The Garbo Silents Collection Review
Born in Sweden in 1905, Greta Garbo grew up to become one of the most revered actors of the 20th century. Her beauty was rarely surpassed, and for fifteen years she maintained classic status until her retirement in 1941. To this day Garbo is still regarded as one of the greatest actresses of all time, and thanks to DVD we can see her most prolific films being presented as good as they possibly can be. When Swedish director, Mauritz Stiller cast her in his 1924 feature Gosta Berlings Saga at the age of 18 she soon attracted the attention of Hollywood. MGM then took her on board to begin her successful run in silent movies with 1924’s The Torrent. Three of her silent classics from the 20’s are collected together for the first time on Warner Bros 2-disc collection, in collaboration with TCM.
The Temptress (1926. 106 Minutes)
Starring: Greta Garbo, Antonio Moreno, Marc McDermott, Armand Kaliz, Roy D’Arcy, Lionel Barrymore, Hector V. Sarno, Robert Andersen, Francis McDonald and Virginia Brown Faire.
Directed by Fred Niblo.
Ah, gay Paris - The beautiful, young Elena (Greta Garbo) coasts her way through life; capturing the heart of every man she meets and living a life of luxury. While at a masquerade party she rejects the advances of the banker, Marquis Fonteroy (Marc McDermott) and winds up running into a handsome Argentine engineer by the name of Robledo (Antonio Moreno). They instantly fall in love after spending a perfect night together. Soon Elena must leave without giving Robledo her name, leaving him to wonder if he’ll ever see her again. Time passes and Robledo is due to pay his best friend Marques De Torre Bianca (Armand Kaliz) a visit; when he arrives he is shown around the impressive house and learns of Bianca’s engagement. Here he meets Bianca’s fiancé, who is none other than the very woman he spent a night of romance under the stars with. Stunned, Robledo has difficulty in accepting the situation and after a few choice words his feelings become entangled. One night Fontenroy hosts a dinner party for two-dozen guests and announces that this will be his last night hosting such a feast. In his rage however, Fontenroy reveals that Elena is a temptress, being the sole cause of his financial loss and personal misery. And then he drops dead after consuming a deadly cocktail - suicide. Robledo now begins to see through Elena and decides that he must leave before she can entrap him also. He accepts a job in Argentine where he is to construct a dam, and as time passes he forgets about Elena. But things are about to turn for the worse, as Elena and her husband turn up on his doorstep and announce that they wish to stay. The whole village turns curious and the men start to swoon over the beauty, which soon causes internal friction. Will the temptress be the cause of man’s ruin?
Greta Garbo’s eighth feature, and the second for MGM, is perhaps the first of her most notable silent performances. At twenty years old (at the time of filming) she had risen from taking bit-parts up to her first leading role at aged eighteen, thanks to Swedish director Mauritz Stiller. Their partnership was so successful that when MGM took on Garbo they also hired the very man who made her face recognisable. After Garbo had filmed Torrent, Stiller was called in to helm The Temptress; it should have been perfect. However Stiller ran into a serious problem, resulting in a nasty conflict between himself and the studio and was let go after shooting a considerable amount of footage. In came Fred Niblo, who was contracted to re-shoot every scene. Despite its troubles, The Temptress came through and proved to be a success, while the early signs of Garbo’s legendary status began to form.
Garbo’s early career in Hollywood is not unlike the beginning of other notable starlets, such as Louise Brooks and Anna May Wong; she’s there to entice, to elicit a response and act seductive in the process. The perfect choice, then, to take on the role of a woman who runs away with the hearts of men. Of course it was during a time when this was all very popular and taboo as it were, but while it got Garbo noticed it also got her typecast. The Temptress is the first of several films in which she played what could be considered the same role: the ‘vamp’ as it were - until it reached a point whereby she grew tired of it herself. In fact it took another five years before she hit it big time with Anna Christie. Even so there’s no denying her presence when it comes to her beauty; “The Eyes have it” would be all too eloquent for Ms. Garbo, and like Brooks her onscreen persona would instantly turn her into a siren of the golden age. So for her second major role for MGM she’s given very little else to do beside make us believe that men could fall for her charm; not hard when all she has to do is bat those eyelids for a mere second and raise that little smirk of hers. Given the chance I’m sure Garbo would ask for a lot more, but for the purposes of storytelling this is simply her place. However, this film doesn’t solely belong to Garbo; Antonio Moreno is largely responsible for carrying its weight. It’s a shame these days that his name isn’t often mentioned. Robledo just about has that Zorro status about him, which is increasingly evident upon his return to Argentine and his role as a hero for the impoverished.
