Directed by Sidney Franklin
Written by Hanns Kraly, Ruth Cummings, Willis Goldbeck, and William Schayer (based on the novel Heat by John Colton)
In a sense, 1929 was simply a repeat of 1928 for Greta Garbo: three silent melodramas, three hits of varying degrees. But between 1928 and 1929 the world had turned upside down, and Garbo, the reigning queen of Hollywood, had become in the space of a year a defiant holdout against her industry's new reality. MGM, the most important but by some metrics the most conservative of the major studios, had become the final fortress of silent cinema, and even it had surrendered most of its films to synchronized sound—at this point, silence was rapidly becoming a deliberate choice, and in any year hereafter, a silent film could only have been an intentional throwback curio. (A factoid that has nothing to do with anything we're talking about today, but which I just learned, is that several MGM talkies of 1929 were produced without music over their opening credits, a sort of make-work arrangement for Loews theater musicians, still employed but not for much longer; for the most part, however, and this does have something to do with this film, every MGM silent of 1929, and most of their silents from 1928, were already using synch scores. I believe Garbo's first was A Woman of Affairs, also by William Axt, who has the coolest name but I'm not sure I like much as a composer, and either way that film's synch score has been lost—or, I suppose, abandoned—which is why I didn't mention Carl Davis's very good modern replacement score in that review.)
I cannot speak to the consensus amongst their directors, but MGM's reluctance was down more to some of its biggest stars, above all Garbo herself, the beneficiary of executives who weren't quite sure if their most important asset could actually withstand the advent of sound—or if her throaty, accented voice would only wither before a talkie-fed audience prone to sneering at actors who sounded even slightly different from the voices they'd imagined in their heads. As this is 2022, I feel it reasonable to spoil the surprise: she did fine.
But before that day in 1930, Garbo spent one last mute year, producing a clutch of films that are, I daresay, nobody's favorite Garbos, and are, as a group, unloved. I'd like to tell you that this is unfair, perhaps even a holdover from when any silent film would've been considered out-of-fashion—I don't know what I'd base that on, given that in the years since, silent cinema has been fetishized to a degree that even very shitty silent films can be elevated just for the sake of still existing, and in truth even in 1929 this fetishization had already begun (if you've seen any 1929 talkies, you can easily see why)—but if I did tell you that, it'd be putting more of a burden on her last film of 1929, The Kiss, than it should bear. Surely nothing about her first film of that year, Wild Orchids, suggests that their comparative obscurity and low rank are even the slightest bit unjustified.
I'll give it this: it's arguably somewhat novel, at least working within the Garbo Movie genre (is the film about adultery? bet me a dollar it isn't, rube). This time, anyway, Garbo is Lillie Sterling, the evidently devoted wife to wealthy trader John Sterling, a tea man, and John is played by Lewis Stone (b. 1879), so maybe you can see where this will go, though it does respond to the playful suggestion I kept to myself vis-a-vis A Woman of Affairs, namely, "hey, maybe you should just marry Lewis Stone,
that would be hot he actually seems nice." Well, John Sterling is nice, but while Stone is a handsome man indeed for his years, his character certainly is not hot, far more deeply involved in business affairs than he is his marriage, perhaps left with no energy for anything else, even basic observation or masculine imagination, as he's sort of weirdly insensitive to his gorgeous young wife's needs, sexual and emotional alike. Thus when they embark upon a sea voyage to the Dutch East Indies (the exigence being John's need to see some tea), he is almost comically blind to the rape-adjacent depradations of fellow passenger Prince De Gace (Garbo's fellow Scandinavian beauty, Nils Asther), whom Lillie encounters in what I believe might be the worst meet-cute in cinema history, as his Javanese slave spills out of his stateroom, being whipped by his colonial master for reasons we never even learn, possibly just because De Gace likes beating people. I will also mention that it's mildly annoying that in this movie called Wild Orchids (it's a tedious metaphor brought up in intertitles) they still saw fit to name the heroine "Lil[y]."
To Lillie's credit, she is aghast; and, moreover, discomfited in the extreme by his long, leering gazes. Naturally, then, Lillie despairs when John introduces her to the new pal he's met, who's graciously invited him—and, oh, whoever he just so happens to be traveling with—to stay at his plantation, who turns out to be (you guessed) De Gace. De Gace, for his part, can't even wait till they get there before he starts pawing at Lillie. Nevertheless, social codes and shame are put to overtime work, so that she only once screws up the courage to mention his impositions to her husband, and when she does it turns out the old man is asleep. But once they get to Indonesia, De Gace's pressure, in combination with John's obliviousness, finally pays off—the fulcrum, I expect, and the whole psychology of this "romance" rests uneasily upon it, is the Javanese floorshow put on by some of De Gace's servants (this being, I'd expect, an actual sound sequence, or half of it is, given the absolute stasis with which director Sidney Franklin films the men's sword dance set to onscreen beating drums; the subsequent women's dance—that feels more Hollywood-exotic than Javanese, and in any case might well get you arrested in modern Islamist Jakarta, but this is the least of this movie's sins—gets a modestly dynamic, synch score treatment, thankfully). Now hornied-up and dressed in the glittering Indonesian liturgical garb she'd admired, Lillie makes a move on her husband, who only mocks her cultural appropriation (I'm kidding), but he does ask why she looks ridiculous, leaving a vacuum that De Gace is happy to, so speak, fill. At some length, and despite De Gace's clever dodges, John finally comprehends what's become of his marriage, and, furious, endeavors to use the tiger hunt De Gace had promised him to exact the fullest possible measure of revenge.
