Directed by Clarence Brown
Written by Edwin Justus Mayer and Bess Meredyth (based on the play by Edward Sheldon)
Romance is not a masterpiece, and fundamentally it's just one of the less-often revisited waystations one finds in the intertwined filmographies of director Clarence Brown and star Greta Garbo; fundamentally, it only continues one of the many phases of Brown's career, as Garbo's babysitter, and the second phase of Garbo's, confirming her as one of the silent film greats who would outlast the silent era, having been gifted with the singular opportunity of transitioning, in her own time, to sound. But, at least for the period 1930-1931, what this meant for Garbo is what the period 1926-1929 had meant for Garbo: remaking her big hit over and over. In that case, that meant remaking Flesh and the Devil; in this case, the hit was Garbo's talkie debut, Anna Christie, currently six months old. Its success had been correctly anticipated, but in 1930 six months would've been long enough to have made a whole movie regardless, even this one, a total imbroglio that had to be taken in hand by MGM production chief Irving Thalberg, taken apart, and re-shot, before finally being released in August.
Nevertheless, I'm impressed by it, partly because of the low expectations set by its bottom-tier reputation amongst Garbos; Brown, unfortunately, isn't really discussed frequently enough for him to have a "bottom" or "top" tier, at least not outside of my own personal evaluation, and as I am a bitter, resentful crank, of course it's conceivable that the freedom of not needing to deal with any stultifying "consensus" is one of the minor reasons why I gravitate to him—but let's say it's well above Brown's own middle-tier, too.
It is, from either angle, pretty underrated: for starters, it's a 1930 movie that you wouldn't necessarily peg to that specific year. And so it represents the very first time Brown would show any aptitude whatsoever with sound filmmaking, and if he's still leaning upon medium shots (and straight-up master shots) more than he had in the silent era, it's honestly no more than any given director might be doing in 1930, or a lesser director might still be doing in 1935; and there's a great deal more confidence in the blocking and the editing, so that those medium shots and master shots now feel like the natural choices Brown would make to cleanly present his story, frequently peppered with close-ups and more interesting angles, rather than only the default settings imposed on him by hesitancy with the technology. And as for that technology itself, this one doesn't sound like it's been recorded through a can on the end of a string—I have a tendency to watch movies at home with subtitles, and both of the times I've watched Romance I have, but I don't think I'd have absolutely needed to—and there's a legitimate soundscape here, both in terms of onscreen and offscreen noise (and offscreen dialogue, for there's no dreary cutting directly on the ends of sentences here, cf. Morocco), plus the strategic use of William Axt's score. Garbo, meanwhile, has loosened up considerably, having wholly mastered English if she hadn't already, her English now sufficient to use colloquial speech patterns with utter naturalism (I'm taken with a coquettish "uh-huh" she lays on Lewis Stone here), and while in no sense is she attempting to do an accent for her character, she's much more at home inside an Italian opera singer than she was as the daughter of a Swedish proletarian. (Which given Greta Gustafsson's background, says an awful lot about her screen persona.)
Above all, I do not hold it to be a movie that betrays its origin as a goal painfully groped toward—and perhaps the fact that people know that this is what Romance really was is the single biggest factor in its meager reputation, for knowledge that a movie is a boondoggle will often emphasize its flaws out of proportion to their actual severity. This one was replete with problems, to be sure: its male lead got into a car wreck on the first day of shooting and pretended it hadn't smashed his collarbone, till he passed out on the set (while even upon his recovery everyone thought his acting sucked so badly many of his scenes were unusable); Brown and cinematographer William Daniels practically tore their hair out over the Western Electric sound technicians telling them how their shots needed to be constructed; Garbo had overcome the brief bout of sound anxiety that had made her pliable for Anna Christie and she'd gotten unmanageable and weird again; and it's undeniable that Thalberg himself directed those reshoots, and while I can't tell you for sure if Brown was present, he probably was, and I'm sure being under the boy genius producer's thumb, with all the disapprobation that Thalberg's personal attention implied, must've been humiliating. This all goes to explaining why Brown never expressed much love for his film, even though alongside Anna Christie (the rules were a little different in 1930) it earned him one of his handful of Best Director Oscar nominations—he probably presumed the nomination was really for Anna Christie, and, while this is baffling to me, he was probably correct. But to my mind, Romance is a vindication of MGM's process. What happened with it is sort of what's supposed to happen when a production runs into trouble, and a movie like this is the best argument imaginable for what a well-oiled studio machine can accomplish, especially when I know that in fact the machine actually caught fire halfway through, because if I didn't know, I don't honestly think I'd be able to tell.
