Flesh and the Devil
The catalyst in Garbo's transformation was John Gilbert, the actor who, after the death of Valentino, reigned supreme on Hollywood's roster of dashing leading men. Legend has it that when the two first met on the MGM backlot, Gilbert called, "Hello, Greta," to which she coolly responded, "It is Miss Garbo." Immediately smitten by this indifferent Swedish beauty, Gilbert engaged Garbo in a whirlwind romance, much to the delight of the moviegoing public and the studio brass.
Director Clarence Brown, who observed the on and off screen romantic chemistry between his two stars, was inspired to wax poetic: "They are in that blissful state of love so like a rosy cloud that they imagine themselves hidden behind it, as well as lost in it." Gilbert (twice married by this time, at age 29) publically declared his love and hinted that wedding bells would soon ring, but Garbo maintained her silence and intimated to friends that her relationship with the actor was never very serious.
Besides, there was more to their relationship than sexual magnetism. Gilbert sympathized with Garbo's predicament as a studio contract player, enduring the daily grind of one film after another, with virtually no control over her career. Having gained considerable clout in the film industry after his performance in the phenomenally successful The Big Parade (1925), Gilbert quickly learned how to manage his own career and had become one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood. He gladly introduced her to his business manager, Harry Edington, who thereafter became her salary negotiator.
Once Flesh and the Devil was released, the film was so popular that Garbo could almost dictate the terms of her renewed MGM contract. With Edington's help, her salary shot from $600 per week to $2,000 per week, a figure that was contractually bound to triple in three years. Perhaps more significantly, she also gained control over the types of roles she would play in the future. This crucial development enabled her to play something besides man-eating vamps, to cultivate the Garbo mystique, a combination of sultry passion, tender innocence and cool insouciance that has made her a cinematic icon.
In Flesh and the Devil, Gilbert stars as Leo von Harden, a military cadet who returns home to Austria and falls in love with the sultry Felicitas von Eltz (Garbo). During their first night together, the lovers are interrupted by the woman's husband, Count von Rhaden (Marc MacDermott). The count challenges Leo to a duel and is killed. To avoid further scandal, the young man is sent away to military service in North Africa. He entrusts the widow's care to his closest friend Ulrich (Lars Hanson), who is led to believe the duel was fought over a card game insult. When Leo returns, he is dismayed to find that Ulrich has married Felicitas. He avoids the married couple but cannot resist the seductive charm of the merry widow. When Ulrich catches the two in a moment of heated passion, Leo must fight a second duel, this one on the "Isle of Friendship," where the boyhood friends once swore eternal loyalty.
Ironically, just as Garbo's star was ascending, Gilbert's was on the descent. His career tapered out at the dawn of the sound era, due either to a change in the public's tastes (favoring a more down-to-earth leading man like Clark Gable), a voice unsuitable to the talkies or, as some have suggested, the result of professional sabotage by studio heads resentful of his rebellious attitude and inflated salary.
Much of Garbo's success in Flesh and the Devil is also due to director Brown (The Yearling, 1946) and cinematographer William Daniels. In the best silent screen tradition, much of the film's character and plot development are conveyed through inventive camerawork and clever innuendo. When Leo is obliged to duel with the count, the scene is played in silhouette against a vast white sky. The duellists march away from one another until they are offscreen, and one sees nothing more than the puffs of smoke as their pistols are fired from each side of the frame.
Felicitas's true character is indicated in a brilliant little scene, following the death of her husband, in which she vainly admires herself in a mirror as she tries on a variety of black mourning veils. In another sequence that conveys the woman's devious passion, Felicitas takes communion alongside Leo and, when the chalice is passed to her, she guides it so her lips will touch the same part of the cup as her lover's.
Daniels, who had worked with Erich von Stroheim earlier in the decade, essentially sculpted light to showcase the actress's alluring beauty. Garbo's visage is warmed by flickering flames in one love scene before a fireplace, while in another scene the light through a rain-soaked window bathes her face with the gentle shadow of raindrops. In the film's most famous lighting effect, Gilbert lights her cigarette in a shadowy garden and the two lovers huddle together in the warm glow of the flaming match (actually a pair of small carbon lamps concealed in the actor's palm).
"The saddest thing in my career is that I was never able to photograph her in color," Daniels later recalled. "I begged the studio. I felt I had to get those incredible blue eyes in color, but they said no. The process at the time was cumbersome and expensive, and the pictures were already making money. I still feel sad about it."
Director: Clarence Brown
Screenplay: Benjamin Glazer
Based on the novel Es War; Roman in Zwei Banden by Hermann Sudermann
Cinematography: William Daniels
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons, Frederick Hope
Orchestral Score: Carl Davis
Principal Cast: Greta Garbo (Felicitas von Eltz), John Gilbert (Leo von Harden), Lars Hanson (Ulrich von Kletzingk), Barbara Kent (Hertha Prochvitz), William Orlamond (Uncle Kutowski), Marc MacDermott (Count von Rhaden).
by Bret Wood