Based upon Vicente Blasco-Ibanez’s novel “La Tierra de Todos”, The Temptress is an enjoyable film, thanks to Niblo who succeeds in giving it a fresh approach. Effectively it’s split across two countries: France starting things off and Argentine carrying the rest of the events through. While artistically the first act fares better with its tracking shots, subtle interiors and playful setting outdoors, the move to the Argentine desert provides a strong contrast between these two social divides. Niblo also has Assistant Director H. Bruce Humberstone to thank, who proves to be equally as creative by pulling off several neat tricks and doing his best to take us right into the action: Robledo’s opening journey proving to be a real technical highlight. As the story moves on the higher Niblo’s creativity gets. A bloody and violent duel (certainly back in the day) which sees Robledo and Manos Duras (a super-OTT and loving it, Roy D’Arcy) fighting for what they consider to be honour with whips is suitably tense. The outcome is a little unlikely considering how amazing the instigator is supposed to be, but nevertheless seeing these two actors go at it without stunt doubles is impressive. Niblo’s final triumph comes in the form of a huge set piece which culminates toward the end of the final act; the destruction of a dam and the painful endeavours to maintain its survival is well executed, despite some odd moments of insanity on Robledo’s part (when he shoots a man for threatening to quit). Like this example there are a few instances of over-silliness throughout, none more overly forceful in getting its point across than the inter-titles which wants to bully us into believing that Argentine is “A land of men-and the work of men”. It stresses this point at least four times and that borders on tedious after the second time. And then there’s the occasional cliché which has several buddies pitted against each other, but what makes it worse is that they have people close to them back home who they should be caring about. The viewer instantly understands that The Temptress isn’t just about the power of woman but also the weakness of man. When it comes to love those infected can easily turn blind, and when it’s between friends that can only be a dangerous thing.
Unfortunately Niblo disregards other areas when he’s not so inclined to spice up the action a little. There are many important characters that come and go fleetingly; one of the most bizarre examples comes when
|The following text contains spoilers. Click and drag over this box to view.|
|Bianca inadvertently gets shot by Duras and dies. After the fade out there is no further mention of him, no grieving period, no explanation of where the body went to.|
Disc 2, Side B. Warner Bros presents TCM’s newly restored 106-minute version of the film. Originally the film was reported to be 117 minutes in length and I can only speculate as to what might have caused the difference in running time. This could possibly be down to speed issues (the frames here aren’t that rapid at all) or the only surviving footage had been tampered with. Now considering that The Temptress just managed to escape censorship by a thread (policies immediately followed toward the end of production) it seems unlikely that this is the case. Also it’s highly improbable that TCM would have cut it themselves. If anyone can provide some information then please contact me.
There’s only so much restoration to expect from a film this old, and with that said it looks pretty good. On a technical level Warner Bros has done a great job in encoding the film; contrast levels are good, while blacks and shadow detail are solid, and compression isn’t noticeable during what could be problematic moments, i.e. fogging and mist. There appears to be a spot of Edge Enhancement but overall nothing to greatly complain about. As for the state of the image, well naturally it’s worn. There’s a fair amount of dirt, which proves to be distracting at the start but ends up thinning out, while other specks crop up often. Most of this film has been set as standard, with a classic black and white finish, although some scenes feature blue tints. I’m more a fan when several tints are used to convey the time of day, as opposed to here where they almost feel like they’ve just been thrown in for the sake of it. But anyway this is the intent, so who am I to argue with that? There is also ghosting and combing, which I presume means its interlaced and non progressive.
So onto the even better part, Michael Picton’s new score for The Temptress is nothing short of being superb. This is one of the better re-scores of a silent that I’ve heard in recent years, next to Neil Brand’s toe-tappingly brilliant work for BFI’s Piccadilly. Picton gets the timing spot on; every single movement and reaction is responded to by a specific note. Scenes blend in to each other seamlessly and most importantly the score captures every emotion perfectly. Comedic elements are suitably playful, while the Argentine setting is initially exciting like a classic western before it gets down to some serious business. I could go on and on so believe me when I say that Michael Picton is a genius. Good work, fella.
