Directed by John S. Robertson
Written by Josephine Lovett and Marian Ainslee (based on the novel by Adela Rogers St. John)
The phrase hadn't been coined yet, but when people these days call Old Hollywood—and MGM in particular, being Old Hollywood's most important studio—the "dream factory," repurposing an ironic dig, the emphasis is usually on the "dream," and not so much as originally would have been placed on the "factory," no doubt because when the "factory" part becomes too obvious it stops being much of a dream. And so do we find Greta Garbo's middle film of 1929, The Single Standard, one of the last MGM silents and squandering the last hours of the form, a polished turd born of what seems like an industrial accident. It's based on the 1928 novel of the same name by journalist, novelist, and screenwriter Adela Rogers St. Johns, and maybe it is actually faithful, but there sure isn't anything about it that suggests it was based on anything except other Greta Garbo movies. This isn't, if I'm being honest, something new in her filmography; stardom and typecasting go hand-in-hand and basically everything for Garbo in this period is more or less of a remake of Flesh and the Devil, at least with the salutary exception of The Mysterious Lady, Garbo's other silent masterpiece, which you can still very readily compare to Flesh and the Devil. And Flesh and the Devil is arguably just the good version of The Temptress anyway. And that is, I mean it, okay. But The Single Standard is the failure mode of this process, where you don't merely notice the similarities and nod knowingly while investing yourself in another erotic, tragic melodrama, but instead those similarities bodily wrench you out of it while it's happening. In a word, it's lazy, a mechanical application of the beats of the Garbo Movie genre to a new or "new" scenario without even really giving a shit how they're fitting together or even if they're doing their job. It's the kind of movie where I'm writing about it only two days later and I've genuinely almost forgotten what happened in it. It's the kind of movie where if I accidentally typed its director's name as "Robert S. Johnson," I don't think you'd be able to say it was my fault.
I'm pretty sure it goes like this: Arden Stewart (Garbo) is a young lady of privilege, catting around and seeing nothing whatsoever wrong with that—the film overtly compares her to a flock of married men (hey, it's Joel McCrea!) she sees from a balcony, arriving at the same dull party that she's attending after they've been out on their dates with their showgirls, or their actual prostitutes, or whatever they are; and this will be, by my count, literally the very last time that the title, The Single Standard, which I assume must have had some importance to St. Johns, impinges in any way upon the plot, characterizations, or themes of this film. In any event, prompted by the bland courtship gestures of the bland Tommy Hewlett (Johnny Mack Brown), Arden sneaks off to go look at the moon with her chauffeur instead. This poor and apparently uncredited fellow receives not only the film's richest and most romantic visuals, courtesy of Oliver Marsh's cinematography (pinch-hitting for Garbo's regular, William Daniels); he also gets one startlingly rich backstory—a disillusioned WWI flier, secretly the heir to a noble estate—considering that he commits suicide right here in the first ten minutes of the picture. This is the result of Arden's brother Ding (Lane Chandler) taking issue with their rendezvous; I'm not exactly sure why he drives their car off a bridge, however. I would have cause to doubt anyone was thinking in terms of "false protagonists," but we can probably just call it lousy adaptation by scenarist Josephine Lovett (I'm aware of having seen one other Lovett-devised film, Crawford's Our Dancing Daughters, which is also terrible but also a useful way to indicate that when I refer to "Garbo Movie" as a genre I'm being glib, because I'm well aware that Garbo or not they're all at least kind of like this). Well, however it got here, in this telling it comes off more inscrutable than it does shocking.
After some months of grieving, Arden steals off into the night, just to walk around the town; she finds an art gallery showing the work of one Packy Cannon (Nils Asther), a former prizefighter turned painter—so another rich backstory that is left largely to languish once the screenplay is done having him impress Arden by walloping a friend in an amicable boxing match in the gallery after-hours, insofar as otherwise he could've just been some guy who happens to own a boat, and the movie would proceed more-or-less the same way. I should stop making rude asides: Packy impresses Arden even more with his thoughts on the philosophy of love, which he describes in high-flying terms of "equality and perfect freedom," and it's not a rude aside to remark that this has nothing to do with what happens afterwards, except maybe if you squint very, very, very hard, and if you're ready to accept that threatening suicide to a straying lover is meaningfully liberating, and if you're ready to accept this as our heroine's evaluation of events. They go on a scandalous trip to the South Seas, and halfway there he turns around to dump her back in America. Dejected, she goes ahead and marries Tommy, with a visible lack of enthusiasm. Years pass; they have a child; and Packy returns, and his hooks are indeed still in Arden.
