Directed by Jacques Feyder
Written by Hanns Kraly and Marian Ainslee (based on the short story by George Saville)
"What is the last silent film?" is a question that seems like it might be hard to answer, but of course it has a definitive reply that we could arrive at with enough diligence, and it really does appear to be Blancanieves, released in Spain in 2012, and given distribution in the USA in 2013. That could be the wrong answer. But even if it's right, it's a really boring, literalist answer, which just means we framed the question poorly, and should try again, "What is the last silent film of the silent era?", and I'm not sure that it does have a definitive answer (I mean, hey, I looked it up in a search engine). But it actually might not, for it depends on what you mean when you say "silent era," and sort of depends on what you mean when you say "silent film." It could be 1930's City Girl, then, directed by F.W. Murnau for Fox—and taken away from him to be redone as a part-talkie, though it survives only in its original silent version. Does that count? Alternatively, it could be 1931's Tabu, directed by F.W. Murnau (Murnau didn't like sound), and self-funded by the man himself—and therefore, outside of the studio system that had the power to determine when the silent era came to a close. (I mean, there's plenty of independently-produced vintage pornos that don't have sound. Shall we now ponder the question, "what is a film"? Let's not!) Yet if you were very strict about some things and not so strict about others, you could push the silent era all the way out to 1936, when Charles Chaplin released Modern Times, which followed up on Chaplin's 1931 City Lights, both of which were produced through United Artists, a little major but still a major—and both of which nonetheless had synch sound effects, and both of which amounted to active resistance against the stranglehold that sound had already exacted upon cinema. Or, hell, you could remind me that "cinema" isn't actually synonymous with "American cinema," point to Japan, still churning out silents well into their own sound era, and have a nice laugh at my parochialism.
I don't intend to be definitive here, but maybe the answer is 1929's The Kiss: it was released in the close of 1929 in the final days of November by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the continuation but also the deliberate conclusion of their august tenure in silent filmmaking, and the last silent film of perhaps the greatest silent film star, Greta Garbo. Here she was tasked with making (I almost wrote "allowed to make," which might be more accurate) one more silent for her studio, before her studio finally transitioned her to sound, which happened mere months later in Anna Christie. The meticulousness with which this closed out MGM's participation in the silent form is part of what seals it for me, personally, as the end of the era.
If that sounds good to you, then that's swell, and know that The Kiss is a worthy send-off, or maybe "worthy enough," though by my lights it's significantly above-average (maybe "especially for silent movies," as the form produced many time-defying masterpieces but its primary failure mode is a barely-watchable semi-cinematic slog, and anyone who doesn't acknowledge this is a propagandist and a nerd). It accomplishes this despite having what I'm regretful to say is a pretty deficient scenario, possibly the result of a bizarrely truncated runtime that suggests an abbreviated and perhaps slightly-slapdash production; it's the kind of movie, anyway, where the opening credits spells one of its main characters' names wrong. ("Ardré?" I asked, befuddled.) The Kiss pops into and out of existence in just 62 minutes (some sources say 65), and this is "good," in the sense that it's incapable of being boring or, really, doing anything besides just blasting through its thriller plot. But it is also "bad," in the sense that it's nothing except plot, and barely seems to even have all its plot, and that swiftness means it's more-or-less constitutionally prohibited from achieving its weepiest Garbo Movie aims, let alone elaborating upon some of the conflicts its plot produces in any especially complex or satisfying ways.
It almost achieves those Garbo Movie aims, though—I'm honestly not sure I'm just being too rhetorically efficient when I imply that the gestures it makes at them are not enough—and it's surely satisfying in enough other respects that I'm very happy calling it a minor classic. But as for that plot, let's dig in: in the Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon, we find two adulterers (told you it had Garbo Movie cred), Irene Guarry (Garbo), an unhappily married woman, and her paramour, André—André (Conrad Nagel)—a lawyer. André asks that she get her husband to grant her a divorce; Irene counters that this is impossible, and asks that he run away with her instead; André claims that sure, that would be easy for him (except for the part, we infer, where he'd probably lose his career), but she could never survive such unconventionality. Irene breaks up with him, which is not made entirely plain until a later scene, though at least it's emphasized, emotionally, by Garbo stalking out of the museum in despair. They will meet again, at a party that both she and her older, business-oriented, dyspeptic, and all-round unappealing husband Charles (Anders Randolf) are attending; however, by this time Irene has picked up a new admirer, indeed too-new for some tastes, though she doesn't seem to completely despise him hanging around.
