28 January 2012

The Flesh (Oh My!) The Devil (Hiss!) and Garbo's Smoldering Eyes (Sigh!)

"....she liked to be active, though at times she gave an impression of repose that was at once static and evocative." From Tender is the Night By F. Scott Fitzgerald

I fancy myself as something of a bohemian though without facial hair and affected looks of boredom. I will tap my fingers nervously on a coffee table but don't smoke so it isn't always easy to tell where I'm coming from. I dally in poetry but offset that with a passion for college football.

Things happen all the time and if in a certain mood I pay attention. Now you know.

Today I watched Flesh and the Devil (1926) starring Greta Garbo as a type A vixen and John Gilbert as the dashing looking chap who falls for her. But then so does his best buddy. As did the Count she was married to. You can't resist her. Slip into the film sometime and try. I double dare you.

There is a certain casualness to the film expressed in languid scenes of delightful innocence that resonate from the silent era. There is also an intensity of love, friendship and aroused passions that elevate the film beyond melodrama.

Clarence Brown directed. Score one for him. But before and after he made some extraordinarily ordinary films. Like Idiot's Delight (1939), Wife vs. Secretary (1936) and The Human Comedy (1943). Nice but....

Leo (Gilbert) and Ulrich (Lars Hanson) are the best friends. Very best. Since childhood when they made the proverbial blood brother pact (with real blood!). We meet them in the army where they are up to shenanigans. Their mischief exposed they must shovel manure. Memories are made of this.

Home on furlough they meet the evil seductress herself, Felicitas (Garbo). I don't know about the rest of you lot, but I love that name -- Felicitas! We also meet Lars' kid sister who has a crush on good ole Leo and we are further introduced to Leo's saintly old mom. For those of you keeping score at home that's one sibling and one parent between the two buddies.

Leo and Ulrich are forever hugging and looking each other in the eye and avowing their friendship and I'm sure some folks have cried, "homoeroticsm" but that seems a bit easy and cheap here. Don't you think?

The beautiful Felicitas casts her spell on Leo, who doesn't realize that she's...a married woman!

A duel and an exile in Africa later, Felictas has cast yet another spell, this time on poor Ulrich. They are husband and wife. Husband one is death is shown in scene that is as beautifully shot as anything ever filmed and raises the question of why didn't Brown do this more often?

 Leo is taken by surprise by the nuptials of Leo and Felicitas. But she has her hooks in the poor sap and married to his best buddy or not, he wants her back.

Betrayal?

In the middle of the story is a kindly sot of Pastor who moralizes against such sirens and their ways. There's no point in me railing about the presence of such moralizers in films of that era, they were there being obvious and dull as plain oatmeal.

Where Flesh and the Devil goes is not nearly as interesting as how it gets there, which is via Garbo and those eyes that would bring down a pope. The bosom chums are nice and all, but they serve as a set up for the comely wiles of the evil seductress. The late silent era was towards the beginning of films rich with great roles for women and great actresses plying their trades in them. See Garbo, Dietrich, Stanwyck, Crawford, Davis, Shearer, Harlow, Loy and a bunch of other dames who I don't have time to list here. It was a Golden Age for women. (The preceding sentence was, I'm quite sure, not the least bit original, but no less true.) Garbo's performance here is a shining example. Of course its sans words. Her body is shapely enough but on the skinny side. It is her face and most particularly those penetrating eyes that suck one in. Whether a character, a co-star (Gilbert left his wife for her) or some bloke watching 80 plus years on, she's nigh on impossible to resist.

There's a lot of schmaltz to Flesh and the Devil. Hanson is a tad hammy for my tastes and much of the rest of the cast are as animated as the props. But Gilbert has an unmistakeable presence and Garbo possessed one of the greatest screen visages of the 20th century (you wanna say the greatest, go ahead, I won't squawk).

Should you see Flesh and the Devil?  If you've read all this I reckon you want to.

Don't ask me why, but I close with this:


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