Directed by Edmund Goulding
Written by Lorna Moon, Frances Marion, Marian Ainslee, and Ruth Cummings (based on the novel Anna Karenina by Lev Tolstoy)
Spoilers: saying there could be something to meaningfully spoil about this adaptation of Anna Karenina is a spoiler in itself, ain't it?
In the December of 1926 and the months afterward, Flesh and the Devil had proven an immense and epochal success, and in hindsight it wouldn't be too much, just because it might be my own single favorite film of the silent era, to call it one of the most important, too. It had, in a stroke, re-confirmed John Gilbert as the idol of millions, and effectively created Greta Garbo as the idol of millions more, and without the amorous and artistic attentions that the former had offered the latter during its production, there is scarcely an imaginable timeline where Garbo did not leave America and return to Sweden, thereby depriving Hollywood of the woman who was pretty much already its single biggest star and transforming the landscape of American movies into something that would still probably be broadly recognizable to us here in 2022, though you'd realize there was something subtly off about your universe that you couldn't quite articulate when you sat down to watch Joan Crawford's Queen Christina—even so, the truth of the matter is that there is every possibility that Garbo and Gilbert alike might've been happier to have lived in that world instead. It had, likewise, represented the great leap in director Clarence Brown's career from a dime-a-dozen melodrammer peddler to the best filmmaker not enough people talk about.
The story goes that MGM raced to capitalize upon that success, and upon the highly-publicized romance between its stars—so which one's flesh and which one's the devil?—and hence the much-celebrated marketing hook that's effectively their follow-up film's full title, John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Love. It probably didn't matter that much what the film's actual story was in this regard, so long as it paid off on the promise of its poster—I have no particular conclusion to draw from the observation, but the picture was the effort of four credited writers and while it's not at all unusual that the scenario/intertitle team would be entirely female in 1927, four for four is at least worth pointing out—and in many respects Love is Flesh and the Devil if you removed almost everything but the protagonists' affair, and, also, if you lit it extremely brightly so there's barely a second of the movie where you're in danger of not seeing 100% of Garbo and Gilbert's faces. It is technically an adaptation of Anna Karenina, so maybe the formulaic similarities are accidental, though in this regard it is a ruthlessly pared down version of Anna Karenina, one that cares about nothing, nothing, but the essential elements of Anna, her lover, her husband, and her son, and even the latter two exist solely to provide the former's trysts the erotic charge of adulterous taboo, and to set the challenge that—not to get too ahead of ourselves—Gilbert and Garbo meet trivially, like they're not aware it's supposed to be a challenge, which is to project a passion so overriding and all-consuming you hardly question whether they're worth abandoning a child, destroying a reputation, or throwing yourself under a train for.
So far as Garbo and Gilbert go, however, I'm not actually so sure the timeline works out: the most oft-repeated tale indicates the collapse of their relationship began before Flesh and the Devil even came out, when Garbo jilted him at the altar. Announced amongst their community as a double-marriage, between Gilbert and Garbo on the one hand, and colleagues King Vidor and Eleanor Boardman on the other, Garbo never showed up; if this happened, it happened in late 1926, since Vidor and Boardman shrugged and did get married. Even more nebulous than that is what happened after—the immediate aftermath, so this tale goes, was that MGM chief Louis B. Mayer found a weeping Gilbert, mocked him, and insulted Garbo, leading to fisticuffs leading to Mayer's lifelong (for Gilbert) campaign of revenge enacted by way of a slow destruction of Gilbert's career and the ongoing humiliation of a man who was probably going to spend the rest of his not-so-many remaining days humiliated anyway—though there's indication Gilbert and Garbo's relationship did not, for this, come to an abrupt end. But then, there's precious little about Garbo and Gilbert's tumultuous affair that we can be sure of from the distance of nearly a hundred years, except what we see on screen. This is not dispositive: Gilbert and Garbo were both great actors, and moreover Garbo obviously never forgot Gilbert's kindness or ardor or the fondness she had for him, so that years later, their romance definitively over, they could still star alongside one another (in Queen Christina, as it happens), and project their connection to one another to rapt and ecstatic audiences; great actor or not, Garbo could have problems pretending to be in love with, or loved by, some of her other leading men. But she never had that problem with him. And whatever else, what we see on the screen in Love—their scenes together, it's said, directed by Gilbert himself, this being Garbo's own preference—never feels like anything less than the most uncommon of chemistry, between a man and a woman who can touch each other a century ago and send a shiver down your spine today.
