Friday, February 12, 2010

A Woman of Affairs

As I've mentioned here several times, I've developed an interest in silent films and watch them whenever possible on Turner Classic Movies. This morning I saw a 1928 silent called A Woman of Affairs with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert and Lewis Stone and one John Mack Brown who would later be known in B-movie western circles as Johnny Mack Brown.

This is a film that must be held dear in the hearts of soap opera writers. Maybe even a benchmark of some kind. It starts over-the-top and works upwards from there.

Here's the TCM synopsis:

Sleek, elegant Diana Merrick falls in love with aristocratic Neville Holderness, but owing to his father's disapproval of her family's way of life, she and Neville are forbidden to marry. Living with a reckless enthusiasm, Diana finally marries her brother's friend, David Furness, unaware that he is a thief. On their honeymoon in France, learning that the police are after him, David kills himself, and Diana sets out to repay the victims of her husband's crimes. Returning after some years to England, she is too late to save her brother from his fatal alcoholism; and when Neville attempts to return to her, Diana turns him away, influenced by his father's attitude and the fact that he is married. Diana then drives her car into the tree beneath which she and Neville first declared their love, and dies.

Ed here: What the synopsis doesn't even suggest is all the swooning, crying, glaring, zounding, suiciding, fainting and near-deathing that goes on here. All very upper-class of course. You quickly assume that none of these people ever turned a hand to the merest kind of work. (Wall Street banker material, the lot of them.)

I've always had trouble with Garbo. Most of the time I watch her I don't see her appeal. In this film I do. She is beautiful, vulnerable and with the exception of a few scenes her acting is modern. I've seen three or four John Gilbert performances and I've never been able to understand his appeal either. This film did nothing to change my mind. There's something intrisically anxious, weak about him. You know he's got clammy palms. He's a little too refined, to me, to be leading man material. I believe that Lewis Stone (who played Judge Hardy in the Andy Hardy movies with Mickey Rooney) was born at age sixty-five. A perfect age-sixty-five. Everything he does is efficient and underplayed and with that finely wrought wise-grandfather face he never misses.

But to me the bathos here is so relentless I found myself watching the cinematography as much as the acting. Director Clarence Brown, who had a long and sometimes remarkable career, three or four times used these extremely wide shots to show an entire set, almost as if he was filming a stage production, and would then suddenly push in to whichever actor was featured in the scene. One of the push-ins was so fast (and a bit wobbly) I thought I was watching a Michael Winner picture from the Seventies. (You remember Winner. He'd set his camera up in Nevada and then push in all the way to Iowa at seventy-five mph. His films could give you whiplash).

This was a popular and in some quarters esteemed film in its day. But there was never any air in it to make it human--not a whit of comedy or a scene or two of people just being people. It was always the raised eyebrow and the swoon before fainting.

1 comment:

Matthew P. Mayo said...

Hi Ed,
I've not seen this film, but I very much enjoyed your post about it. I'm sure you pegged it perfectly. I laughed out loud several times, from weeping to whiplash.

Now I just have to see the film. And perhaps Michael Winner's work, too....