THE PAINTED VEIL (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1934), directed by Richard Boleslawski, returns Greta Garbo to formula level of material, that of a lonely wife having an illicit affair. While this sort of story could have been a remake of any one of her silent melodramas from the 1920s. WILD ORCHIDS (1929) with Garbo, Lewis Stone and Nils Asther immediately coming to mind, each having a similar theme with Oriental setting and exotic dance numbers. THE PAINTED VEIL is not an original screenplay but one taken from the literary work by W. Somerset Maugham published in 1925. With numerous Maugham novels transferred to the screen over the years, with the then recent and better known ones being RAIN (United Artists, 1932) with Joan Crawford; and OF HUMAN BONDAGE (RKO Radio, 1934) featuring Bette Davis, THE PAINTED VEIL starring GARBO (as she was billed in the opening credits), has become either one of her lesser known movie projects, the least favorites among fans and critics, or a combination of both.
The contemporary plot, first set in Austria, revolves around Karin Koerber (Greta Garbo), an young adult woman living at the home of her parents (Jean Hersholt and Bodil Rosing). After her 18-year-old sister, Olga (Cecilia Parker) marries Heinrich (Hans Von Morhart), and go off on their honeymoon, Karin faces a lonely future without her. Her loneliness is short-lived when British bacteriologist Doctor Walter Fane (Herbert Marshall), a visiting wedding guest and close friend of her medical professor father, approaches Karin and asks her to become his wife. Having admired her since childhood, they know little about each other. However, Karin, liking the idea of going to places she's never been, readily accepts. Once in the Orient, Karin finds herself facing time alone, spending quality time playing bridge with other wives while Walter spends long hours on his medical work. Having already met Walter's American diplomatic friend, Jack Townsend (George Brent) and his wife (Katherine Alexander), Karin is given the pleasure of Townsend's company as he escorts her through the city's exotic locales. When Jack kisses Karin, she tells him, "How could you?" He replies, "I could." As Karin makes an effort to avoid seeing Townsend again, she comes to realize her love for him by going to the festival. Walter learns of the affair but knows Karin could never have Townsend, considering how his career and reputation mean more to him than Karin does. Feeling rejected by Townsend, Karin resumes her loveless marriage traveling with Walter on his missionary work to a disease infested city in China where they find danger and further uncertainty in their lives.
Remade as THE SEVENTH SIN (MGM, 1957) with Eleanor Parker and Bill Travers, and again under its original title in 2006 featuring Naomi Pitts and Edward Norton, the latest edition, longer and more to the point in terms of unfaithfulness than its predecessors, one would expect the Garbo version to be the first and best of the three. One of the faults of the original probably rests heavily on tight editing of the script, leaving certain scenes ending without any explanation. As for the film itself, it was either producing a two hour plus epic or putting in material that really matters. The writers (scripted by Salka Viertel, Edith Fitzgerald and Jhn Meehan) naturally chose the latter, resulting to a cleaned up 83 minute soap opera with approval from the newly enforced production code. Dull passages aside, the waiting for the climatic showdown between husband and wife before expressing their true emotions ranks one of its few suspenseful moments captured on film. From then on, everything mellows.
Most of the secondary characters depicted are undeveloped. Some appear briefly and disappear from view with little or mention about them again, particularly Townsend's wife. Some sources list Beulah Bondi and Billy Bevan in the cast, though their roles in the finished product are played by the substituting Bodil Roding and Hans Von Morhart. Fans of the "Charlie Chan" movie series will get to see both Warner Oland (Chan) and Keye Luke (Number 1 Son) appearing separately in smaller parts. For the leading men, however, Herbert Marshall is ideally cast as the troubled husband, considering how he's been through all this before with his on-screen wife (Marlene Dietrich) in BLONDE VENUS (Paramount, 1932) with Cary Grant as the other man named Townsend, Nick in fact, who comes between the married couple. Though it would have been more interesting as well as historic having Grant appear opposite Garbo, it is George Brent, on loan from Warner Brothers, who gets that acting honor instead.
Distributed to home video in 1990, availability of THE PAINTED VEIL rests on occasional revivals on Turner Classic Movies. Though the movie strays from Maugham's original novel in some areas, with name changes of certain characters, it does, overall, succeed for what it's got, and that's GARBO. (***)