Directed by Fred Niblo and Mauritz Stiller
Written by Dorothy Farnum and Marian Ainslee (based on the novel A Land For All by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez)
"Oh, Woman! Thou art not alone the creation of God—but of Man!"
This is the text that opens Greta Garbo's second American film, The Temptress; it's from a poem by Rabindranath Tagore. The line is translated a little differently in the edition I have before me, but it's the same idea, and the poem concludes, "You are one half woman and one half dream."
Thus we have very little excuse not to "get" what scenarist Dorothy Farnum and title writer Marian Ainslee—a couple of half-dreams, by Tagore's estimation—are going for with their adaptation of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez's novel, La Tierra de Todos. The Tagore epigram, at least, is their own superimposition, and The Temptress (their film's title made poisonously ironic in the process) is an attempt to build a feminist argument out a tale I don't suspect of being concerned with such things. Perhaps I presume too much; but I reckon it as neither more nor less than a rad South American Western about the taming of the Argentine frontier, though I suppose in that title, "a land for all," "all" could mean "men and women." In either case, MGM put Garbo at the center of it, and asked her to embody Tagore's woman upon whom the poets lavish poetry, the painters render paintings, the miners offer gold, the divers deliver pearls, and the gardeners offer flowers. Tagore doesn't say so outright, but you take the point, and in The Temptress it's because they want to fuck her, like, real bad, and when they don't, they blame her for the scrum of angry, jostling men who've surrounded her, and for the circumstances they've put her in. And sure: Garbo is about as good a stand-in for that idea as ever been photographed, and on paper, I can see how this could've made sense to Farnum, Ainslee, producer Irving Thalberg, and director Mauritz Stiller.
Garbo despised it, and I don't blame her: The Temptress comes off as two entirely different modes and worldviews smooshed together into a shambling abomination repeatedly lurching from one ideological point to its polar opposite, and the best Farnum and Ainslee were able to do with the basic material, it seems, was make it tedious in addition to being ugly. It is the first and to date only Greta Garbo movie I have seen that would have been better without Garbo being in it, and the superior elements of the picture—the fantasized exotic adventure in the Andes that pits civilizing French engineers against a band of wild rogues—never actually required her, or any particularly important actress, but if she had to be in it (and MGM did indeed say that, contractually, she did), she'd have been better-employed as the pretty thing that gets tied to railway tracks. At least, she would've had no less of a character to explore, and you'd notice the absence less.
Garbo's troubles did not begin and end with the material itself. I said "director Mauritz Stiller" earlier, and Stiller at this point remained one of the most important people in Garbo's life. He was her mentor and countryman, and when Louis B. Mayer was in Europe scouting for new directorial talent, his goal was originally to snag Stiller. That mission was reoriented when he saw Garbo, though Mayer remained happy enough to allow Stiller to tag along, and The Temptress was to be their first Hollywood film together. Stiller was fired after a few weeks for what seems to have been gross incompetence—MGM's editorial staff were flabbergasted by the disorganized footage he'd provided them—and while there is ample controversy regarding the issue, many signs indicate that when MGM brought in their Mr. Fix-It, Fred Niblo, fresh off a similar job on the debacle of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, Niblo reshot the whole thing top to bottom, so that while some of Stiller's ideas may remain, almost literally none of his actual direction does. This came very close to just sending Garbo back home, and she had other reasons to want to leave, for while Garbo was stuck making a movie she had contempt for, playing a role she didn't want to play, with a director she'd never met, her 22 year old sister died of cancer, half a world away, and she couldn't even attend the funeral.
