With an original poem commissioned from Brighton-based playwright Yassin Zelestine.
THE STORY OF GOSTA BERLING (1924)
|Gerda Lundequist and Greta Garbo|
THE STORY OF GOSTA BERLING (1924)
AB Svensk Filmindustri / Dir. Mauritz Stiller
THE TEMPTRESS (1926)
MGM / Dir. Fred Niblo
The Swedish Film Institute 1975 restoration is a beautiful print. It is perfectly matched with Matti Bye’s 2008 score in the folk tradition, exquisite and jaunty in turn. The film in its entirety lasts three hours although it is pleasingly split into two equal parts. Lars Hanson who like Garbo also made the transition to Hollywood (where he would again star with her) is a charismatic lead, and part of an exceptionally strong cast. The film is extremely well edited, excellently paced, with expertly placed touches of humour to balance its pathos.
The ‘story’ concerns the trials of an unfortunate preacher afflicted by booze. A sorry but poignant tale with a layered narrative mirrored in its stunning visual representation. Berling, thrown out of church, stumbles upon a new role as tutor to a clan of compromised aristos whose matriarch plots his union with her daughter. Her goal, to deflect the inheritance to her ill-gotten son Henrik. It is quite something to see Garbo, as Henrik’s Italian wife, in her first major film role. She is, of course, far from passive, with a fateful allure. Stiller and she cast their spell and weave the viewer, like the intertwining plotlines, in. However, the fracas comes when the daughter discovers who and what is behind it all. Meanwhile, it has to be written, the camera is already in love with Garbo. Her performance that of a pro. But equally so Lars Hanson whose despair, when down on his luck once more, is heart-breaking. An initially slower and more reflective phase is led by the phenomenal Gerda Lundequist who rebuffs Gösta with her own tale of woe conveyed, like his, in flashback. A tumultuous dinner party in which the mayor turns out his wife (Lundequist) is riotous and ultimately soul-destroying.
It is remarkable how Stiller has mastered the art of motion image in its infancy. A pity, then, that he did not survive Hollywood. Any melodrama in this masterpiece is played-out minus the sentimentality ingrained in Tinsel Town. Part Two follows the immediate fates of the victims, sorrowful but poetic and aesthetically rich. The visual storytelling remains incredibly strong. It is slowly cranked-up to a fiery terror amid the snow. This writer would not want to lessen its astonishing impact by giving more away. And from fire to ice… a kidnapped Garbo appears, in quiet panic, driven at speed across a frozen lake, with no silence in her dramatic range. The second half seems to speed by indeed. This never feels like the three-hour epic it is. Not in terms of entertainment value too often lost these days. Part Two makes a satisfying conclusion not as a separate film but as part of a whole. Following darkness there is hope and renewal, making way – visually, emotionally, cerebrally – for a refreshingly happy ending. It befits a wonderful film which more than merits it.
THE JOYLESS STREET (1925)
Sofar-Film / Dir. G W Pabst
Set in a depressive pocket of post-WWI Vienna, ‘The Joyless Street’ makes contrast with the wealthier social stratum in a laudably depicted parable of the divisions between rich and poor. Joyless it certainly is. Quite different in tone from ‘Gösta Berling’. Garbo is different too – shedding her slight teenage dumpiness, now every inch the star, albeit in a less-than-glamourous role. When life recedes to its lowest ebb, a twist of fate marks a crossover between the two worlds. And, in its hour-long version, it is a tale which seems to simplify and refine itself towards its end. That is, as much as two people able to connect are, in so doing, also able to resolve something of the trials of life.
The sadly common 60-minute edit is the outcome of different versions cobbled-together over the decades. All due the censors whose initial cuts were and are bloodier than any on (or off) screen. The challenge now is to view the original, fuller, if sorrier tale - wholly lacking from a scant hour. It was restored some seventy years later to a 150-minute running time. Of which, there are tantalising glimpses on YouTube. These alone add literal and emotional colour, depth and clarity at many levels. As joyless times are in 2020, you will need a spare £30 to get your hands on the DVD via the otherwise commendable Edition Film Museum. (Maybe, like Greta, once I get a job...) It seems potent: the cost of art mirroring the ethos of Pabst's intent. Not affording Garbo and Pabst a freer recognition, richly deserved.
MGM / Dir. Monta Bell
‘Torrent’ is Garbo’s first Hollywood film in which she appears slightly different again. If anything, with a noticeably healthier glow befitting her role as the Spanish farm girl Leonora. She pulls it off – albeit brilliantly – partly due its silence. The part surprisingly suits her. It in turn demonstrates her versatility, as does the evolution of role within the film. Being Hollywood, there is a noticeably improved level of production alongside an effective rationale to entertain. This is supported by a strong narrative, very competently directed by Monta Bell. The screenplay by Dorothy Farnum is based on Ibáñez’ novel minus the definitive article. The adaptation leans towards a generic big-studio melodrama, reliant upon recognisable and somewhat hackneyed themes of class divide and maternal interference. Despite which, it is a genuinely great film. Particularly for Garbo, if not in terms of the too-many, too-similar plotlines she was destined for.