So, Anna Karenina, or rather what parts the scenarists cared about for their greater cause of putting Garbo and Gilbert together in another hit (and, for the record, Love was an even bigger hit than Flesh and the Devil). We begin in a heavy blizzard on the road to Sankt Peterberg, where two travelers meet. One is the soldier, Count Alexei Vronsky (Gilbert). The other is a woman in a veil (Garbo), the better to shock us and Alexei with her beauty once they arrive at a wayside inn. Alexei, enough of a womanizer that people at this inn assume this woman already is his paramour, makes a move, much to her initial displeasure, though you can tell his importunity was not without its fascination to her. They meet again, Alexei shocked to discover her identity as Anna, the wife of Senator Karenin (Brandon Hurst). For her part, she's reminded how inutterably bored she is with her marriage to the bloodless, passionless aristocrat; yet in respect to her marriage and out of her love for her son Serezha (Philippe De Lacy), she resolves to never see Alexei again, a resolution her husband scoffs out loud at, since he's too unimaginative to reckon on infidelity, and in a real sense doesn't actually care whom his wife fucks so long as she causes no scandal. Their affair begins in earnest at a country dacha; lost in each other, they are indiscreet to an extreme degree. The scandal follows naturally. Anna is thrown out, deprived of her child, left only with Alexei, and even Alexei's status is threatened by the senator's irritation when Anna attempts to re-insert herself into her son's life—his father has told him she died—and unwilling to countenance Alexei's destruction as well as her own, she avails herself of her only option.
Or maybe not! But let's circle back to that, though it is by some margin the film's only real problem (and arguably it's not "the film's" problem, at least not all versions of it). As an Anna Karenina, it necessarily sits firmly in the shadow of Clarence Brown's 1935 Anna Karenina, and maybe it wouldn't have been totally eclipsed by its successor if not for the fact that this film's Anna Karenina and that film's Anna Karenina are both Greta Garbo, and that that film is a talkie, and this film is a silent. Moreover (so circling back quicker than I thought), this film, in its extant form, fucks up Anna Karenina really, really badly even on the only terms that either of them really wish to met at, as tragic melodramas. It reportedly fucks up Anna Karenina on every other level, too—I'm not necessarily proud of being a philistine, but I have no intention of pretending I comprehend a book I've never read—but that really isn't important for its goals, anyway.
As Brown's second-biggest living fan (the only one I'm sure must be bigger is his biographer, Gwenda Young), I hope it carries some weight when I tell you this is better, and it's not even really very close. Brown's Anna Karenina is in every respect better-made, sure—the iconic arrival of Garbo in that movie via a blast of white steam at a train station, echoed in her, ahem, exit, would probably seal that in the absence of anything else—and if Love's director, Edmund Goulding, or its Garbo grip, Gilbert, ever had much of the stylist about them (and, I mean, yes, I've seen Goulding's Grand Hotel), there is nothing in this movie to indicate it.
There is some crisply effective visual storytelling here and there: Anna's son's nightlight blowing out from a gust from a door that Alexei has opened (a powerful enough piece of foreshadowing that I'm surprised Brown didn't steal it); Anna brings her son a train set to play with (which I happily concede is some pretty mighty prefiguration in itself, though coming halfway through it doesn't inflict nearly the same sense of inevitability upon the film); I am modestly impressed by a shot in which Karenin has found Anna in Alexei's bedchamber, with Gilbert blocked to the side against a pair of mounted sabers on the wall, dominating the shot, which, in a single image, is both a meta callback to Flesh and the Devil and a sour explication of the very different cuckold of this film, who huffs at the prospect of dueling for a woman he very obviously hasn't had sex with, or wanted to have sex with, since they conceived a child half a decade ago. But maybe it sums it up (it helps if you've seen Brown's Anna Karenina) to say there's no particular beauty in the rendering of Serezha's nightlight here. It's in all respects a clean work of silent craftsmanship, but despite being shot by Garbo's trusty cinematographer William Daniels—another link to the '35 film, and who had made Gilbert and Garbo's love mythic in Flesh and the Devil—the visual strategy tops out at "shine lights on 'em under a filter until they glow like they're radioactive." And that's not really a strategy in that it never varies according to mood, or conveys narrative information beyond "Garbo and Gilbert are pretty."