This is young Pierre (Lew Ayres in his first major role, whom many observers find scintillating here, though I find him twerpish—which is more appropriate for this movie, anyway), and Pierre has glommed onto the older Irene with a schoolboy crush that he insists, repeatedly, is no schoolboy crush. (He's right; it's more of a fratboy crush.) She's more indulgent of this than she should be: he's eighteen, so this isn't a moral scolding, but without ever actually reciprocating his affections, she doesn't quite discourage them, either. She agrees to give him a photo out of her big box of Greta Garbo headshots that he can take with him (and probably jerk off to) at college; and, finally, at this point perhaps just to get him out of her damn house, she agrees to his request for a goodbye kiss, at which point Pierre takes liberties, and goes for another kiss. Charles drives up in time to see this, and attempts to kill the boy. Pierre, unwisely, flees into Charles's office through its only door, and Irene follows to try to stop the violence; the door closes in our face; the only sound effect that ever appears on the synch score track, a gunshot, rings out. We don't know exactly what happened, though Pierre drags himself home, covered in blood; we only know that Irene lies her ass off to the cops, and they don't believe her. Arrested, André sweeps back into her life, as the only attorney who can save her from the guillotine.
That's a little overdetailed, maybe, but you can see how it would have to be just crammed into 62 minutes, though it possibly doesn't get it across how much is crammed into the last thirty minutes, since the first half hour of the movie—and I barely stepped past the halfway point in my summary—is, despite some elisions of detail, by-and-large merely quickly-paced. The back half is where the story does suffer the most: it really has no time at all to delve into Irene and André's romance, reestablished under these trying circumstances; and while it is part of the "plot" in that the script does sort of inarticulately point at it, it barely explores how (or even why) Irene has subverted her lover's function as an honest officer of the court, at first refusing his advocacy and by the end of the same (short) scene accepting it. Interestingly—this is interesting, solely, to me—under standard American rules of professional conduct, I'm not sure André ever actually does anything wrong. ("Can you fuck a client?" Well, why the hell do you think the exam brought it up? The rule is, more-or-less, "you can, if you have been.") Of course, we know what we know, and even just on the basis of what he knows, his participation is something of a perverse mockery of justice, which is of course part of the fun (the film ends on one preciously acerbic beat), but what this means for the film itself is that we wind up leaning a whole lot more in this back half on a sense of dramatic irony, rather than any meatier sense of dramatic conflict. And given that André knows damn well Irene has a motive to kill her husband, it's a little weird that no doubt ever crosses his mind—which is presumably the romance of this romance. But even this isn't insisted on too much, outside of courtroom performance. Meanwhile, if you squint, the thread with Pierre works, mechanically, in concert with the film's misdirections, but I'm not sure it's that artful about it (for better or worse, it leaves "perfect murder" on the table); and I believe I'd have preferred Pierre's characterization to have been more innocent and childlike, though, as this is 1929, I reckon they thought that's what they did.
The good news, at least, is that for an Old Hollywood courtroom ending, the bane of all old movie lovers' existences, this thing is practically a God damned masterpiece—fast, bold, to the point, and, for what it's worth, the very best shot of the film, as far as William Daniels's photography goes, is a beautifully-lit silhouette of Nagel's face lowered toward his arms, deep shadows wiping out whatever expression he's making, but intimating, without surrendering the mystery of the moment, a sense of downright infinite devastation. In keeping with the unique tradition of The Mysterious Lady, and I don't imagine that Nagel personally had anything to do with it, but in both his outings with Garbo, Garbo actually got a happy ending. Indeed, with basically no real exception—unless you count Wild Orchids, which I suppose one might, and unless you count the alternate/only extant ending to Love, which one ought not—the only Garbo silents with happy endings are the ones with Nagel, and I like how his are the outliers in a cycle that's fairly damn repetitive about its genre otherwise. But this is a little ironic itself, insofar as Garbo had lobbied hard for Nils Asther for her screen lover here, for no reason that's particularly obvious in their screen chemistry in Wild Orchids or The Single Standard. (It might have been as stupidly simple as his ability to converse in Swedish.) I'm glad she got shut down: Nagel, I've said before, and this confirms it, is about the next best thing Garbo ever had to another Gilbert, and as they're not permitted a lot of space to generate heat here, she needed someone who could bring it fast.