From humble roots, Leonora rather astonishingly finds fame and fortune in Paris. Slipping effortlessly into dripping glamour and enjoying it too. On returning home, she faces down her former beau (a subtle and convincing portrayal by Ricardo Cortez). It is perfectly timed for the raging titular torrent metaphoric of the overpouring of inner ardour. The special effects are superb. These burst through the confines of the era, remaining legitimately contemporary as does – as ever – Garbo herself. Alack, the homely love of youth is not to be. No thanks to the shrewish matriarch, played in glorious appalling-ness by the excellent Martha Mattox. Rejected once more, Leonora makes tracks to the alternate world she has made her own. You could be forgiven that Garbo had been doing this for years: extrapolating another tragic tale with haunting familiarity.
Arthur Barrow’s commendable narrative score to the currently available print adds to its entertainment value. Again, a great film, honest and poignant. As good as Garbo’s previous efforts but in a quite different manner. Nearly fours stars! I already feel stingy. For, via the lens of a century past, it is still obviously apparent why it was such a huge hit.
THE TEMPTRESS (1926)
MGM / Dir. Fred Niblo
Her second Hollywood film and top billing already. But at what cost. A wise face in a juvenile role, a mystery in itself. However, this lavish production is also a feast for the eyes. The leading lady sparkles opposite the charismatic and personable Antonio Moreno. A clear print benefits from a terrific score by Michael Picton. The opening masquerade is a joy, poetry onscreen, the editing imaginative and artistic. Its exquisite cinematography (typically William Daniels but coupled with Tony Gaudio) includes some intriguing shots of Paris in the 1920s. However, the plot, though involving enough, threads themes of tangential experience extrapolated at a distance of light years. This is high-octane soap opera, utter tosh and utterly brilliant.
A dramatic dinner party with its characterisation of legs beneath the table is outstanding. The entire film is expertly choreographed: each actor’s movement, their placement onscreen, the mime and gesture of the central figures and all those around them. Worth watching as an example of the best craft-person-ship on offer by Old Hollywood. Its former art, silent film far from silent. A transfer of action to ‘The Argentine’ is apt excitement in itself, lent some gravitas by the presence of the ever-wonderful Lionel Barrymore. There Greta/Elena predictably attracts the worst kind of attention. With her unique representation of pre-feminist feminine power, our anti-hero(ine) delights in ensuring the most foolish of men remain firmly under hers.
By its latter half, it does seem to lose the plot altogether – if ever there was one. Various suitors, sometimes en masse, squabble over Elena or die like her spouse at her overly polished heels. Another dam breaking, another ominous storm, another Ibáñez adaptation by Farnum. It is easy to envisage Mauritz Stiller’s thunderous fury with the studio. His successor Fred Niblo did a worthy job on this notable and enjoyable epic, more dazzling than ‘Torrent’ if not as affecting. Again, even via an historic mist it is clear to perceive its box office success. Suitably tragic closing scenes mark Garbo’s return to Paris years later where she depicts, in stark contrast, a drunken down-and-out. She alone claims the poignant, memorable, and provocative ending.
FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1926)
MGM / Dir. Clarence Brown
A top-billing John Gilbert flick and rightly so, alongside fellow Swede Lars Hanson. On one level, yes, another melodrama… albeit expertly executed and infused with realism and wit. Like its processor, beautifully shot and choreographed, a treat for the eyes. The fabulous 1988 score by Carl Davis, unforgettably melodic, uncompromisingly thematic, is its perfect match. I had the pleasure of seeing him introduce the film at the BFI some thirty years ago. It is, surprisingly, even better than I remember. Gilbert appears every inch as attractive as his leading lady, and you find yourself needing to believe that their off-screen ardour was true.
Brown manages with masterful ease to cut through the schmaltz, same as Garbo, to render this alive and vital. Within the ever-exquisite camerawork of William Daniels, Garbo appears more astonishingly beautiful than ever. Despite of or because of her slightly heavy nose and slightly wide shoulders (which I am so envious of). It only seems to complement the ungainliness of youth, of which there is something innately engaging. She hasn’t completely learned to carry-off an already defining uniqueness. Impossible to accept how any sentient being could not fall instantaneously in love with her. On which terms, the entire film justifies itself.
The film captures the lost days of first love, rare and precious both in the history of cinema and of human experience. Barbara Kent’s portrayal of Hertha is very moving; you cannot help but be touched by her puppy love for Leo (Gilbert’s central role). These are top-notch performances. Eugenie Besserer, as Leo’s mother, offers a genuinely affectionate portrayal. George Fawcett as the beer-addled pastor is an absolute delight. Brown wrings every last drop of emotion from the tale but you don’t notice till it hits the floor. Unlike ‘The Temptress’ this keeps you griped throughout, to its dark and bitter close.
Did it matter if Garbo ever made another film?