You can't say it lacks flair. It feels like Brown at least wants to kick things off with a statement that he's back and ready to party. So party we shall, as our director launches us through a montaged series of crashing push-ins onto the faces of revelers thronging the streets of New York City on this New Year's Eve. Presumably, it's the New Year's Eve of 1929—it's less important what year it is than it is that it's New Year's Eve, because that'll come back in a big way—but, for trivia's sake, given when the source play was written, it could be the New Year's Eve of 1913. (Incidentally, one of the littler problems Brown encountered was a dispute with costume designer Adrian Greenburg, resolved in Brown's favor; and therefore one of the medium-sized pleasures of Romance will turn out to be Greenburg's more garish and contemporizing tendencies bent toward something still recognizable as the late 19th century, and I would consider his creations here to be in the running as Garbo's best costumes to date).
Well, navigating these crowded avenues is young Harry (Elliott Nugent), responding to a summons from his grandfather, the Episcopalian bishop of New York, Tom Armstrong (Gavin Gordon, presently working—if the absence of any credits to the contrary means anything—under some frightfully good old age makeup). Harry isn't happy to be summoned: he assumes his grandfather the churchman is just going to tell him what his mother already has, that he's disgracing the family (and maybe damning his soul) if he goes through with his plans to marry an actress, whom we can so safely assume is a slut that the movie doesn't even dwell on the whether-or-not. To Harry's surprise, the old man is readier to encourage him, and uses the excuse to launch himself upon a long, involved, and relevant tale of his own youth. In a long—a startlingly long—dissolve, while the elder Tom continues to speak and the audio just gets quieter and quieter (this being another major indicator that Brown isn't remotely braindead here, and he'd gotten a handle on sound), we are taken back to a party Tom once attended at the magnificent house of Armstrong family friend Cornelius Van Tuyl (Stone), where Tom found his own great, ahem, romance.
If I've dwelled excessively upon this framing device, I have reason to, but for now let's attend the story of how Tom met, shall we say, the friend of a friend, Rita Cavallini (Garbo), an opera singer of both fame and infamy, as the rumor is that she's served for some years as "Cornie's" kept woman. This is the first Tom even hears of Rita, before he ever meets her. He rejects it as hateful, unchristian gossip, though we already know it's true. When he does meet her, he's under the impression she's someone else, and when she also mocks this "Cavallini" and he chastises her, this begins to endear him to her; thus begins their association, and while she resists the idea it could ever be love, there seems little else it could possibly be. Cornelius counsels her to end it before it ends in tears, but she doesn't. Ultimately Tom forces the issue, proposing marriage, and she can only confront him with her past in response, and tears indeed do flow.
I said this is Anna Christie over again, didn't I? It may be based on source material predating Anna Christie's, a standby of a play also titled Romance (I obviously disapprove of this title, but within Garbo's filmography, "worst title" is a very competitive field), but it's very hard to imagine that this play wasn't chosen for its similarities. And so, as her silent films were almost invariably adulterous love triangles, her first clutch of talkies would be stories of more-or-less prostitutes who attempt a romance with a man who doesn't know, finds out, and is blindsided by the truth when it inevitably arrives. But it's amazing what a difference a change in milieu makes all by itself: just on a visual level alone, Cedric Gibbons's art department and Daniels's photography simply find a lot more to work with here, the spaces of a rector's office, a wealthy rake's mansion, and an opera singer's apartment in every case proving more amenable to MGM's richly pictorial treatment than the empty, ugly boxes of a bar and barge. There are, for instance, interesting lighting ideas regarding the shadowy expanses of high-ceilinged rooms, and the latticed pattern created by windows, and blazing fireplaces. (Even so, Daniels probably comes off worse than any principal here: there's some unusual discontinuity in his set-ups, that Hugh Wynn's editing unfortunately brings out more than it hides. We can easily blame weeks-later reshoots for some of this.)
In any case, the impoverished, brutish miserablism of Anna Christie is banished, and Garbo returned to her usual world of class and elegance.* You might even prefer to call Garbo's character here a courtesan, or something equally more flattering, though the intimations of backstory we get indicate that this Rita Cavallini clawed her way up out of a situation exactly as dire as Anna Christie's; but there is, for instance, never any suggestion that Rita's new boyfriend might break her neck for it. Even more fundamentally, there's also no sense that her choices are a matter of keeping her soul attached to her body (why, she has an entire other profession), and Rita is simply a more interesting character because she possesses agency, giving leeway for a vastly more interesting Garbo performance, that shifts along with her power relationships over the course of the narrative, and so can be funny, cute, alluring, romantic, tragic, aloof, prostrate, and, finally, silently towering over her shamed paramour as he falls at her feet, albeit not necessarily with the kind of shame, nor with the results, you'd expect.