But she did make the film, and we should get to it. So: after the scene's been set with a little Tagore, we're thrown into the midst of a masque, held in a great mansion somewhere in Paris, and while costumed revelers cavort and throw paper party favors at each other, two shadowed figures in a gallery argue. One is Elena (Garbo). The other is the aged banker Fontenoy (Marc McDermott) who's had her, but wants more. This time, she's repulsed by his advances, and Elena flees through the crowd, accosted by drunks and perverts. She draws the attention of one guest in particular, Manuel Robledo (Antonio Moreno). Somehow she perceives his own animal lust as less revolting—a remarkable thing, given that Moreno labors the whole film under the cloud of an introductory closeup that details the most dipshit expression a human male could wear upon beholding Greta Garbo—and they precipitously pledge their love to one another. Elena will not tell him her name, however; she simply asks that he meet her here again. Manuel discovers the reason for Elena's caginess very soon, for upon visiting his friend the Marquis de Torre Blanca (Armand Kaliz), the latter is eager to show off his very beautiful wife. As I'm sure you guessed, Manuel has made the marquise's acquaintance already.
Manuel and Elena meet once more in Paris, at a banquet held by Fontenoy, which turns nasty quickly, for the purpose of the feast is to reveal to all assembled that Elena has taken his money and his jewels in exchange for her time, with the full consent and encouragement of her husband who has effectively been pimping her to pay off his gambling debts. Having destroyed the object of his obsession's reputation in one bold stroke, the banker declares that he cannot stand to live in a world with Elena in it, quaffs a glass full of poison, and dies on the spot. Manuel, shaken to his core, gets on the next boat back to Argentina to finish the project that's become his life's work, the construction of a mighty dam in the Andes. But who should follow soon after, but Elena and her cuckold husband? Thus the cycle begins again, with every man within twenty miles lunging clumsily at the beautiful young woman—from Manuel's own subordinates to the Argentine bandit chieftain "Manos Duras" (Roy D'Arcy)—but Manuel may have it worst of all, though he resists with all his strength, despising Elena for the chaos she brings and hating himself for the love he swore.
There is no denying that are compensations here; Niblo, whether he was working from Stiller's notes or not, is doing some commendable stuff, at least visually. There are, as you might expect, a few low-energy "stand in a row in this three-walled room" conversations in this silent film, but the only genuinely bad shot is that hilariously misjudged early closeup of Moreno. There are, in fact, occasions for some truly ambitious camerawork, particularly a long crane shot at Portenoy's last meal that takes us down a table half the length of a football field. (It's an idea stolen in precise detail from Clarence Brown's 1925 Valentino adventure film, The Eagle, but, fair's fair, it's pulled off with more panache.)
More tantalizingly, then, The Temptress makes reasonably frequent use of Niblo's attested skillset as a maker of big-ass adventure films. This was the reputation he'd been burnishing since inaugurating the 1920s and Douglas Fairbanks's swashbuckling career with The Mark of Zorro, and as Zorro is by some margin my favorite of Niblo's movies I've seen, there was reason to be optimistic about his return to an exotic (and, needless to say, exoticized) Latin America, trading in the Mexican Empire, but only for an even more interesting locale, the rough-and-tumble backwaters of the Argentine.
Naturally, the film runs the danger of being condescending, though obviously this wasn't even a notional concern for either Spanish novelists or American film scenarists back in 1926; and, accordingly, the intertitles never refer to Argentina except as "the Argentine." (The movie is a bit ignorant: Manuel declares with horror that "the Argentine" is no place for a European woman, which would surely come as a surprise to the literal millions of European women who already lived there.) But The Temptress delivers on the promise of Andes-flavored colonial pulp, especially in the form of Manos Duras, a pirate gaucho with a flapper haircut and a porn 'stache, introduced as a sinister shadow and played as a collection of camera-hogging sneers and leers by D'Arcy with infectious matinee enthusiasm.
The scenario uses Manos Duras surprisingly sparingly, which isn't to its benefit, for the good of The Temptress is exclusively bound up in its setting and its adventuring, the dam providing the stakes of the conflict, and Manos Duras providing what comes close to supervillainy. The "Argentine duel" that Manos Duras extracts from Manuel in his defense of Elena is the absolute high point, and it would potentially be the high point even in a much better movie, inventing an Argentine tradition that I almost wish were real. I'm suspicious of any report of "what Argentina was like" written by Americans in the 1920s, but to the extent gaucho dueling was a phenomenon, it was done with knives. Nothing so common as that in The Temptress: it gives us a whip duel. And this whip duel is just terrific, getting across the violent intensity of it with quick-cut editing and capturing the climax of Manuel whipping blindly with his hand over his injured eyes with a moving shot that puts us in the position of the guy getting whipped half to death. Hell, it's even reasonably bloody.
