Directed by Clarence Brown
Written by Bess Meredyth, Marian Ainslee, and Ruth Cummings (based on the novel The Green Hat by Michael Arlen)
After the disaster he'd instigated with The Trail of '98, and making penance with MGM by trying and failing to fix someone else's disaster with The Cossacks, perhaps Clarence Brown was relieved that his final film for 1928 could be such a comparatively small-scaled, even domesticated concern, with a budget barely a fifth of Trail's and not involving one single animal, a single mountain, nor a single frame of location shooting beyond Pasadena. This was A Woman of Affairs, the next Greta Garbo film—there is, then, the suggestion that Brown's penance would be ongoing. Yet this promised to be expedient, even cozy, for it not only reunited Brown with Garbo, but continued Brown's working relationship with his old friend John Gilbert—thus reuniting the three principals behind Flesh and the Devil—but there were inevitably some frictions (Gilbert, of course, was also "old friends" with Garbo, and now quite unmistakably her ex), and whether Brown knew it or not, he was getting into a rut. But then, I suppose it is rather hard to look at Flesh and the Devil, which was extremely successful and a masterpiece, then at Trail of '98, which was pretty great but also deadly and unprofitable, and not take the same lessons MGM took. This is particularly the case when A Woman of Affairs was also extremely successful and, to stake a position on it early, close to a masterpiece.
Brown's near future would entail even more Garbo, a circumstance which became increasingly fraught and annoying for Brown, but as it was even more fraught and annoying for everyone else, this only confirmed Brown as MGM's Garbo specialist (though, unfortunately, he never got to work with Gilbert again). Even more consequentially, this effectively pigeonholed Brown as the director of fallen woman stories. And one may ask the question, "What else could he have been?", for after all he was a director whose skills were often best-presented in erotic, tragic melodrama, and he worked at MGM, where erotic, tragic melodrama reigned supreme—where, frankly, it seems like practically the only subject the studio had any interest in was whether and to what degree a woman was a whore, and how, being a whore, she might be suitably redeemed or punished. This stereotype isn't entirely true, but it sure can feel entirely true. They didn't usually say "whore" in these movies, obviously, but only usually, and that is, indeed, pretty much explicitly what Garbo's character gets called by her brother in A Woman of Affairs, decorum preserved only by treating it with the silent film equivalent of a "bleep," so that you—almost—can't read his lips.
They don't say "whore" in Michael Arlen's 1924 novel The Green Hat, either, but they say enough otherwise that folks since 1928 have remained continually amazed MGM made a movie out of it. If I may, this is probably more because people no longer read The Green Hat, and, if they did, they'd be more startled to learn it was at one point, not even a century ago, a scandalous text. It does have the word "syphilis" in it, once. (This is, I'm afraid, a spoiler.) The movie, needless to say, doesn't. For all I know, The Green Hat was Britain's Gatsby: there's a lot in common between the two—each story is told by a narrator who's a hanger-on to the actual plot, and who falls in love with the idea of their respective protagonist, which is only the start of their similarities (there's also the noticeable use of automobiles as metaphors for fast-living modernity, and the belligerent insistence that each book is fundamentally about each author's jaundiced social commentary), and it's just enough to make you wonder if high school teachers were afraid to tell you Gatsby was actually genre.
History records that Irving Thalberg foisted the thing onto scenarist Bess Meredyth to rework as best she could, and traditionally this is presented as some kind of mild impossibility. It actually seems like it must've been the easiest thing in the world once Meredyth struck upon her Gordian knot solution: just get rid of that damned narrator! This, in turn, gets rid of all the digressive asides, and if getting rid of the three-quarters of the book that are "about" England and not obviously about anything else (Meredyth elides the Great War so brazenly I hadn't noticed till now that she had) means it's not the same story anymore—I might agree it's not—even at 92 minutes it's exactly the same plot, and one vastly more amenable to an MGM erotic, tragic melodrama, in that instead of shrouding events in Arlen's seven veils of slowly-revealed gossiped mystery, A Woman of Affairs thrusts us into the immediacy of that plot, as it's lived by our gallant heroine.
Get used to that word, "gallant," as Arlen used it a few times to describe his protagonist, Iris Storm, and the intertitlers, Marian Ainslee and Ruth Cummings, clearly liked the way it implied the masculine self-possession that its narrator found so beguiling. Meredyth, for her part, was prevailed upon to change the names* to remove even that association with the book (this is also a boon, because the book is full of names like "Iris Storm" or "Boy Fenwick"), whilst "syphilis," also necessarily modified, frankly makes a little more sense here, in that its censor-friendly replacement, embezzlement, doesn't need further explanation as to why a guy might get married in spite of it. (The novel doesn't dwell on what "Boy Fenwick" expected to accomplish when he did so.) Oh, and Meredyth also rid the plot of Iris's non-germane second husband, whom I think only existed to provide a rationale for why she's still very rich despite (gallantly) refusing her suicidal first husband's estate. Otherwise, though, it's shockingly faithful, even if there are numerous lacunae that Brown and Meredyth fill with symbols that they hope aren't too inscrutable, and even if it's sometimes unusually demanding—for while Meredyth could be one of MGM's best scenarists, she could be prone to logistical gaffes (The Mysterious Lady proving both these propositions), despite instincts that were unimpeachable.