So how does it all actually sound then? I can’t say I detected any problems. Being a new score means that there are no technical difficulties to pick out. The stereo sound is crisp with no distortions and manages to make good use of the speakers. It’s a joyous listening experience.
Audio Commentary by Marl A. Viera
To say that I was blown away by sheer wealth of knowledge present on this track would be an understatement. The author of “Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy” provides so much info that it’s as if he was there at the time. Just about the entire shoot is covered, including some dates which is amazing in itself, while Viera contributes some fascinating technical knowledge. We learn about several techniques used during the filming process and how each one was achieved at the time; including lighting and optical effects. He also explains in detail about silent cinema in general and brings up several actors and how they fared when the talkies came about. Sadly not many made it through, for various reasons. Some interesting facts emerge about Garbo during her four month stint and Viera even points out to us the exact moments when she isn’t feeling quite up to scratch. The speaker is very dry and seems to have brought his notes along, which is apparent when he quotes Garbo several times. Still this is no complaint considering how valuable his contribution is and I only wish that most filmmakers could be so engaging when talking about their films. Furthermore when it’s impossible for us to enjoy making of footage or interviews the contribution of historians is vital. Thankfully Viera is a good speaker and he rarely pauses for thought, which makes the time pass by very quickly. Hats off for his thoroughly researched work and valuable insights.
Alternate Ending with Optional Commentary by Mark A. Viera (3:17)
Let’s get straight to the point, this ending is awful. In a bid to make Elena more sympathetic she is turned into a far greater heroine than she deserves to be. This was meant to atone for the film’s earlier sexual comments toward women, but when viewed in the context of the entire film I don’t feel that it works well at all.
Photo Montage (2:19)
There’s some beautiful photos here of great quality, which play along to a piece of scoring. These cover the films included in this collection and although there aren’t loads there are enough to show us just why Garbo was so revered. I’m not too keen on some of the spinney effects and sliding about though, which is something of a distraction.
Flesh and the Devil (1927. 112 Minutes)
Starring: John Gilbert, Greta Garbo, Lars Hanson, Barbara Kent, George Fawcett and Eugenie Besserer.
Directed by Clarence Brown.
An adaptation of Hermann Sudermann’s novel Es War; Roman in Zwei Banden, Flesh and the Devil tells the story of two best friends. Leo Von Harden (John Gilbert) and Ulrich Von Eltz (Lars Hanson) are military cadets who have been sworn blood brothers since childhood. When Leo returns home he falls in love with a woman named Felicitas (Greta Garbo); they spend the night together and profess their undying love for one another. One day they are caught together by Felicitas’ husband, Count Von Rhaden (Marc McDermott), who then challenges Leo to a duel, lest his name be dragged down in shame. Leo wins, but in order to avoid a scandal he is sent to serve for five years in Africa. Before he leaves he asks Ulrich to take good care of Felicitas and provide her with what she needs. Ulrich is only aware that Leo killed Rhaden over a card game dispute, and agrees to his request. Three years pass and Leo is given early leave; when he returns home he discovers that Ulrich is married to Felicitas, but his feelings are still strong toward her. He begins to realise how seductive Felicitas is and tries to keep his friendship secure while struggling to accept this unforeseen situation. A showdown between friends looms, which will test their relationship during its darkest hour.
This was to be the first of director Clarence Brown’s seven collaborations with Greta Garbo over a period of eleven years. It was also the film that created lovers out of Garbo and her co-star John Gilbert. He would go on to star alongside her for three more films until his career decline (which was widely thought to have been down to studio sabotage) and untimely death in 1936. Clearly both men played a huge part in Garbo’s life and from watching her perform in Flesh and the Devil we can see that her feelings are projected far greater than they were during her time spent on Niblo’s The Temptress. But we can thank her favourite director and generally good mood at the time for this. However, while her performance is more astute it is essentially a rehash of her character Elena. Once more Garbo plays the temptress, in turn screwing up the lives of those around her and creating irreversible anarchy. Though as Pastor proclaims she is in a sense the work of the devil; these spiritual undertones help fuel Brown’s story, which takes some influences and familiarities and places a neat spin on them. If we were to watch the film and assume that Felicitas is indeed a creation of hell then the final scene is logically sound. Flesh and the Devil isn’t touted as a fantasy though, it’s a story of love and loyalty, betrayal and redemption, with all the necessary clichés thrown in for good measure.
