Film review by Jason Day of the silent movie romance starring John Gilbert and Greta Garbo about s pair of adulterous lovers. Directed by Clarence Brown.
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Friends since childhood, Leo (Gilbert) and Ulrich (Hanson) find their relationship tested to the limit when Leo falls in love with married Felicitas (Garbo). After killing her husband in a dual, Leo is packed off to Africa. On his return, he finds that Ulrich has unwittingly married Felicitas, who immediately wants to resume her affair with Leo.
Review, by @Reelreviewer
To: Countess Felicitas von Rhaden, Bavaria.
From: Leo von Harden, en route from Africa.
My dearest Felicitas,
I can no longer restrain myself from writing to you, dearest and most beautiful of all women on this Earth, what I was on the cusp of expressing when first we met at the Stoltenhof ball.
I must admit to a certain boyish impetuosity when I beheld your intoxicating features at that initial moment. I offer my sincerest apologies if I appeared to pant as I introduced myself. I have a reputation for keen, eager, perhaps immature earnestness and I hope my approach did not disquiet you. I dearly hope to meet you again.
I make this admission purely because I was unsure of how you received me. Your smile seemed barely half of one, slightly contemptuous perhaps, though this is not a criticism! Indeed, I may have deserved such a reaction.
When we spoke in the moonlit garden, your dialogue to me seemed prosaic, vague, obfuscating.
I believe the exact words were…
Myself: Who are you?
Felicitas: What does it matter?
Myself: I am going to see you…often.
Was this a deliberate tactic to keep so ardent an admirer at arms length? You must have millions, if not now, then perhaps soon. But, as I have said, I may have earned this treatment.
I had difficulty reading your expressions as it was so dark that night (I am eternally grateful for the small light posing as a cigarette lighter I had in my pocket. Concealed in my hand, it created the most blissful of chiaroscuro effects to eulogise you) your looks are so subtle as to be barely perceptible, the raising oh so slightly of an eyebrow, a downward glance but not too low, one corner of your mouth raised but just a little. If it were a performance you gave me I was the luckiest of viewers, so delicately but overpoweringly erotic.
But dark as it was outside, how radiant you looked inside, bathed in the most impressive lighting that has seemed to follow us throughout! I recall the silhouette of the bugle player at my army base rudely wakes me every morning and a particularly effective one on that fateful morning (I am loathe to recall it! But recall I must) when your husband and I duelled for you, anticipation of who received satisfaction remaining a brief mystery for anyone watching, as only the smoke from our guns could be seen.
I must return to the subject of performance, as I feel that at times we have been playing a part in some entertainment about our love. A camera following our movements would be admirably mobile for one of this period, rushing from one soldier to the next as their names are shouted at morning drill and later as we swirled around the floor at Stoltenhof. When your late husband first caught us in an embrace (this could have been one of the first ever filmed horizontal love scene, did you know?) his hand clenches into a tight fist, seeming to crush us. Even now as I travel to you, I imagine your name spelled out in huge letters, flashing in time to the pumping of the ship’s engines or this locomotive’s wheels, a powerful montage to conjure up.
As eroticism goes, you cast the most magnificent of spells over me and possibly the rest of Stoltenhof, including my best of friend, the good Ulrich (he is immeasurably affecting, honest and good, never once cloying or weak, he is a gentleman through and true and his looks belie the fact he is 40 years old). You also dance dperfectly and looked divine with your hair slicked back in an almost ‘manly’ fashion. Manly I, myself, was not – I felt very much the sexual prey!
I am still overcome, almost breathless when I recall the slight nuances of sexuality you displayed, placing your cigarette in my mouth to light, turning the communion chalice around back to where my lips had moistened it. Your maid told me that, when trying on mourning veils before meeting me in town, a barely perceptible smile spread across your face when you settled on the right one.
I have been dissuaded from pursuing you by no more contradictory a preacher than Pastor Voss (Fawcett), who fumes from the pulpits about biblical infidelity and sin, but himself drinks heartily during a card game, casting a leering eye on two young girls – the lecher, I shall not listen to such hypocrisy! You yourself have sensed this; during one of his sermons you even re-applied your lip stick!
This communication has been longer than I anticipated for I have much to say and, as I have admitted, my impetuousness has seeped into my pen which has now gone and run away with itself. I will soon be in Bavaria and cannot wait to look upon you once again.
Until next we meet,
With infinite and devoted love,
Cast & Credits
Director: Clarence Brown. (113 mins). MGM (U)
Producer: Irving Thalberg.
Writer: Benjamin F. Glazer.
Camera: William Daniels.
Music: Carl Davis (1988 reissue).
Sets: Cedric Gibbons, Frederic Hope.
John Gilbert, Greta Garbo, Lars Hanson, Barbara Kent, William Orlamond, George Fawcett, Eugenie Besserer, Marc McDermott, Marcelle Corday, Philippe De Lacey.