and answers his question about whether she's taken with a kiss instead of words.
A dinner party soon shows the power of silent films: As Fontenoy proposes a toast, the camera pulls back to show the elegantly dressed diners at a long table. A second, similar shot peeks under the table to see the feet swaying to unseen musicians. Cut to a hand putting powder into a drink. "Back of every man's failure, there is a woman. I lift my glass to the lady who has honored me. To the Temptress—who asks for nothing—but takes all a man can give—and more," the title card reads. Fontenoy rambles—his hand shaking, spilling his drink—as he explains that the jewels she wears were a gift from him. He then breaks the glass in his hand and falls to the table. I didn't need the newspaper headline of his suicide (in what's now the familiar "Extra! Extra!" montage) to know what happened.
Although Garbo's still a vamp here, The Temptress gives the standard character the most sympathetic portrayal of the three films, echoing the theme of the opening title card: "Oh, woman! Thou art not alone the creation of God, but of Man." Kaliz portrays the Marquis as an unloving husband, first seen flirting with, and even kissing, the maid as he plays the piano. After he learns of Elena's infidelity, she offers to pay his debts with Fontenoy's jewels. Kaliz's eyes, and his greedy hands as he scoops them up, show his real interest. Towards the end, Robledo rails against the things men have done because of her, and gets a defiant answer: "Not for me—but for my body." This scene, commentator Mark A. Vieira notes, got cheers at a screening at Berkeley in 1972, as it hints that the men, not her, were to blame for their tragedies. As mentioned in the commentaries, Garbo hated playing vamps, and she makes the most of every chance to expand her screen persona presented in this movie.
The spy plot in The Mysterious Lady is predictable now, with its MacGuffin, tormented spy, and tantalizing trap sprung for Karl. It even has a bad guy with a monocle. Still, it has many good moments—such as the way Nagel as Karl looks over Garbo out of the corner of his eye, the way Garbo's look tells an associate, "See, I told you I'd fool him," even as her expression elsewhere suggests regret, and Nagel's obvious dismay as he paces a train compartment after being told of Tania's deception.
The picture quality isn't perfect in The Garbo Silents Collection, with spots, lines, and fuzziness at times in all three movies; but I don't think anyone could do a better job of preserving these films, all more than 75 years old, than TCM did. The Mysterious Lady is the worst here, with blemishes throughout. When you listen to the commentary on The Temptress, you'll find that the indistinct background was created in the studio by using smudgepots. The fresh musical scores commissioned by TCM are excellent, a match for the orchestral scores from their premieres and, with echoes of the tones of trains, bells, and trumpets on screen, expert matches for the action.
I thought at the time that it would be a good idea to listen to the commentary tracks as I watched The Temptress and The Mysterious Lady, but found the voices a distraction. I recommend watching the movies, then watching them again with commentaries if you want to learn more. Barry Paris' commentary on Flesh and the Devil is full of tidbits about Garbo's life, particularly her off-screen relationship with Gilbert. He points out that there were no retakes on the Garbo-Gilbert love scene: "Gilbert's daughter said you can see these two terribly attractive people falling in love with each other on the screen before your very eyes." Mark A. Vieira's commentary on "The Temptress" has good moments, mostly about the silent filmmaking process, explaining, for example, that actors used heavy makeup because reddishness in the face and lips went too dark on the film used at the time. Tony Maietta and Jeffrey Vance make their points mostly about the acting, noting the sensuality with which Garbo lights a candelabra and blows out the match, although they do take time for the occasional remark like, "Why would she go to the bother of putting that dress back on?" or "She sure had quite a time, from the look on her face." They also concentrate more on the film, at times redundantly. Having seen a few silent films here and there, I thought Vieira's comments were the most interesting.
Elsewhere in the extras, there's a nifty short, "Settling the Score," about the TCM competition to choose the young composers for its silent film preservation efforts. There is also a nine-minute clip of The Divine Woman, which doesn't make sense on its own, but could serve as a good introduction to silent film drama if, like me, most of your forays into the silent era have been with comedians like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. While TCM did a thorough job with extras, a synopsis of the lost film would have been nice. The alternate endings for Flesh and the Devil and The Temptress are interesting for the purist, but the films are actually more enjoyable with the main endings.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While her silent films best show off Garbo's beauty, her image was still a work in progress. In later films, such as Grand Hotel (which I caught the other night on TCM), she clearly has honed a more human and sympathetic—though still mysterious, aloof, and passionate—persona. For a first glimpse of Garbo's acting, a later talkie film might be a better choice. I also suspected at times that silent era filmgoers read the books first, as suggestions—a glance or a smile—rather than words tells the story, and film was a new experience.
If you're at all interested in silent films or Greta Garbo, buy this collection. The films chosen are excellent examples of what a movie can do, and the TCM extras are excellent examples of what a distributor can do with a DVD package. The sympathetic touches Garbo adds in The Temptress show that she could reach audiences through a glance, a smile, or a gesture, not just through the flesh.
Garbo's vamps are guilty as sin in each of these films, but no one else involved in these late silent classics should faint when the pastor starts his sermon. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Settling the Score"
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