June 26, 2015

Garbo's Last Silents-1929

The following is my contribution to the CLASSIC MOVIE HISTORY PROJECT BLOGATHON, June 26-28, 2015, hosted by Movies, Silently and sponsored by Flicker Alley.

As the 1920s drew to an end, Greta Garbo had not yet agreed to do any talking pictures.  She had, however, graduated from playing exotic temptresses who drew men into a web of despair and ruin--often destroying herself in the process.
In her three Silents of 1929, Garbo was upgraded to a sophisticated, liberated woman. Temptation may have been everywhere, but there was always the option of marrying (or returning to) a stable, loving  and wealthy spouse.

Perhaps to compensate for the lack of talk--MGM spared no expense for these films. The musical scores are lilting, the gowns by Adrian are gorgeous, and the Art Direction by Cedric Gibbons is the stuff of Art Deco legend.

Wild Orchids: Lillie Sterling

"You are like the orchids of your country--you have the same cold enchantment.  In Java the orchids grow wild--and their perfume fills the air."

Lovely Lillie Sterling (Greta Garbo) and her husband, John (Lewis Stone) set sail from San Francisco, bound for Java--in their most up to the minute travel costumes.

Lillie dresses for dinner the first evening, in a stunning backless white satin dress, with a huge corsage of (what else?) orchids.

On deck, they meet the Javanese Prince de Gace (Nils Asther): charming, handsome and smitten with Mrs. Sterling.

De Gace makes no secret of his desire to compensate for John Sterling's neglect of his beautiful bride.

The Prince entertains the couple lavishly at his Javanese estate. Lillie decides, after watching exotic and erotic dancers, to pique her husband's interest, by dressing in one of their costumes. 

Sterling isn't overly impressed by the ostentatious display, but Prince de Gace? Oh my, yes!

Poor Lillie even gets stranded in a jungle cabin with the ever-amorous Prince. So far she has kept her virtue and fidelity to John intact. Will she succumb to de Gace's advances?

On a tiger hunt, Lillie must fend off de Gace yet again.  Only when he is hurt, does the poor girl catch a break.

Unfortunately, husband John has seen the two in a shadowy but seemingly compromising position and assumes that he has lost Lillie.  With which of these men will Lillie decide to spend the rest of her life? What do YOU think?

The Single Standard: Arden Stuart

"I roamed through China looking for art--and found only the memory of you."

San Francisco socialite, Arden Stuart (Greta Garbo) believes that women should be as free to love as the men she sees in her social circle.

Tom Hewlett (John Mack Brown) adores Arden and wishes to marry her, but she is carrying on an affair with the chauffeur.

When the indiscretion is discovered and the chauffeur is fired, disaster ensues and Arden takes to her bedroom in extremely stylish mourning.

Below, the much photographed striped Adrian pajamas and robe to fit the Art Deco mansion Arden inhabits.

One night, Arden decides to take a cleansing walk in the rain to shake off her guilt and depression.  She discovers a gallery of Modern Art and--a handsome ex-prizefighting artist named Packy Cannon (Nils Asther). Things are definitely looking up!

Packy invites her to breakfast aboard his boat the "All Alone" before he sets sail for the South Seas the next morning. As they fall madly in love, Arden impetuously accepts his invitation to join him for a romantic shipboard tryst of indefinite length.

Having no clothes of her own on the idyllic seafaring voyage, Arden wears those of her lover, creating a chic menswear vogue, more than half a century before the "boyfriend" look.

After months of passion, sun and surf, Packy informs Arden his Art is suffering and that their 'perfect love' should remain so, in memory.  He reverses the course of the ship to return to San Francisco.

Shunned and mocked by most of her former social set, Arden finds that Tommy Hewlett still loves and wants to marry her.

Arden reluctantly marries Tom, but the arrival of a son delights them both. Into this picture of domestic bliss enters the long-lost Packy Cannon.