Your average love triangle has been played out longer than time can remember, and so Brown’s feature already proves to be a worn concept. Even so he uses several clichés to his advantage, due to the fact that the picture has a great deal of depth in terms of aesthetics and its lead performances. With the plot being fairly rudimentary the film does generate interest through the actions of its protagonists; the bond between Leo and Ulrich is so strong that if it weren’t for the fact that they liked girls they could easily be mistaken for raging homosexuals. They touch each other more in this film than Garbo does, which is bound to create discussion as to just how much homo-eroticism one film can take. Regardless, there’s no denying the effectiveness of their brotherly love and of course that’s down to John Gilbert and Lars Hanson’s believable chemistry. The film has us believe that these two men were sworn blood brothers and in this instance they sell it well; from the wonderfully humorous opening twenty-minutes through to high melodrama their journey is a captivating one. In this respect Garbo is again left to play second or third fiddle, not only to these actors but to Brown’s assured direction, which isn’t to say that she doesn’t do a good job but that simply the story of these men is far greater realised. This is where Garbo’s character suffers again as being someone with no known history; that leaves her to do what she does best, which frankly is to look stunning and exchange appropriate expressions (even if she does end up frowning a little too much here), but her character is an incredibly vain one and for this she exudes vanity to a tee. Here is where Garbo begins to show signs of promise in relation to where her career is eventually going. As a melodrama then it creates a genuine amount of emotion, something which not all films of the period managed to achieve. Leo’s return home is magnificently staged as he greets his mother and the young Hertha for the first time in three years, as are most of his reactions upon learning several truths. Hanson exudes a lot of pain and innocence, which comes through like crystal; all this without the need for any over-the-top theatrics.
To compliment the tale of two rich friends the film drowns itself in some gorgeous scenery. With camera techniques having evolved during the last few years, Brown makes solid use of optical effects and tracking shots. From the moment that Leo, Ulrich and Hertha pass by “The isle of friendship” (Schmitz Island) we can truly appreciate the scale of the production. Then we move to Halewitz Castle before being introduced to the quaint German town. The final act consists of a beautiful, snowy landscape which sets up Leo and Ulrich’s ultimate confrontation. It’s also notable in that these certain climate changes and seasonal shifts provide a nice contrast for each situation. Clever use of silhouettes mask the nature of screen violence in a captivating duel of honour for instance, while photographer William Daniels - who was arguably the only man who could capture Garbo in such beauty - lights the entire film superbly. For its technical bravado alone Flesh and the Devil is a remarkable film; a shame then that Brown never received an Oscar, despite so many nominations during his career.
Disc 1. Another restored classic from the vaults of TCM, Flesh and the Devil has been given a very fine release indeed. Running for 112-minutes I believe that this is the complete version of the film.
Flesh and the Devil looks remarkably good for its age; showing a fine amount of clarity, even for wider shots when its gorgeous backdrops are there to be relished. Contrast and brightness are excellent throughout, as is shadow detail and grey scale, and damage isn’t too bad; yes there are signs of wear and tear but overall all it’s quite pleasant. Edge Enhancement has been applied and again this is marred by combing and ghosting.
The score is provided by Carl Davis and was recorded in 1982 . Davis proves to have a firm grasp of understanding the material. Beginning with an appropriate military arrangement, he moves on to provide a charming score to compliment the very humorous set up. Being another pre-war based film and having its attention focused primarily on Germany it sets about to create an appropriate theme to serve as a backdrop for these two best friends. Garbo gets the strings, as usual, which highlights her elegance, before later turning against her as the story develops. This is a fine score which goes about capturing the emotional intensity of the film, and for twenty-three years has undoubtedly been fondly remembered by fans.