But I should recite that plot. So: in the late 19th century were born Diana Merrick (Garbo) and her brother Jeffry (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), scions of a house not long for this world—by the time we catch up with them in their early adulthoods in the early 1910s, they are the last of their kind, their father already dead of drink, and Jeffry following in his footsteps. In their childhoods there was a third playmate, Neville Holderness (Gilbert), and Diana and Neville fell in love before they were teens, never to fall out, even as Neville's father (Hobart Bosworth) came between them, forcing his obedient son to abandon Diana without even a goodbye.
This is good news for Jeffry, however, for Jeffry has invested a troubling and telling amount of energy into pushing his sister into marriage with his idolized best friend, one David Furness (Johnny Mack Brown). Despairing of Neville's absence, Diana is (and, it's said, has been) impatient, and so as the years crawl by she weds David—which is her bad luck, for on the first night of their honeymoon his sins come due, and instead of submitting to arrest, he leaps from their hotel window to his death. Diana, for honor's sake, endeavors to cover up David's suicide—renaming it an accident—but Jeffry won't accept this, compelling his pitying sister to take the unusual option of covering up her dead husband's scandal by inventing one for herself, "admitting" that David killed himself over revelations of her debauchery. For years, this is it, and exiled Diana becomes the story she's told of herself, but upon returning to England to try to help her dying, drunkard brother, her call on family friend Dr. Trevelyan (Lewis Stone) brings her again before Neville, on the eve of his own wedding to Constance (Dorothy Sebastian). They haven't forgotten that they love each other, and, given the consequences of the night they spend together now, Diana will surely always remember—even if Neville marries Constance anyway. For reasons that don't immediately occur to Neville, and which can be communicated to us only with a curiously foregrounded calendar, and by Diana's showy promenade with a bouquet of condolence flowers cradled in her arms, Diana vanishes for approximately nine months, winding up in a convalescent bed. Neville discovers this, but what—if anything—is there to do now?
The most powerful difference is how this centers its gallant heroine in ways rather more dramatically satisfying than the "shameless, shameful lady" hero-worshipped by Arlen's narrator for her mystifying integrity. It's no mistake that Thalberg saw in Arlen's novel a vehicle for MGM's own embodiment of mystique—if you weren't aware this movie even existed, you'd still probably cast Greta Garbo in the movie playing in your head when you read Arlen's descriptions of Iris—but Diana Merrick is as heartbreakingly human a figure as Garbo had played yet. (Of course I cried: it's what these things are fucking for.) Garbo is not, necessarily, naturalistic in this portrayal—in fact, it may be the least naturalistic of her silent performances so far, in a sense. (It is, however, far less mannered.) There's the same tight calculation, then, but also more the seeming of spontaneity. The story goes that Garbo was an actor of unique cinematic appeal—employing gestures so delicate that only a camera would notice them—but there's a looseness here that lets her character be an actual person trying to navigate a world that wants to reduce her to the schematic idea she'd played several times already, but who won't be so reduced. She pitches her expressions a little more broadly as a result: I'm especially fond of the openness Garbo provides in the aftermath of the inquest into her husband's suicide, where Diana wryly smiles at how funny it would be if any of it were funny at all.
It's always, of course, gratifying seeing Garbo with Gilbert—in love or out, they still have amazing chemistry, and always would—and Gilbert does solid work sublimating his own lost opportunities into a character who's basically an asshole throughout, but whose own tragedy is that the very worst thing he does is done in the conviction that it's actually the best; this being underscored by the punishing sight of Garbo's crumpled disappointment in him. (What a masochistic production this must've been for Gilbert.) But Gilbert doesn't quite get to be second-best: that's Fairbanks, who's spectacular as an insipid drunk, and with Brown and Meredyth's active connivance, Fairbanks amplifies what's only a whisper in Arlen's novel, that he's in love with his best friend (if not, in fact, his own sister, or both), and that even the realization of his suppressed fantasies in the form of their marriage has only made him more envious, and vilely bitter toward Diana. Fairbanks, furthermore, manages to look like melting wax, and this really makes that close-up of Jeffry at the inquest where his expression says, "Do it! SAY YOU'RE A SLUT!", pop like a wet nightmare. Every time he's onscreen he's a malestrom of psychosexual, dipsomaniac fury that devours all the basically-normal people around him, almost up to and including Garbo herself. (I'm also taken with how much martyred kindness Sebastian puts into her performance, which feels like watching somebody play with a razor at their wrists.)