What that leaves us with, even so, is a pretty good yarn, and that's what director Jacques Feyder seizes upon. Garbo is strong on her merits—her big, visible "hooooo, boy" sigh when Pierre starts pestering her on a tennis court is gold-standard silent acting; and the way you can see how she's considering toying even more with his emotions, and trying to resist the temptation but realizing she's enjoying teasing him without even trying, is great—but her best stuff here is simply as a reactive chesspiece getting moved around the board by Feyder. Sometimes this is almost literal. The way Feyder puts it together is, far beyond any other aspect of it, the reason I hold it in any particular regard; and, oddly, I can't really see where Feyder got it from. MGM had recently recruited him from France, this being his very first American gig. I cannot profess to any expertise in his prolific, more-than-a-decade-long continental career, but the one French film of his I've seen, 1926's Gribiche, is a godawful turgid message movie about class issues and the efficacy of charity (though, fairly enough, its neatest trick does prefigure his single boldest move here), and between that and this, I'll continue to generously assume that The Kiss is more representative. Just going by his list, it seems like there's a huge amount of variation in that filmography; yet it isn't very accessible, nor, if I'm being honest, is it all that enticing, since as a French silent era director Feyder's French films are naturally going to be too long, just as his first American one is too short. But the point is, while I haven't done half the work I'd need to do to responsibly make the claim, it's hard to identify a specific precursor to The Kiss. The closest in subject matter might be 1928's sadly-lost Thérèse Raquin, but I find it very hard to believe that Feyder's adaptation of that extremely-heavy Émile Zola novel about adultery and death could have ever been this playful. So you see why some days I wonder if MGM just made everybody better. Not just Europeans, either!
Anyway, the evolutions in camera technology hadn't skipped Feyder by, and this is a busily mobile film, starting off with a quick pan and never really settling down. There's a little bit of a sense, occasionally, that the camera movement isn't strictly tied down to storytelling, and that when he breaks out a dolly shot what it indicates, particularly, is that Greta Garbo is walking now (there is definitely one shot that is exactly this and no more), but there's at least as much that's disciplined and tight, starting with that first dolly of Garbo walking tearfully out on her lover (I didn't mention it, because that movie sucks, but as of The Single Standard Garbo had learned how to cry on command). And throughout this first act—let's say the movie basically has two acts, I doubt it could have more—there's a keen and pointed sense in the editing and camerawork of who's looking at whom, and, just as importantly, how. The trial scenes, meanwhile, are punched up to almost camp levels with blast-ins on practically everybody who gets an intertitle, but especially André, who's Phoenix Wrighting all over the place; and I like this, as I also like the black spooky nun outfit Adrian Greenburg's draped over Garbo, which underlines her widowed propriety but is too severe and scary to underline innocence. The one thing I actively dislike is William Axt's score, which is fine in the thriller scenes but for the romantic bits appropriates the swoony part of Chaykovsky's Romeo and Juliet to the point of obnoxiousness; I don't know if this musical quotation even was a cliché when The Kiss was made, but by the end of its very first screening, it would've been.
But the big thing is right in the middle, and just three minutes' worth of innovation is probably worth two whole points of what I'm going to wind up giving this thing for its score. We already know Irene is lying (the question is why), and, interrogated by the police about her husband's death, Irene repeats the story she's concocted, checking it against reasonability (and culpability), and Feyder takes us through this story as she mentally edits it to be as plausible as possible. I wish this were, like, the whole movie, but even in just three minutes of "flashback" Feyder comes up with a whole host of different strategies to convey the manufactured nature of Irene's story, starting with the house itself, that we've already come to perceive as a geometrically-aggressive, quasi-Expressionist Deco palace thanks to Daniels's cinematography and Cedric Gibbons's art direction, now made even stranger by the isometric, author's-eye-view of the scene of the crime. It suddenly feels like a movie set, and "Past" Irene moves stiffly, Garbo made a puppet, obeying her own "Future" commands. Asked the time, there's a bit with a clock; asked about the door, "Past" Irene hesitates before deciding, yes, the door was closed; and so on. It's obviously not something you've never seen before here in 2023, though it would be done uncommonly well even for 2023; I will not assert this is the very first time a criminal suspect walked the cops through their lies and their film has followed their process—but if you can name a predecessor, I'd be obliged. Feyder had already played with "this flashback is hugely embellished" in Gribiche (it's practically the one legitimately entertaining thing in that movie), but this is on a whole new level of joyful experimentation. I've never felt as electrified, anyway, by the prospect of windows getting closed to the same extent as the windows getting closed here. And all along, it keeps cutting back to Garbo, getting more gnashingly frantic about whether her story adds up, and she's superb.
It is, at least, in Garbo Movie terms, about as far afield as they get, and the novelty of The Kiss is a nice way to close this chapter of her career. It's no masterwork, either of its behind-the-camera talent or of Garbo as an actor, but after two worst Garbo movies in a row from earlier in 1929, and being well aware that I don't like Anna Christie very much either and will probably like it less the second time around, it's a relief to find an oasis here with The Kiss. And if it is, properly speaking, "the last silent movie," that centerpiece is a reminder of what wonders the form can accomplish. It's always nice to finish strong.