Audio Commentary by Barry Paris
Author of Louise Brook’s biography and more notably here for “Garbo”, Paris relays plenty of information on his subject, with quotes and facts during production. He offers titbits on Lars Hanson and John Gilbert, citing Hanson’s performance as hardly being his best (I’d beg to differ on its effectiveness however). As for Gilbert he touches upon his “enemy”, Louise B. Meyer. He probably relies on actor information and quotes a little too much though (despite some interesting revelations), as little is actually given away in terms of the actual filming and techniques. He talks a little about censorship, particularly in relation to how women are perceived and how controversy was raised, due to females being portrayed as almost prostitute-like figures. But his factual moments are all too brief; there are a lot of long pauses while Paris collects his thoughts or notes or whatever, and these end up being a little frustrating. He has a strange way of speaking, in an enthusiastic but campy manner; when he quotes Garbo he even puts on an impression. It’s a worthwhile listen, while it lacks a certain amount of technical insight.
Settling the Score (28:16)
This feature should have obviously been placed on The Temptress disc as it focuses on the 2004, 5th annual TCM Young Composers Competition. The first fifteen minutes introduce us to the five participants who made it to the final, which it then provides clips of their work for the judges to decide who is most suitable. The second half takes us behind the scenes as winner, Michael Picton attempts to write and record the rough track within 73 days, before the actual orchestration recording. This sees him move from New York to Los Angeles, setting up his equipment in an empty room and then working non stop on his score. Picton proves to be an engaging fellow as he discusses his methods of working, which is all very impressive on his expensive looking set up. The feature whizzes through his 73 days, up to his final, successful recording session.
Alternate Ending (2:32)
This is a predictable yet sweet ending which shows Leo finally embracing Hertha. We could presume that this was going to happen anyway at the end of the film as it fades out. I would imagine that it was considered too happy or obvious, hence its cut, but it’s nice all the same.
Photo Montage (2:50)
This is another one of those spinney, rotating, panning montages that have detached foreground and background plates. A lot of the photos are beautiful, though I’m not too keen on the manipulated techniques used to present them.
The Mysterious Lady (1928. 89 Minutes)
Starring: Greta Garbo, Conrad Nagel, Gustav Von Seyffertitz, Edward Connelly and Albert Pollet.
Directed by Fred Niblo.
When Captain Karl Von Raden (Conrad Nagel) spies the beautiful Tania Fedorova at an opera house he instantly falls in love with her. They spend the night together which is hopefully to be the first of many, but Karl’s hopes are soon shattered when his uncle Eric (Edward Connelly), who is the chief of secret service informs him that they have reason to believe that Tania is a Russian spy. Unfortunately for Karl this news has come too late; valuable documents have been stolen and he is soon tried for treason, stripped of his medals and sentenced to prison. His uncle soon comes to his rescue and helps him escape to Moscow, where he is to retrieve the stolen plans. When he sees her again she tells him that she loves him, but can he trust her? Does she truly regret speaking her oath to serve the Russian power, or is this just another cruel game?
Garbo finally manages to get a bit more adventurous for her second film with Fred Niblo. It seems natural that her stunning good looks would provide good cover for a undercover operative in this far fetched, yet simple and entertaining spy-fest. One could easily say that her character isn’t enough of an extension from previous ones and nor does it prove to be wildly different, but for a change she is allowed to spread her wings and take further charge of her sexual prowess and acting talents. Neither does the romantic sub plot go much further beyond several tried clichés involving people who fall blissfully in and out of love within seconds. After an initially slow start, things like “I love you, I did this for you because I love you. I lied and deceived you because I loved you, but you made me hate you for a bit and now I love you again” is all very much part of The Mysterious Lady‘s twists and turns. Other than that it really is a run of themill thriller, with a fairly implausible outcome.
With the setting in pre-war Vienna, along with Russia and its communist regime the film could well have opportunities to exploit certain factors, but Niblo wisely avoids causing controversy and painting either side harshly; he’s far more interested in the intrigue provided between two lovers obligated to serve their respective countries. This is all very well but the relationship itself is rarely interesting. Part of that can be attributed to Garbo and Nagel’s lack of chemistry together, which only on occasion shows some promise thanks to Niblo‘s intimate direction. However, Nagel is an interesting leading man and he demonstrates the required emotions of infatuation, frustration and anger admirably through his body language.
Niblo carries the film with the same traits he adopted in The Temptress; tracking shots, inventive dissolves and optical trickery provide The Mysterious Lady with pleasant visuals at the very least. Indeed the production values are high, which is not surprising when taking Garbo and MGM into account, but sadly its visuals remain the most interesting aspect of the production. By no means is The Mysterious Lady a poor film, but it isn’t up there with the greatest from the late 20’s.
