Film Score: Ernst Luz Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Starring: John Gilbert, Greta Garbo, George Fawcett and Emily Fitzroy
Anna Karenina, the publicity department at MGM was keen on playing up the romance between its two stars by changing the title, which enabled them to declare, “John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Love.” The change in title was more than simply a publicity stunt. Gilbert felt that the film should be staged in modern dress rather than historical costumes as it would make the film easier for audiences to relate to. And with the drastic alteration in the ending it would be less of a deception for those expecting the original Tolstoy story. The film had been intended as something of a European production with Ricardo Cortez in the lead opposite Garbo, and Russian director Dimitri Buchowetzki behind the camera, but Garbo took sick and it wasn’t until Gilbert was brought on board with Edmund Goulding to direct that she miraculously recovered. As it was, the studio couldn’t be too unhappy, as now it would have a feature to follow up the Flesh and the Devil, the first pairing of their two stars, which had been extremely popular with audiences.
The film begins with Garbo’s sleigh racing through the snowy Russian winter, but when a horse comes up lame she is stranded. Along comes a young army officer, John Gilbert, who offers her a ride. She accepts, thinking that he will take her home, but with the storm raging he is only willing to go as far as the nearest inn. Reluctantly, she accepts. At the inn Gilbert becomes smitten with the young woman. As they share a small meal the women in the inn assume they’re lovers, and are slightly taken aback when he asks for two rooms. The result is they have already taken all of the luggage, including his, and put it in her room. His attempt to gain more than just his luggage from her is rebuffed, however, but still leaves him enchanted. Later, at the home of Brandon Hurst, he learns Garbo’s identity as Hurst’s wife. He comes to her home the following day and emboldened by his feelings for her, embraces and kisses her. Knowing it would destroy not only her but her husband, she finally convinces Gilbert to leave her alone.
It’s not until several years later, after her son is born, that the two of them meet again at a fox hunt. As they wind up separated from the rest of the group they begin talking and her true feelings for him come out. But now their relationship begins to make them a subject of gossip for the nobility in St. Petersburg. Hurst confronts her about what he believes is merely a friendship and warns her of the consequences of all of the talk. She agrees, but at a horserace when Gilbert is thrown, her visible terror at his possible death comes out and now Hurst knows the relationship is much more. Upon going to Gilbert’s home to warn him away from Garbo, he catches the two of them together and Gilbert tell him that he’s taking her away. Hurst knows he could never win a duel and so he is resigned to losing Garbo, but what he can do is withhold her son, Philippe de Lacy, from her and this he does, refusing to even allow her to see the boy and telling the child his mother is dead. With this, it’s not long before the idyll of their affair turns sour as Garbo grieves for her son and Gilbert is set to be removed from the army for what he has done to Hurst.
The film is a charming one, and Gilbert and Garbo have terrific chemistry together, especially in the scene at the inn and the one on the fox hunt. Two endings for the film were shot, and both of them survive. The first is true to the novel, with Garbo unable to see her son and separated from Gilbert to save his career, she jumps in front of a train and kills herself. The other ending, written by Frances Marion, has the two meeting several years after the death of Hurst. And with nothing standing in their way, they can resume their love and live happily ever after. Exhibitors were given the option of which ending to use, and while the two coasts preferred the tragic ending, the middle of the country opted for romantic fantasy. My screening of the film was a part of the Washington Center for the Performing Arts’ silent film series, the last of this season. As with the rest of the series, the film was accompanied by an original score performed on the Wurlitzer organ by regional musician Dennis James. While I don’t usually enjoy organ scores on DVD, I have to say that the live experience is much different and adds tremendously to the viewing of the film. Love is a perfect example of late silent filmmaking at its best and is a wonderful vehicle in which to see two great movie stars at work.