So you see what I mean by it just being a frankenstein made out of Garbo Movie parts: the nasty brother as vestigial patriarch, and he's much more vestigial here, is from A Woman of Affairs (he's married to an even more vestigial Dorothy Sebastian), as is Johnny Mack Brown playing the last-resort simp husband; the attachment to a child is from her Anna Karenina adaptation Love, and Garbo's even plagiarizing her own kissy-kiss mode of motherly affection from that film; the smoldering love affair that survives her lover's world tour and her despair marriage is pure Flesh and the Devil, and they already did that again in A Woman of Affairs. The newest part is that instead of crescendoing, the film concludes with a conservative turn that would be extremely dissatisfying if Packy's hold over Arden were at all keenly felt; and this still isn't actually new, as it's really just the ending of her last film, Wild Orchids, which isn't good either but still somehow managed to make Garbo ending up with Lewis Stone more appealing than the handsome but intensely-boring Brown.
It might have worked better had it not been jammed together so senselessly: in most melodramas like this, the separation of the passionate lovers is accomplished by some device, which may be contrived, or may not (Flesh and the Devil, to its credit and because I never tire of talking about how good that movie is, has its separation flow with flawless consequentiality from its own passionate lovers' illicit affair), and rather less often do melodrams use pique. This one uses pique: the idea, and one "gets" it, because it's a tropish idea, is that Packy will-not-be-trapped-by-his-burgeoning-love and all that, but you aren't really invited to feel any of that, so just plopping Arden back on shore feels exactly like what it is, an utterly robotic hand moving the elements of that formula plot forward. It's where a movie that's been doing reasonably well in a middling way (it's had good scenes before this, like the weird comic bit where Arden gets pestered by an old man on the street during her walk in the rain, and the way Garbo escapes by surrendering her umbrella like a lizard decoying a predator with its tail got a laugh out of me) begins to collapse. Since semi-memorable details rise out of the haze, perhaps it's worth mentioning Packy's brusque command to Arden to "get [him] a glass of water," which is a bizarre patriarchal flex for a character whose crucial flaws don't really include being domineering, and in fact seem to be the precise opposite, and so it's just one more thing reflecting the carelessness of the writing.
The ending, meanwhile, is simply insane. I mean, I guess this is new: Tommy's violent tete-a-tete with Packy, where he orders him at gunpoint to abandon Arden again, but only temporarily, so Tommy can arrange his own suicide and therefore spare his child the scandal of an affair—"I'm going to render my son fatherless, for his sake!"—and, like, I'm sure there's some way that you could bring this out of these characters' psychologies, and maybe St. Johns's novel does. (I can't find a synopsis of that novel, but my abiding suspicion is that all the men died, justifying the chaffeur's suicide as foreshadowing and maybe even poking at the theme blaring at us from her novel's title.) But once again, it's done here in ways that feel like just trying to reach the finish line by people who didn't actually much care.
And yet I'd even call Garbo "good" here, even if she's practically being asked to sleepwalk, and there are some bits here and there that do stick out: even though the movie's turned from "fine" to "bad," the forced smiles of her goodbye to Packy are a rather outstanding use of her eyes and mouth to convey two separate emotions. Beyond that, in the first phase of the film, before Arden's even met Packy, and even for a while thereafter, I was impressed with Garbo pursuing what seemed like a new character, and how refreshing it felt, for a little while, that the actor who usually served as an embodiment of tragedy and depression and sexual threat was now essentially just "doing a normal," which is to say playing an ordinary young woman. Whose, ah, previous lover killed himself—but as noted, that's not really germane. Asther, on the other hand, has a bit of a mess on his hands: turning from indifference to obsession with not the least gradient to work with, it would be hard to take his character especially seriously even his name weren't "Packy," and while I do like his and Garbo's languid South Seas diversion well enough, I honestly feel like he does better with the featured extras, displaying more appeal and personality with his male camaraderie than he does as Garbo's screen lover, which still strikes me as odd because he's so pretty it seems like he and Garbo should just fall towards one another naturally. (Now, he's vastly better here than as Garbo's crypto-rapist in Wild Orchids, to be sure.) Brown, for his part, is given deeper feelings than I've seen in any of his other roles, but I earnestly think he's more interesting in that one dolly shot of meekly walking through a room to open the door to his fate in A Woman of Affairs than he is in this whole movie.
So it's not being saved by its acting, anyway; nor is it any sort of stylistic achievement. It is so humdrum I can barely recall any particular shot besides the ones in the "studio moonlight" scene with the chaffeur, and I guess the final image, which is presented as much happier than it has any God-given right to be. I actually could not recall any of Garbo's Adrian Greenburg outfits, not even this one: