Wednesday, March 9, 2022

On the other side of the water


Directed by Monta Bell
Written by Dorothy Farnum, Katherine Hilliker, and H.H. Caldwell (based on the novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez)

Spoilers: moderate

, of course, is not the screen debut of Swedish actress Greta Lovisa Gustafsson, and for that we'd need to go back to theatrically-screened commercials for the department store she worked at as a teenager; but it's not even the first time she was credited as Greta Garbo, that honor going to her one film with her mentor and friend, Mauritz Stiller, The Saga of Gösta Berling, and there was The Street of Sorrow in Germany after that.  But these are European; they have an average runtime of two hours and forty-five minutes; the German one is classed with "the New Objectivity," which I think means "German but not even interesting to look at"; I will not watch them, and you can't make me.  And so for our purposes, and for the purposes of the global audience that Hollywood had created by the mid-1920s, Garbo did indeed begin here, when she arrived with Stiller at MGM at Louis B. Mayer's invitation (which he apparently had forgotten by the time they made it to America since he left them stranded in New York) to do The Temptress.  Which did not pan out immediately, so they put her in Torrent instead.

It is no all-time classic, but it's remembered for her, and for good reason: if we cannot call it a "debut," we can call it the unveiling of the personality reshaped for MGM by Irving Thalberg which called herself Garbo, in truth a young woman of barely 20 who spoke virtually no English, arriving as a stranger in an estranging land, who had no temperament for fame, and does not seem to have ever entirely recovered from the initial trauma of her displacementyet was destined to become arguably the greatest star of all time.  She is, for example, the only Hollywood star I am aware of to have her face on currency because she was a Hollywood star.*

What Garbo offered is surprisingly fully-formed here: there is the no trivial matter of Garbo being perhaps the most beautiful woman in the world in 1926, and any attempt to frame Garbo's appeal should, realistically, begin with that; but of course the most beautiful woman in the world and the hundred millionth are in more-or-less the same league, so it shouldn't end there, either.  Hence we should at least ponder why this beauty, about which so many words have been writtenthe mysteriousness that borders on the ethereal, set against a certain sensation of integrity and fearsome intelligence, evoked by angular features that have an almost crystalline quality which, along with her seemingly-wise but jaded eyes, make her read as ageless (you could guess she was 20, but you would uncritically accept 30, and could plausibly be convinced she was nearing 40; the eyebrows probably help on this count, though she had one of the comparatively few faces of her era actually built to pull off her era's styles without it looking like a church-sanctioned punishment; in her case, it's not even an imposition).  Myself, I perceive it as the feeling that if I don't understand her, it's obviously my fault.  At this point I'm obliged to rely more on what I've heard and read (the part where I sound like a horny freak trying not to sound like a horny freak is my own, though it certainly echoes others).  But like most people in 2022, I cannot claim to have a comprehensive knowledge of the silent programmers Hollywood churned out in the 1920s; but I can see what they mean they say she was the New Vamp, artful and fearless, but retiring and humane, capable of just enough honestly-come-by hope to be heartbreaking.

She didn't achieve this presence without acting, and I like to think that's what really makes the difference, the way she used her looks to create characters that are, if we're being critical of the star system, extremely similar, but still distinct in their various ways.  I think she could in some respects be considered subtle even today, if not naturalistic (the paradoxical way to describe her would be "overtly subtle"), and while Garbo could throw silent cinema overacting fits with the best of them, her truest skill was the acting of small, ambiguous expressions, the use of her eyes and brow, best documented in close-upand better yet, in discontinuous close-ups that allow those small, ambiguous expressions to pop right out of the screen (for strict continuity editing did not yet have the stranglehold on narrative cinema that sound would later impose).  Which leads us right back to her being the most beautiful woman in the world, and the mad saboteur it would take to not insert as many close-ups of Garbo as possible into their film.  And all of thismaybe even including her own discontent, though one can make too much of thatmade her perfect for all the tragic roles she would take on, just one sad, doomed, dangerous woman after another, but, and this is important, who also tended to find her end on something akin to her own terms.

And while it's not her best movie or close to it (though nor is it her worst), Torrent sets the pace of her subsequent career; and if you were committed, I imagine you could force it into the shape of a whole premonitory autobiography.  So: in rural Spain, we have the Morenos, a tenant family numbering three, father Pedro (Edward Connelly), mother Pepa (Lucy Beaumont), and daughter Leonora (Garbo).  Leonora is possessed of a great ability to sing that we first see (and that we do not, needless to say, hear) in her duet with songbirds in a curiously Snow White-ish introduction, eleven years prior to that film's release.  Still, her talents languish in these surroundings, despite the best efforts of her vocal coachthat is, the town barberCupido (Lucien Littlefield).  But a big change arrives with the Morenos' landlady, the haughty and cruel widow Bernarda Brull (Martha Mattox).  She tosses the Morenos out onto the streetgraciously permitting Pepa to stay, as she can "scrub to earn her keep"and while she plainly isn't in need of the money, she grasps at it anyway, and this eviction has the added benefit of separating Leonora from Bernarda's son, Rafael (Ricardo Cortez), as it has not escaped her notice how much time they've been spending together.  She'd be aghast to know they've fallen in love, for she has bigger plans for her son than marrying some dusty peasant.

Pedro and Leonora thus depart with Cupido for Madrid, where they hope that Leonora's voice might provide their daily breada hell of a burden to place on your minor daughter, but it is, after all, the pastand, in time, Leonora's success is indeed confirmed, albeit without her father, who passes away in an intertitle.  (And hence "accidental autobiography": Garbo's father didn't die in an intertitle, but he did die in poverty, not surviving to see his daughter's success.)  This leaves just "La Brunna," star of stage and phonograph, and barely recognizable as the village girl she was.  She returns (after a delay that I don't believe we're supposed to notice) to redeem her mother from scullery servitude.  Rafael's now a local big-shot, but still in his mother's thrall.  She remembers only the disappointment, but her reappearance awakens Rafael's long-dormant passion, and in the midst of a great flood, he braves terrible danger to rescue the woman who'd loved him.  Thus the title.

Which is a cute blind: Torrent is no disaster movie, or even proto-disaster movie on the lines of Curtiz's 1928 Noah's Ark, and the torrent we get only brings us to the second act (or maybe third act, of four).  I want to praise it somewhat anyway: it still manages some decent destruction, layering the miniature shots of violent water and sundering structures with superimpositions of poor Rafael in his boat that are startlingly well-done, and, thanks to the "rain" and general murk of a nearly century-old print, are even faintly persuasive (or at least they are right up until the moment where we're asked to believe Rafael can row faster than a wave from a collapsing dam, which reminds you that even if Roland Emmerich can be a braindead idiot about this stuff, he's working within a long and august tradition).  But while there is some explicit winking in the intertitles at the idea of this being an overwrought metaphor for long-suppressed love, Rafael's desperate mission ends with the kind of undercutting anticlimax that kind of shocked me.  It's actually quite funny (the film is, as a rule, quite witty, though this depends on your appreciation for the often-corny irony of intertitle jokes: for reasons I'm sure I wouldn't be able to identity, the exchange "They say the tenor trained her for nothing"/"Tenors don't do anything for nothing" got a genuine laugh out of me).  But this winds up emphasizing that Rafael is a man of big, bombastic gesture but, sadly, rather little substance and even littler follow-through.  We won't quite figure that out for reels to come, since for the moment, even if his flailing heroism leaves him wet and useless and a figure of light ridicule, we're with Leonora, who can't help but be flung back to her girlhood when the only man in the world was wealthy, dashing Rafael.  This is shaded into Garbo's performance with a certain weary reluctance, a brittlenesseven a vague irritation that these feelings aren't put away with the other childish things.

The flood sequence is, however, the one sequence where you get the feeling somebody was really trying visually, and director Monta Bell, though in every sense competent, isn't doing much to imprint any noticeable style onto his picture outside of a stray shot, and even these are usually just close-ups of Garbo that feel stylized by default.  There are occasional beautiful images otherwise, but these are as much a result of MGM industrial practice and the realities of lenses in 1925 and 1926, particularly those splendid moments when Leonora and Rafael frolic amidst the Morenos' orange orchard, and the lenses turn the blossoms into an abstract backdrop resembling an exploding galaxy; it's churlish to call them "accidental" because surely they were calculated, but they didn't require much vision.  Instead, Bell almost seems to perceive his film's ultimate legacy in real-time, and either deliberately, or simply because if you put a camera in a room with Greta Garbo that's just what happens, the film comes to rest virtually its entire value upon Garbo's own native ability to command the screen.

If this is a shift in strategy, it happens basically all at once in that first time-skip that brings us to "La Brunna," and the contrast between the prancing, hopeful girl who was and the woman who is, the post-flapper pop idol with a gaze like a hungry statue.  (I shall say that Bell is struggling, hard, but somewhat successfully, against the basic and fundamental weakness of Torrent, which is that it is a silent film that uses "music" as one of its major structural elements.  This is pretty much invariably a mistake, but Bell does some clever things with itclever things that would come off better in a talkie, but cleverlike having Leonora pretend to be her own phonograph record to pull a small prank on Rafael.  On the other hand, if the role actually demanded a world-class singer they'd never have given it to Garbo, would they?)  In any case, Garbo gives us all we need to know about the life of high-class dissolution she lives, even without the intertitles' unmistakable intimation of expensive sex work.  The film generously refuses to judge her, at least not morally, though it is never in doubt that Leonora's profligacy is an advanced state (up to and including some editing around the intertitles describing her "affairs" that have Garbo leering at a line of dancing girls, this too prefiguring things for her own life).  It is, instead, content to capture a certain state of profound dissatisfaction and emptiness.  Though when it turns its eye toward quiet, warm domesticity, it only finds something comfortable, not satisfactory.

The film's most obvious narrative strength, then, is also its big problem: it's thoroughly watchable at all times, but it's relying to a reckless degree on an endingan epilogue, reallythat is tasked with doing all the thematic and dramatic lifting of the piece, finally imposing a shape upon what has always been an unfocused and repetitive romantic arc.  I've spoken much of Garbo's work here being good, though she only fully comes into her own late into the film, when Leonora, stung by a further betrayal, chooses to laugh instead of cry.  And in the final ten minutes which this inaugurates, Torrent snaps entirely into place, not as tragedy (or, if so, then as everyday a tragedy as it is possible to imagine, the tragedy of youth lost to middle age and humdrum existence), but profoundly poignant anyway, bittersweet, and mostly bitter at that, and legitimately adult, elevated by a melodramatic rendering of life marching on anyway after life's chance has passed.

Score: 7/10

*She shares the "movie actor on a bank note" distinction with Grace Kelly, but besides the franc no longer being the Monégasque currency anyway, as the mother of their head of state, Kelly doesn't count.

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