Thursday, June 13, 2013

Flesh and the Devil (1926)

Director: Clarence Brown                              Writer: Benjamin Glazer
Film Score: Carl Davis (1988)                       Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Starring: John Gilbert, Greta Garbo, Lars Hansen and Barbara Kent

An early silent Greta Garbo feature starring the great John Gilbert, Flesh and the Devil is an old fashioned romance about love and betrayal. Gilbert plays a German soldier in the late nineteenth century and Lars Hansen is his best friend and fellow soldier. On leave back home, Gilbert meets Greta Garbo in the train station and falls madly in love. Later that night at a ball she falls for him as well and they spend the rest of the week in a torrid romance which only ends when . . . yep, Garbo’s husband comes home and catches them. The result of the ensuing duel is wonderfully conveyed by showing Garbo trying on her black veil. But in a Wings of the Dove-like twist, Gilbert asks his friend to look after Garbo while he finishes his punishment for participation in the duel: five years in Africa, a five years that Garbo doesn’t seem inclined to wait.

One of the most striking things about the production is the use of silhouette by Clarence Brown. The first instance is when the flag over the army camp is shown in black so as not to evoke a particular country. The second is when the duel takes place after the Count, Marc McDermott, finds Garbo with Gilbert and challenges him to a duel. It’s very effective work. In addition, there is some absolutely beautiful work with low lighting, especially during the first love scene between Garbo and Gilbert. The only misstep is that the soft focus on Garbo’s face in that scene is a little too soft, bordering on blurry. Brown would go on from silents to have a solid career in sound films as well, directing Garbo again in Anna Karenina and Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet.

It’s a beautifully filmed piece of cinema all the way around, which was one of MGM’s specialties even then. Ironically, that same dreamy quality didn’t really hold up in the sound era and as a result, today some of MGM’s films seem a bit too artificial, especially alongside the more gritty realism of Warner Brothers or Paramount pictures from the same era. Brown’s camera loves to linger over Garbo. But, of course, Garbo isn’t for everyone. I, myself, prefer the rounder, milkmaid features of say, Ingrid Bergman or Grace Kelly, rather than the angular beauty of Garbo or Marlene Dietrich. Still, she does have an undeniable allure that works well in a picture like this.

As with so many silent pictures, the romantic scores provided by Carl Davis have been a boon to silent film lovers who so often must be content with bad modern scores or, worse yet, indiscriminate music grafted onto the film that creates more of a Frankenstein’s monster than a complete cinematic experience. This one is lush and seemingly inspired by Strauss to enhance the Germanic setting. The story is not a particularly original one and the morality of the ending is predictable. As far as the acting goes, pantomime is good but typically broad. Even so, Flesh and the Devil is just so beautifully filmed that it is gorgeous to look at and with the beauty of the production design and the actors themselves, it is one of the better examples of the silent cinema and one that comes highly recommended.

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