It's also just a better-crafted script, principally the work of the ever-reliable Bess Meredyth, who'd slashed and burned through a whole host of previous attempts at adaptation. It is, accordingly, streamlined hard in terms of plot—this may be the process by which Romance became so similar to Anna Christie—but either way, it's much the same trick she'd done for Brown and Garbo on A Woman of Affairs. To my tastes at least (Brown biographer Gwenda Young starkly disagrees), her script is also a genuine pleasure to listen to, pitched in this floridly poetic register that can bottom out at Hallmark card sentiment (though never, I'd daresay, inappropriately), but can rise all the way to the level of fevered Jim Steinman lyrics; and it's frankly just very enjoyable to hear "Garbo talk" this time, as she's an actor who's more typically physical and interior even in her sound roles, and now she's asked to grapple with some lush, chewy dialogue instead. She doesn't forget that subtle physicality, of course: there's a surfeit of theatrical flourish that jibes with this character, but also emotion communicated outside of this script entirely, particularly the flash of anger she produces to the response to Rita's request, uttered more as a stock phrase, "can you forgive me," Tom having replied with the actual words, "I forgive you" and leaving Rita abraded that her lover might actually thoughtlessly agree that her particular confession at this particular moment—how she was sold by her first boyfriend as a child prostitute, something I'm astonished even pre-Code censorship didn't quash—did fall into the category of "a sin."
Gordon is better than is generally given credit for, too: he is, at least, very different than all of Garbo's previous screen lovers, and at this point "different" is good almost by itself. The usual criticism is that he's weak and wilty, but that's the point of him: already naive and boyish in his performance, before Garbo he's rendered downright childlike (as suggested, Tom's even slightly stupid), and he's so painfully earnest—this movie is somewhat akin to watching Ned Flanders woo a hooker—that while it's not always and one might argue never hot, it's still terrifically high-pitched in its emotions. Garbo handily manages to make it comprehensible why Rita's perception of innocence in Tom might appeal to her, too, which winds up a pretty ironic foundation for the intense, leering, sweaty glares Gordon's getting up to by the third act.
But the one who walks away with the movie might be Stone, whom I'm coming to like a great deal as I learn how surprisingly flexible his basic range of "kind-faced older man" can be. The chemistry of friendship between he and Garbo is unimpeachable here; it doesn't make it particularly easy to imagine these two fucking either, even if that's what you're into, but that's practically the situation as it stands anyway when we meet them, the sugar daddy admitting that she'd given him back the illusion of youth for a few years, but he's truly old now, and wondering if she's thought about her future, essentially trying hard to break up with her so she can find one. Cornelius is somehow both the least- and best-served by Meredyth's script: he's the most interesting character, but it doesn't much stress his motivations for what sometimes seem like contradictory moves (for one thing, he's presumably more invested in an arranged marriage between Tom and his daughter than you might even notice given the one time this is ever mentioned in the script), and of course I always have to alloy my praise for Meredyth by mentioning that she's prone to logistical holes in her screenplays. But Stone absolutely bridges these gaps, seamlessly sliding into the role of dignified post-erotic father figure, nudging Rita affectionately along, eventually revealing—again, pretty much solely through Stone's performance, for Meredyth makes you work a little too hard for it—that all of the efforts to break up the couple that he'd pretended were on Tom's behalf were more like a bluff and were intended for Rita, whom he would never stand against, but would strive to protect from being destroyed by the dangerous puritanical streak he keenly recognizes in her upright lover.
I mean, as noted, plotwise this is Anna Christie, but it's a much more emotionally-sophisticated version of it (but then it's also a more emotionally-sophisticated version of Garbo's adultery movies, and I rather love the Oedipal sub-current of the story, that Tom's new girlfriend is his crypto-dad's old girlfriend). Yet in two watches I'm still not sure how much I like its turn towards religion—I had, for one thing, believed I'd predicted a pretty amazing twist that would've given this a very heartwarming ending, but it's a Garbo Movie, so I don't know why I expected that. It's why I belabored the framing narrative, however, which cuts against the grain of the ending and reorients it, though it's already a nasty little examination of self-righteous, self-serving religious delusion, downright remarkably harsh considering Brown's own Christian faith, though fitting in with Brown's career-long penchant for thorny conclusions. But it's the very ending, inherent already in the beginning, that takes the messiness of Tom's "great adventure" and gives it twin arcs about wistful wisdom and moral growth, and, for what it's worth, damned good ones on both counts.
*Why, it's so classy that no one even mentions that a prospective marriage between an Episcopalian rector and a Catholic foreigner during any period this story could possibly take place in would face some significant hurdles even if she weren't an ex-prostitute.