15 January 2010 | perfectpawn
Senses-Shattering Expressionistic Masterpiece
Part of the string of long-lamented "woman's story" movies that were so popular in the early 1930s, this Pre-Code melodrama is wonderful, expressionistic, and even surrealistic in its set design, and it's a crying shame it's not received a proper DVD release. It's occasionally run on cable, so one must scour the Web to find a DVDR copy.
This 76-minute movie is based on a thousand page novel; safe to say, the story's been telescoped. It hurtles along like some nightmarish, out-of-control train. Plot lines and characters are introduced and swept away before we have the chance to get our bearings. But like pretty much all classic movies, it boils down to a simple love story.
The film operates as an endless sequence of Garbo and Gable together, then splitting up, then longing for one another, then searching for one another, and then spurning one another again due to some sort of misunderstanding. But the way the story is presented
it's as surreal as a Josef Von Sternberg film. And like Dietrich in those Sternberg movies, Garbo here is a Destroyer Of Men; they become obsessed with her, and when they leave her (either by choice or command) they are consumed with the memory of her. Gable is the prime sufferer here; at the opening of the film he's a nice guy, quick to smile and good-natured, but as his obsession increases he becomes a grizzled, hate-filled lunatic – at the very end of the movie he even drops a prostitute off a balcony onto the tables below!
Greta Garbo and Clark Gable (Hitler's two favorite actors
I wonder if this was his favorite movie?) lead the cast, but make no mistake: this is Greta's picture all the way. And she shines: the movie allows Garbo to portray a range of emotions and she handles all of them with panache. She really comes off like some waif lost in the Black Forest in the opening scenes, only instead of the Black Forest it's some backwoods sargasso of the American Midwest. Shorn of his moustache, Gable is still his likable self; despite the surreal aspect of the film he still gets some of his Gable-isms in there. My favorite example being how he exchanges "craned-neck" looks with his dog. Gable and Garbo have good on screen chemistry, even though longstanding rumor is they didn't like one another in reality.
The opening scenes of the movie are full-on German Expressionism. Susan's redneck home is like the funhouse reflection of reality, all drooping shadows and surreal perspectives. The sequence in which we see Susan's birth could've been lifted straight out of a Dr. Caligari remake. Unsettling camera angles guide us through a disturbing sequence in which we see Susan growing up, all of it relayed by her shadow as it grows in height along a wall. The final shot of this sequence is magnificent: the last shadow we see on the wall is Garbo's, and her profile is so distinct that she is immediately identifiable even though we don't actually see her.
This film also contains an enjoyable sequence where Clark Gable becomes THE LUCKIEST GUY IN FILM HISTORY: He awakens to find the luminously gorgeous Greta Garbo cooking his breakfast!
I've long preferred Paramount to MGM, but movies like this sway me. Again, the biggest problem with this movie is that it isn't available. It's prime content for the next "Pre-Code Hollywood" or "Forbidden Hollywood" DVD releases – or better yet, a "Pre-Code Greta Garbo" collection which could include this as well as the uncensored version of her "Mata Hari." Now that I think of it, according to the book "Sin in Soft Focus," this film too was cut before release; despite the Code not being fully enforced yet, there was still a Greta/Gable scene which upset the Hays Administration enough that they had something removed. If that scene still exists, then it would make a wonderful addition to a proper release of this neglected movie. (If I recall correctly, the cut scene took place in the penthouse suite – the scene in which Garbo attempts to humiliate Gable).
Other examples of senses-shattering "woman's story" melodramas of the 1930s: Claudette Colbert's "Torch Singer," Sternberg/Dietrich's "The Blonde Venus," and Clara Bow's "Call Her Savage." For a 1940s version – watered down in that Post-Code style but still as wacky as any of the above – see Bette Davis's "Now, Voyager."