But that is all it needs, and Goulding and Gilbert know it, privileging the stars in long takes and close-ups and two-shots that are basically close-ups because their faces are mashed together, and I'd barely be exaggerating to call it as exciting as pornography. There are maybe other things I prefer about Love: Garbo's just more immediate here in her portrayal than in '35, less notably but no less especially with De Lacy, performing basically the same exact physical actions she would later with a new kid actor, but in the more animated way that silent cinema asks for, so that Anna truly showers Serezha with kisses and affection; I frankly prefer the streamlining of Anna's world down to no more than four actual human beings, if that many, and the amorphous blob of a hatefully polite society beyond them; in a special case of "who cares about these other people?", Basil Rathbone undeniably invests Karenin with a far greater richness in the '35 film (he's given more opportunity), but I'm not sure that matters much, and as his and Hurst's differing flavors of gray cruelty are basically a push, perhaps I prefer the flatter conception of Hurst's Karenin here, given the character is effectively an absence of emotion. (In fact, Hurst could probably go further, in that he sometimes does still appear angry.)
But at the risk of belaboring the point, it's Gilbert: the '35 film paired Garbo with Fredric March, who didn't want to be there in the first place. In particular, March could barely stand being in the same room as Greta Garbo, and his performance is accordingly austere and, frankly, bad; John Gilbert could barely keep his pants on in the same room as Greta Garbo, and it's magic. And more than magic: there's a resonance to this story in particular that prefigures Gilbert's own tragedy, both the Alexei and the Anna of his and Garbo's real life, dead in nine years of a much more protracted form of suicide, and maybe that shouldn't matter, but in hindsight it fills this film with something that's sometimes a little hard to bear, albeit in a beautiful way, freezing he and Garbo in (at least what looks like) a happier time. Love whitewashes Alexei a bit—or maybe it's that when Alexei reveals the ugly side of his hunger, Gilbert knows it, and feels shame on Alexei's behalf—but this seems precisely correct for the story this wants to be.
But then who's to say what this story wants to be? I kind of don't want to spoil it, though I'm unavoidably pointing in the direction of what happens because only two things could happen, if clearly only one thing should happen. It presents as a conundrum, relating to film preservation and at least poking at movies as slapped-together constructs—"what is a film, anyway?", that kind of shit—but while Hollywood is legendary for smoothing down rough edges, I've never seen a change so maniacally committed to that ethos yet also so casually tossed right the fuck off, already the parody of itself. Love, anyway, was not made with just one ending. It was made with the preferred and proper ending, and this was shipped out to Europe and screened on the coasts. It was also made with a condescending "Midwestern ending" to be shown to, as far as I can tell, actual cows and sheep. If not for its utter laziness, I almost wonder if it would work—whatever else, it shocked me—but it is real Goddamn lazy, a button on the end of a tragic romance that excises Anna's suicide, kills Karenin offscreen, and delivers Alexei directly to the merry widow's door. But no, it was never going to work. The problem: today, the Midwestern ending is what we're stuck with. (The presentation is compromised in other ways, too: the score on the Warner Archive disc was recorded live before an audience, and they are awful, laughing at everything except the five or so jokes that are in this movie, finding kissing and foretellings of doom more amusing.) And I have no idea how to score a film like this, that is in large part a near-masterpiece of overenunciated silent erotica powered in large part by foreordained tragedy, when I know now that all it does in the end is fart in my face.