If this actually were just an adventure film, then, it could easily have been shaped into a pretty decent one. But of course "being an adventure film" is a distant second priority for The Temptress—or even a third priority, really, if any of this comes off as "romantic" to you, and it's blatantly supposed to—but the vast bulk of it is just the tiresomely repetitive moralizing that isn't even clear, scene to scene, about what its moral actually is. Didactic gender issues movies aren't usually very good even in 2022; a didactic gender issues movie in 1926 might've never had a chance.
These things work reasonably well in tandem for about an hour, but at some point not long after the whip duel—and in truth, it's begun before that—the movie begins to collapse under its contradictory impulses, and just keeps collapsing. Extreme reductionism was not unusual in silent cinema, and Garbo's silent career was no exception, but while her other films in this era tended to turn her reluctantly-typecast roles towards emotionally-devastating fabulism, The Temptress is just fucking aggravating with it: the characters Garbo plays in her other movies are active and often ruthless in pursuing their destinies; the character she plays in this one is held in contempt just for existing. Which in turn is mostly all Garbo does, Garbo sleepwalking through Elena because there's simply not that much in Elena to play, and what there is to play is incoherent, with Niblo evidently directing her—sometimes—to play up the most predatory and disgusting aspects of her sexual appetite (there's the somewhat famous scene where she basically performs oral sex on a wine glass, but the most troublesome is when Elena apparently gets wet at the sight of two men dueling to possess her, which, again, would have worked perfectly fine in an elemental adventure film that didn't have anything on its mind besides masculine heroism), while in every other scene, he leaves her to stand around like an innocent idiot who might not even be fully aware she's hot. It's leavened, but certainly never tied together, by the melancholy persona she'd already laid the groundwork of in Torrent.
But that role was more fully-formed; this role requires extreme commitment to the bit, and she's not giving it. Thanks to the confused scenario, she's not asked to give it, so what we have instead is a something of an unacknowledged farce driven by a science-fiction, magic-pheromone, mind-control sex appeal, the kind that drives men to suicide and fratricide. Eventually, the more curious intertitles are echoed in Elena's own dialogue, when she and the film explicitly remind us she hasn't really done anything. All this means is that when the film isn't misogynistic in specific, it just feels misanthropic in general, culminating in a disturbingly violent moment that, well, Niblo at least puts some oomph into, with some cross-dissolves that sell the annihilating hatred of the sequence and do a lot with fatalistic suspense, even if it's emotionally repulsive and thematically muddled. But then, it's a sign of a muddled movie indeed that The Temptress has two alternate endings, one reshot for Midwestern squares, so distinct that they render the movie in front of them completely different, yet both these movies are still bad. I can only say that I prefer "the Midwestern square" one, not because it's sunnier, but because the downbeat "real" ending takes a page from Niblo's last film and throws the Christ into the mix.
So I get why Garbo got tired of being stereotyped so rapidly; I was tired of this one within seventy minutes—probably earlier, only the whip duel threatens to put it back on track—and the film runs 117, only a few of them involving whip duels or collapsing dams, and most of them just repeating its one idea about its ambiguously-unwitting Eve over and over again. It blows my mind that this was, in fact, a hit (it lost money, technically, the only Garbo movie that ever did, but was considered a partial success anyway, because it's only on account of Stiller that it wasn't profitable). For my part, I'm glad it wasn't the first or even second Garbo silent I saw; I may not have continued if it had been. Fortunately, there was salvation for her right around the corner, and even if it doesn't come close to addressing what has been, regrettably, this review's primary concern, "aren't these movies kinda sexist?", the void of personality, heat, and emotion in The Temptress would be repudiated by her next film in the most absolute terms imaginable.