Meredyth and Brown only fumble, I'd say, the once, in that they make the choice to be as obtuse as possible about David's crime, which is a solid idea at first, keeping us aligned with Diana's awareness, but they also don't manage any further explanation until an hour has elapsed, possibly because Meredyth wanted to preserve some semblance of the novel's structure, or else because she'd determined it better to skip the dubious mechanics of Diana covering up massive financial malfeasance versus covering up a corpse's disease status. But it's actively confusing on a first watch. (Okay, there are two fumbles: I think one of the intertitlers forgot who knows exactly what during the finale, which is obnoxious because one of Meredyth's changes in this regard makes Diana's tragedy keener. And Brown fumbles one other thing himself, or Cedric Gibbons and the art department did: a photo of Constance is a major compositional element in several shots, used to separate Diana and Neville, and that's fine except it's also blatantly a photograph of Dorothy Sebastian, the actress, rather than Constance Holderness, the character, which is a problem given that Sebastian's angelic performance and Diana's intertitles describe a much different archetype than Sebastian's sultry glamor shot does.)
Everything else is great—I haven't mentioned that Arlen's prose wobbles between energetic, insightful, and irritatingly spurious, but in scraping his novel down to its bones, Meredyth presented Brown with some really good bones, to rebuild in his own style. Thus essentialized, it might be a little too reminiscent of Flesh and the Devil for some, though as a variation on a theme—a radical inversion of a theme, really—it's a terrific companion piece. Remaining is Brown's use of strongly allusive imagery: I've covered a lot of that already, though even some of the hoary symbolism of the novel, like a loose ring "apt to fall," is well-used; and there's a brilliant button to the inquest where Garbo looks out the window David's jumped from, looking outward at her future at first, before bracing herself to look down, and she looks down for a good long while, allowing the film to fade to black without ever looking back up. What's new, however, is the sheer dynamism of Brown's direction, a sharp tangent from Flesh and the Devil, which is of course splendid, but principally done with static tableaux and evocative shadows and montage, and which rarely resorted to much camera movement, and never this kind of camera movement. What A Woman of Affairs suggests above all is how much Brown liked Sunrise, or at least admired Sunrise's technique (I'd bet, if we could have pressed him, Brown would admit to having the same problems with Sunrise I have, and one of the things I love so much about A Woman of Affairs is how much of a counter-Sunrise it is). But either way, by God, he and cinematographer William Daniels have acquired the dolly and laid out the tracks to prove this admiration.
It's kinetic, even disorientingly kinetic for what amounts to people talking in rooms—there's a variation on the Eagle "dinner table shot" Brown invented back in 1926, now done at a weird diagonal, and coming woozily close to being geometrically impossible in how much it resembles our point-of-view moving through the solid object of an actor's head—and these bits are on top of the more subtle, but hardly less keenly-felt, quick-dollies into and back out the depths of the action as it develops. What I don't necessarily want to imply is that it is therefore somehow undisciplined. Its first goal is just to be interesting to look at (hence why the film opens, apropos of, at best, emphasizing their aristocratic vast carelessness, with a vehicle stunt that indicates that Trail didn't mean Brown was just going to stop risking people's life and limb, though happily the framerate says it's less dangerous than it looks for the extras whose heads almost get knocked off by a speeding car). But it's all combined with some crazily precise, emotionally-charged blocking that more often than not gives these thunderbolt-quick movements particular narrative meaning.
Nothing works better for the story, of course, than some of the choreography around Garbo—the retreat of the camera turning the death room into an empty, almost surrealist expanse, emphasizing her social ruin with subliminal bombast; and, deep into the film, her fated confrontation with the Holderness patriarch is composed in space with the language of a Goddamn Western quickdraw gunfight, language that I'm earnestly not certain was even being used in Westerns yet—but Brown gets up to some even more lurid things, and the anachronistic comparison I want to draw would sound nuts unless you've actually seen the film. But I promise, it can be downright Raimiesque, especially in the material around Fairbanks, whose freakish drunk is the subject of Brown's most fevered ministrations, framed inside acutely-angled shots of liquor bottles that loom around his hunched, degenerate posture, and the subject of another geometrically-wondrous pull-out that takes us through a door (in a dissolve) and over Fairbanks's lap while the lout side-eyes his door with perfect derangement. (And that this sequence echoes the design of the dolly-dissolves that attended Jeffry's suicidal idol in his moment of crisis even layers some poetry onto it.) In the same vein of how Brown's direction underlines character even as it presents as gonzo flamboyance, I've mentioned acute angles: there's another banger shot with Gilbert beneath his father (I'm fairly sure Bosworth is literally standing on a damn box), intended to crush poor, equivocal Neville down into his seat and transform him, visually, into the pathetic, pitiful child he essentially is.
Not every frame is something miraculous, but more than enough to prompt me to gush about it—I'll stop myself, then, by noting that I'm not sure anything has come closer to proving to me the annoying proposition that sound was a catastrophe, because it'd be hard to argue that sound did not derail the aesthetic evolution of a filmmaker whose next (extant) film would be Navy Blues, itself all the proof anybody would need of the heinousness of early talkies. Brown figured out sound eventually, and he had many, many outstanding films to come; but I don't know if even one is as cheerfully wild.
*They didn't change the title for all markets, as that tight Eric Rohman poster (way better than the American poster) shows.