Monday, 8 October 2012

All you need is ... Love (1928)

Greta Garbo and John Gilbert
Leo Tolstoy's novel, Anna Karenina might well be one of the most adapted of all time but this film version takes up only a thin sliver of the story. You can only translate limited elements of the written word onto screen and maybe each adaptation reflects the focus of the times and the commercial and creative needs of the acting talents involved. But perhaps this one more than most.

The follow up to Flesh and the Devil, their smash hit from the previous year, Love is a vehicle to show the continuing sizzle between Greta Garbo and John Gilbert.

The big reveal...
Nominally directed by Edmund Goulding, it seems that Gilbert was calling many of the shots. The film had a troubled genesis with stars and crew coming and going until Gilbert and Goulding were finally in place. Oh what to do with the emergence of a phenomenon?

John Gilbert is likeable here but he’s outmatched by the power and presence of Garbo in my opinion. Garbo has a way of shifting emotional focus that is too nuanced for him to always follow. There’s a moment in the “happy ending” when she shifts from smiling lovingly at her son to shock at seeing her lover after so long and then onto joy within a second… the reverse shot shows Gilbert happy but out of step. A slip in the direction perhaps but a revelation of a surprising gap in acting range between these two…

John Gilbert
Don’t get me wrong, Gilbert is a true great, a charismatic freak of nature who audiences would be drawn to heroically and romantically… but he was up against possibly the most skillful actress of the period. I mean the Swedish girl was so good she waltzed from silent to sound carrying an accent as thick as the snow that engulfs them at the film’s start.

John Gilbert is Captain Count Alexei Vronsky, the latest in a long line to serve the Tsar’s army with honour. He encounters Anna Karenina (Garbo) in trouble as her carriage is over-whelmed by snow en route to St Petersberg.

Unable to continue, he helps her to an inn where he is struck down with love at first sight the second she removes the veil from her face. But, although the warmth between the two is immediate, Anna rebuts Vronsky’s approach.

George Fawcett
There’s a nice exchange of manly banter between Vronsky and Grand Duke Michel (George Fawcett) as he returns back late to his regiment the next day. The Captain says that he was delayed by snow, “was she pretty?” asks the Duke, “yes” replies the Captain.

But Anna is married to the much older Senator Alexei Karenin (Brandon Hurst) and they have a young son, Serezha (Philippe De Lacy). The course of true love will not run smooth…

But run it does and gradually the young soldier and the politician’s wife begin an affair. But, whilst Anna doesn’t love her father figure of a husband, it is clear that Vronsky has a rival for his affections. Anna loves her son as much as anything and this will eventually force her into abandoning her lover.

Greta Garbo and Brandon Hurst
The Senator exacts a terrible revenge and threatens to ruin the Captain’s reputation whilst refusing to let Anna see her son… Threatened with the loss of the two loves of her life Anna heads to the train station and… gets on a train. Here is the film’s major divergence from the book as the “happy ending” version kicks in and Anna is able to return to her son’s side and to be ultimately re-united with her lover after her husband dies.

Love is therefore not truly Anna Karenina but this ending does make sense in the context of the film. Anna is torn between her options but, from what we have seen, there’s no way she would kill herself if it meant never seeing her son again.

Philippe De Lacy and Greta Garbo
Whether that’s a failure of the film to engage sufficiently with her dilemma is open to debate. No doubt Garbo could easily follow this dramatic trajectory but the audience wanted her and Gilbert as a couple more than anything else.

As the Photoplay review said at the time: "It isn't Tolstoy but it is John Gilbert and Greta Garbo, beautifully presented and magnificently acted."

One of the film’s best sequences is when Anna is watching Vronsky in a regimental horse race. The direction is very good here as we switch from rider to race to the watching crowd where Anna is contorted writhing between the delight of her lover winning and the terrors of this most dangerous sport… 

The cinematography from William H. Daniels is worth mentioning. The outdoor scenes of the wolf hunt and the horse race are particularly well handled and show the technical mastery that had been reached by this point. There’s some superb tracking shots of both Gilbert and Garbo as they walk forward deep in thought and unable to connect with their surroundings and the people around them.

This is a nice crisp print but I’m surprised Love has not been made available in remastered quality with all the trimmings we’re starting to get used to. For now the Warner Archive version will serve well enough.

Greta Garbo... smiles


  1. ... A tribute to the Beatles too, no? ;-) Hope everything's going well for you!

    1. All is good :-) We've had a lot about The Beatles this month - 50 years since their first hit - just 34 years after this film! Hope you're well and watching lots of films!