There is, somewhere in here, a pretty solid story, either one that tilts fully toward De Gace as a monster and Lillie trapped by shame (which I think, in these circrumstances, I'd have preferred), or that pursues their attraction without having Lillie's dark SM fantasies triggered by her would-be paramour's colonial violence, which I guess could still be a story, but probably not one I'd want to see handled by Sidney Franklin and MGM in a Garbo vehicle in 1929, if at all.* (As for Franklin, the subject matter of "animals and Asia" seems like it ought to have been up his alley, but it doesn't even live up to the unfair stereotype I've developed of the filmmaker from the two things I know about him at all, the first being his quixotic attempts to produce an adaptation of Bambi, a Life in the Woods and the second being his other passion project, the no-longer-particularly-well-regarded 1936 film that attempts to be nice about China, The Good Earth.)
But there's the elements of a good story: for one, John's perfect murder plot is neat, and the fundamental triangle is or could be interesting (I will note that De Gace's exploitation of John's racism to convince John that his wife needs De Gace to hang around to "protect" her is smart and pointed in its sinisterness), and the setting should provide the basis for luxurious visuals and, like it or lump it, the pulpy colonialist eroticism promised in the intertitles that insist that Java "strips a woman of her pretenses." So perhaps John Colton's source novel, Heat, had managed to be the good version of that story. This version of it is not the good version, not least for miring Garbo in a role that has some nebulous inner conflict that doesn't play very well to a viewer in 2022, if it even played to one in 1929—I feel like it might genuinely be the single least-precise, least-compelling performance of her whole Hollywood career—and outside of this, she's all dramatic constraints, no agency. She even lacks, arguably more importantly, an illusion of agency within her constraints. (I don't like to be reductive about such things, as that is inherently anti-art, but I guess it's worth mentioning that this was the first Garbo movie after three strong outings not to have a lady scenarist.) It's a wretched fall from A Woman of Affairs, anyhow, and what it means for this film is that watching it is effectively just watching De Gace artlessly pester Lillie till, ultimately, she puts out. (Garbo evidently did personally like Danish-born Swede Asther, which sounds like it should be the start of good chemistry, but while he's not her worst screen lover he's far from her best. This is likewise true for their next film, The Single Standard, though at least he's less criminal about it there.)
The goals of the film would seem to have suggested something hungrier and higher-impact, too, than what Franklin provides us: there is, at bottom, no reason for this to be 100 minutes long, especially since it hits that length primarily by dragging its feet, first on the boat, then on a train ride, most of which just keeps recycling the idea that Lillie despises her stalker and, since Garbo's not really complicating that, it only makes the foreordained romance feel all the phonier. It doesn't find a minimal groove till it's at De Gace's plantation, though while Franklin's direction is, with a couple of exceptions, sleepily functional until this point, it's less so afterwards solely because he managed to adapt a Clarence Brown "table shot" for a spread on the floor of De Gace's palace, and because Cedric Gibbons's art department has provided him some more interesting environments than before, albeit mostly rooted in just the one idea of "really tall, somewhat ornate doors." The second-best shot of the film, anyway, involving an acute angle capturing Stone marching out of the palace and down its front steps while servants man the doors, is still pretty much just tall, ornate door autopilot.
The first-best shot, provided by William Daniels's cinematography, of Asther's shadow pouring out of a door slowly and covering the glimmering form of Garbo in her Javanese accoutrements—it's the film's one truly splendid idea—doesn't feel like Franklin or editor Conrad Nervig actually quite knew what to do with it, since it surrenders its Brownian allusion to leaden literalism the moment that Asther himself enters the frame. It then keeps wallowing in it as the camera clunks in close and he again forcefully woos Garbo for another few seconds. It's almost the only moment, too, that feels particularly characteristic of Daniels's usual rich play with light and shadows, or that fully digs into the "South Seas" atmospherics it's playing at; it's not a particularly exotic-feeling movie, overall.
It's still only mostly mediocre until the ending, which I don't outright hate but is awfully miscalculated (it confuses lust, love, and compassion in ways Garbo isn't permitted to make sense of, and which Franklin apparently didn't see a distinction in). It assumes I give a shit about De Gace, which I found just unreasonably arrogant. Up till then, it's poorly-paced and a little dull, but with the ending, I think I was ready to call it the worst Garbo movie I'd so far seen, even if The Temptress remains, in its way, the least Garbo movie, because whatever else The Temptress still has some badder-ass, less-fraught notions of what whips are for. But then I watched The Single Standard, and I'm not sure if Garbo's next film isn't worse.
*But Victor Fleming and MGM in a Gable/Harlow vehicle in 1932? That's different. Cf. Red Dust, which isn't the exact same story, but does do everything this movie should have done, and at least doesn't do quite as much of what it shouldn't have.