Arden and Packy have never stopped loving one another. He once again pleads that she join him at sea, unaware of the power of the mother-son bond.

Tommy Hewlett prepares to lose Arden Stuart, for the second time in his life.

Arden delivers her final decision to Packy on board ship. The most important man in her life is neither himself nor Tom--but her son, whom she will never abandon--not even for true love.

Tom has decided to take drastic action to avoid scandal and a lifetime of misery. Arden foils his plan as they watch the "All Alone" set sail out of San Francisco harbor.

The Kiss: Irene Guarry

"Half us women would shoot our husbands--if only we had the nerve."

Irene (Greta Garbo) is unhappily married to Charles Guarry (Anders Randolf), but in love with lawyer Andre Dubail (Conrad Nagel). As the film opens, they are having a clandestine meeting to discuss their future.

Above, Greta Garbo and Conrad Nagel in the Art Museum: one of the timeless Art Deco set designs by Cedric Gibbons.

Andre tells Irene that because she cannot divorce Guarry without a scandal, he is permanently departing for Paris.

A weary, despondent Irene returns to a home and husband she is unable to leave--ever.

Guarry has hired a detective to follow Irene.  The private gumshoe recounts in flashback details of her meetings with a handsome young man, Pierre LaSalle (Lew Ayres), below.

Irene prepares to attend a formal banquet with her husband at the LaSalle home.

Below, Director Jacques Feyder discusses this famous 'mirror scene' with Greta Garbo.

Demurely, Irene sits with some of the other female guests during the dance portion of the evening.

Irene and Andre, who has arrived unexpectedly, meet in the garden prior to his departure for Paris.

Pierre spurns the attentions of his young female friend to impress and spend more time with Irene, at a tennis match in the LaSalle private courts.

Irene and Guarry have dinner before his appointment with M. LaSalle Sr. on a business matter.

Above and below: award winning set designs and art direction by the MGM master, Cedric Gibbons--who did some of his finest work for this film. Greta Garbo's dress is a feather in Adrian's cap, reflecting the trend toward asymmetrical, longer hemlines.

Unbeknown to Guarry, Irene has permitted  young Pierre to drop by for a photograph of her to take back to College.

...and another parting wish:  a good-bye kiss.

..which gets out of control by Pierre's overly amorous advances.

Feeling ill, Guarry returns home just in time to witness what he believes to be an example of Irene's infidelity. He begins to violently beat Pierre. Frantic at the outcome, Irene picks up the telephone.

The police arrive to find Guarry dead on the study floor,  while Irene retires to her bedroom in a state of edgy apprehension.

When Irene is arrested for the shooting death of her husband, Andre returns from Paris to defend her--in a trial that is sure to have all of Paris buzzing.

The 'black widow' professes her innocence before a highly skeptical courtroom.

Director Jacques Feyder and cinematographer William Daniels and his crew, line up the courtroom shots of Greta Garbo.  Conrad Nagel is at lower right. This famous still is immortalized on this Kevin Brownlow "The Parade's Gone By..." cover.

Thanks to Andre Dubail, Irene is cleared of all charges and Guarry's death ruled a suicide.  But--is that what really happened?

Sadly, Irene has a confession for Andre, which she professes will kill his love for her--forever.

Andre forgives Irene, with a recovered but still arrogant and delusional Pierre looking on enviously.

With this slick, stylish melodrama the Silent films of both Greta Garbo and MGM studios ended. Urban legend has it that there was panic about the star's voice.  Not true.  Greta Garbo had a deep, throaty, and still slightly accented voice--but it's timbre was pleasant. Her days of playing Arden Stuarts and Lillie Sterlings were definitely done, but greater things lay ahead.
Greta was set to take on her first talkie:  the lead role in Eugene O'Neill's hit play "Anna Christie" which had been both a Broadway smash hit and a silent film starring Blanche Sweet in 1923. Savvy businesswoman that Garbo was, she'd had it written into her contract before making "The Kiss".

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