Flesh and the Devil
Dir: Clarence Brown
Scr: Benjamin Glazer,
Pho: William H.
Ed: Lloyd Nosler
Premiere: Dec. 25,
This is a story of two people intersecting, gloriously, before one rose to stardom and the other faded away into oblivion. It’s the real-life version of (and perhaps the template for) films such as A Star Is Born. It’s the story of John Gilbert and Greta Garbo.
John Gilbert was an established screen star. He began in the movies in 1915, enduring years of apprenticeship and supporting roles in Hollywood before attaining leading-man fame in 1924, in King Vidor’s His Hour (1924). He was quickly labeled as suitable primarily for romantic leads, and termed “The Great Lover.” He had a contentious relationship with fame.
Greta Garbo was a shy young Swedish actress of 19 when she was chosen to star in The Story of Gosta Berling (1924). She was immediately noted for her beauty and for her subtle acting technique. She quickly gained a prominent role in her next film, G.W. Pabst’s Joyless Street (1925). Meanwhile, Hollywood mogul L.B. Mayer saw her in Berling and vowed to make her a star. With her appearance in The Temptress (1926), only her second Hollywood film, she too was seen as a bankable star, honored as an aloof beauty.
Fate brought the two together in Flesh and the Devil. Their immediate attraction to each other is palpable in this film. At the same time their characters intertwined in a story of tragic love, so did they become a highly publicized couple, moving in together and talking of marriage.
But first, the film. It’s a misogynistic, homophilic tale of two wealthy childhood friends in Germany who swear eternal devotion in their youth. Unfortunately, one of them (Gilbert) falls for a mysterious and amoral woman who neglects to tell him she is married. When her husband finds the two of them, he demands satisfaction. At dawn, the men meet for a duel, and Gilbert slays his rival.
Sent away in disgrace, he asks his friend to take care of Garbo’s character. Three years later, he returns to find that she has married his friend. Once again, he finds himself irresistibly drawn to her. This leads, naturlich, to yet another duel. Fortunately, our friends stop their feuding and reconcile, as Garbo, en route to stop them, falls through the frozen surface of a lake and drowns. Curtain.
It's all fairly standard romantic-drama fare (the rich production design helps elevate the drama), but it is extraordinary to see two people falling in love on camera. Their scene kissing in the garden is iconic. Their chemistry is palpable, and Garbo’s face is astonishingly expressive. Garbo was so pleased that she used director Clarence Brown, and especially cinematographer William H. Daniels, who she felt made her look as good as possible on screen, in many of her future films. Gilbert and Garbo were to make three more silent features together, all of them successful.
Then came the sound era. Garbo, despite her accent, kept making hits. Gilbert, however, did not make the transition effectively. Though it has long been a legend that his voice was not suited for sound film, the reality is that industry politics meant that he was sabotaged. And, quite simply, his star was sinking. Despite a number of attempted comebacks, he never regained his silent-era popularity. He began to drink heavily. Garbo tried to help him by insisting he be cast opposite her in Queen Christina (1933), but despite his skill in that role, it was no use. He received worse and worse roles. Finally, he died of a heart attack in 1936, at the age of 38.
Garbo went on to become a legend. Choosy about her roles, she maintained her screen persona of aloof beauty, for another decade, one of the highest-paid and highest-regarded stars of her time. She retired in 1941, at the age of 36.
The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Keaton’s The General.