MGM / Dir. Edmund Goulding
Garbo’s hopes of serious fare were marred by the studio’s decision to change the ending of Tolstoy. This provided an alternative ‘happy’ closure for American audiences whilst Anna’s fate remained a mystery in the original edit (possibly the better option). Another alternative for the European market granted her fatalism. I have only seen ‘the happy ending’ and am unhappier for it. A rightful adaptation for its times? Why not, to keep an audience satisfied, it is all fiction to begin. Gilbo are quite the pair and it is easy to imagine the fans whipped-up into a frenzy, in the days of silver-screen idols enshrined in cinema palaces. Likewise, the studio used the title to capitalise a supposed romance. Publicity reading ‘Gilbert and Garbo in Love’ being some improvement on the initial concept prescribing Garbo ‘in Heat’. However, in bumping-off Karenin instead of Anna, to reunite the lovers in the very final shot, a classic is butchered. Its intent destroyed; it reduces an otherwise great film.
I was lucky enough to see Arnold Brostoff introduce and conduct his orchestral score at The Barbican in London, in the early 1990s. His music proffers the characters with affecting, gentle and sensitive lines. A pity that the current print runs alongside a live recording, as you can hear the idiots in the audience retching their guts up throughout.
Easily noted, Garbo has reached a level of maturity and ease. Confident, calm, and stunning in every sense. Despite all, it is a more substantial platform for an even more nuanced performance captured as beautifully as ever by William Daniels. Abundantly obvious that Garbo is a very great actor. English thespian Brandon Hurst is excellent as Karenin, his cold sternness in stark contrast to his wife’s dichotomic passion. George Fawcett, terrific as the Grand Duke, quickly establishes a lively if silent repartee with Vronsky. The film has a definite lustre. Particularly touching are the scenes with Philippe De Lacy as the Karenins’ son. Though not destined for motherhood (or indeed love) in real life, Greta’s portrayal as a mother is affectionate and absorbing. Although overtaken as the eternal femme-fatale-in-turmoil, her performance is exceptional. As a dress rehearsal for greater things, for her unsurpassed 1935 talkie version, this first effort cannot be regretted.
THE MYSTERIOUS LADY (1928)
MGM / Dir. Fred Niblo
In ‘The Mysterious Lady’, Garbo appears, in progression, more beautiful than ever. I feel as if I have written that already. She is astonishingly contemporary and, as with all classics, timeless. This is regardless that she finds herself playing another of MGM’s ‘bad womens’ embroiled in another affair guaranteed to sour. This time, due the revelation that she is, no less, a Russian spy. And blindingly good she is at it. This is Very Hollywood and extremely far removed from her early European films: now trapped in the bubble of superstardom, every trapping of which she would forever be in denial of.
Forgivably, though, this stirring stuff; its visual narrative delightful. Conrad Nagel, as the lover ageing alongside the arc of his fate, plays his part to perfection. Prison scenes in which he depicts a degraded officer’s torment are particularly affecting. The production maintains our attention, never mind the gravitas that Garbo and Nagel are able to commit to. Near close comes a cleverly played (and filmed) tension, descending, like the sweep of Garbo on the sweeping stairs, to something Hitchcockian. Death spliced with shots of Cossacks, alongside Garbo’s measure of realism, creates brilliance.
The original film ran alongside music with sound effects, so that it was never purely ‘silent’. I viewed a version with a top-drawer score by Vivek Maddala which made for a highly enjoyable experience. It does ‘underscore’ though that ‘Mata Hari’ has a ‘silent’ soundtrack being dialogue only. Its lack of score is, to my mind, forever lacking. ‘The Mysterious Lady’ belies the simplicity of its title. It is, like ‘Love’ a bit of a run-through for its successor. However, of Garbo’s two spy films, it definitely has the edge.
A WOMAN OF AFFAIRS (1928)
MGM / Dir. Clarence Brown
‘A Woman of Affairs’ was another huge hit for MGM. Its screenplay by Michael Arlen and Bess Meredyth is based on Arlen’s book ‘The Green Hat’ if significantly compromised to appease the censors. The production capitalises on the Garbo-Gilbert coupling as the main leads of Diana and Neville. What initially appears as a fairly average love triangle is knocked out of kilter half an hour in, with the suicide of Diana’s newlywed husband. Garbo retains a magical ability to quietly dominate the scene as the grieving widow; her emotional control superb. Everything is laid bare and yet never overplayed. Thus rescued from borderline schmaltz, with at times near-devastating effect, also due the brilliant camerawork of William Daniels and expert direction of Clarence Brown.
Proceedings do though, at stages, dip close to melodrama if of the more scandalously entertaining brand. Again saved by the mere presence of Garbo plus the emotional lynchpin of the great Lewis Stone. There comes another tragedy with the death of Diana’s brother, a desperate and agitated alcoholic very effectively played by an eighteen-year-old Douglas Fairbanks Jr. It is enough to land Diana in a nursing home where affecting scenes are played out with underlying desperation by a skilled quartet including the sensitive and talented Dorothy Sebastian. I last viewed a print sadly depleted in sections, its original and attractive score by William Axt helping to hold it together. I also enjoyed a London screening with Carl Davis’ memorable 1984 score.