Disc 2, Side A. This is TCM’s 89-minute version of the film. Original reports show the film to be 98-minutes in length. I suspect projection speed is a result of this.
This is undoubtedly the worst looking of the three films presented in this collection. It seems that the negative is the best one that TCM and Warners could come up with. The opening few minutes are almost wrecked by noticeable degrading, burns and scratches, which soon subside but then get heavier during later scenes. Otherwise the image offers enough detail despite having an overall softness. Contrast and black levels are good, which makes this an overall consistent presentation when all three films are taken into account. There’s some slight Edge Enhancement and again this is interlaced, which will undoubtedly be bothersome to many. As far as the authoring goes I can score it reasonably high, as the rest of the faults are down to the source material itself.
Composed in 2002, Vivek Maddala’s score is a little hit and miss. While his often jazzy undercurrents are enjoyable his attempts at creating atmospheric music for Vienna and Russia are somewhat futile. The score never really pulls us into the film and it tries to reach the melodramatic heights of the acting as if it was gunning for first place. Also it rarely brings out the essence of each character and the imposing events around them. It has been nicely presented though and the symphony production sounds great on the digital format.
Audio Commentary with Tony Maietta and Jeffrey Vance
Film historians, Maietta and Vance give a superb commentary, with both being highly enthusiastic. They provide us with some great information on the film’s production, along with facts pertaining to the silent era slowly declining. This commentary switches seamlessly between talk of Garbo and the actual film, with each contributor forwarding their thoughts on the overall production. They clearly admire Garbo as they continually praise her good looks and they talk highly of the other actors involved. They seem to appreciate The Mysterious Lady on a great level, so it’s nice to hear them being so captivated by what they’re watching. They also pick on so many incidental moments, which they enjoy. Great stuff.
The Divine Woman: Surviving 9-Minute Excerpt
This is all we have from the lost 1928 film, directed by Victor Sjostrom and starring Greta Garbo, Lars Hanson and Polly Moran. This is a very worn, Russian print with two sets of intertitles, but considering it’s all that’s left it is better than nothing. The story centres on a soldier (Hanson) who must leave for Paris, leaving his love, Marianna (Garbo) behind. This is truly brilliant though; Garbo shines so bright - her enthusiasm is joyous and Hanson is wonderful. Though we don’t get much it’s obvious as to how great their on screen chemistry is. On the basis of this reel Garbo eclipses her previous performances, making this something of a great shame. It is rumoured that more of the film was found and is undergoing restoration, so we might see an almost complete cut one day.
Photo Montage (2:26)
More stunning photos to watch, sadly in the same manner as previous ones.
Warner Bros have proven to be amongst the best when it comes to issuing classics on DVD. I’d place them alongside Criterion and Eureka in terms of providing the best quality that DVD can offer. This release of classic silents truly is a must have, whether you’re a fan of Garbo or just the oldies in general. My only gripe is that the packaging could have been slightly better. While I adore Garbo’s face on the sleeve it’s the actual presentation of the discs that could have been improved. I would have liked to have seen the films being presented in order; for example The Temptress, Flesh and the Devil and The Mysterious Lady. Instead disc one exclusively holds Flesh and the Devil, while Disc 2 (a DVD-18) holds Mysterious Lady on side A and The Temptress on side B. Disc 1 is also a picture disc, with a shot from The Mysterious Lady. This meant that at least for me I had to swap around discs so that I could view the films in chronological order; purely nitpicking but as a fan I prefer to see an actor’s natural progression and works in order. It’s also odd to see a nice picture disc and then a double-sided shiny one.
Onto the musical treatment of these films, TCM are known to tinker here and there. Clearly their silents releases have heavy emphasis placed on the scores and so here we see brand new ones from composers who have entered and won their young musician competitions in the past. Those who know these films better may not be swayed by these new scores, but they are well done. I have to say that certainly Michael Picton’s is the best of the bunch, with Davis’s coming a close second (also being a much older recording and nothing to do with any TCM competition) and Maddala’s being fairly average, despite his obvious talent.
Buy hey, don’t let such little things deter you from picking up this set; it really is special and it has been a blast to sit through and talk about. On that note I shall leave you with “The Face” herself.