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Star of the Month: Greta Garbo
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,Mata Hari

Mata Hari

In the same way that "Greta Garbo" has become a generic term for reclusive European movie star, "Mata Hari" has become a generic term for seductive female spy. In the 1920's and '30's, World War I was still a recent event, and the legend of the Dutch dancer who was executed by the French for espionage was still fresh and intriguing. So any temptress worth her stilettos had a go as Mata. The Germans claimed her first, with Asta Nielsen as Die Spionin (1921), and Magda Sonja in Mata Hari, Die Rote Tanzerin (1927). Later versions would include Jeanne Moreau's Mata Hari (1964) and a 1985 version starring Sylvia Kristel (famous for 1974's Emmanuelle).

1931 was the year of the dueling Matas. Marlene Dietrich had been brought to the U.S. as Paramount's European bombshell, to rival MGM's top star, Greta Garbo. When Paramount executives learned that Garbo was to play Mata Hari, they rushed Josef von Sternberg's Dishonored (1931) into production, starring Dietrich as a Mata Hari-like spy. Dishonored opened in March, and in December, Mata Hari (1931), starring Greta Garbo premiered.

MGM's version of the famous spy was tailored to Garbo's screen persona: a world-weary sophisticate made noble and self-sacrificing by love. Like the real Mata Hari, Garbo's Mata makes her living as an exotic dancer, and as a courtesan to highly placed officials on both sides of the conflict. Her affairs with a General (Lionel Barrymore) and a young Russian aviator (Ramon Novarro) prove to be her undoing.

Garbo makes a dazzling entrance, performing a quasi-Oriental dance which ends in a discreet striptease. (The Variety reviewer called it a "polite cooch.") It's likely that parts of the dance were performed by one of Garbo's doubles. That part of the film, at least, is based on the real Mata Hari, who had lived in Java and claimed to have learned her dances there. The name "Mata Hari" was supposedly Malay for "eye of the dawn." But the true story was sadder, shabbier and murkier than the movie versions. Born Margaretha Gertrud Zelle in the Netherlands, she married and went to Java. The marriage failed, and she moved to Paris, scandalizing polite society by dancing nearly nude. By the time World War I came, she was pushing forty and less in demand. She turned to spying for extra money, and was probably a double agent. In 1917, Mata Hari was captured and executed by the French. Some believe she was a scapegoat, that her assignments were minor and produced no information of any value. Legend has it that she refused a blindfold and blew kisses to her executioners just before they shot her. A museum in her hometown of Leeuwarden, Holland features a "Mata Hari Room," with photographs, love letters, costumes and jewelry.

Garbo's Mata Hari, of course, was a grander and more tragic figure. Also more glamorous, thanks to the bejeweled exoticism of Adrian's costumes, which helped define the character. By the end of the film, the costumes, like the character, are pared and purified to essentials. Garbo dominated love scenes with Novarro with her usual frank eroticism. One scene, when she seduces him in front of an icon of the Virgin Mary, was too libidinous for the British censors. In the British version, the icon was changed to a portrait of somebody's mother. Critics enjoyed making fun of the stars' accents (at one point, Novarro had a line which sounded like "what's the mata, Mata?"), but felt that Garbo elevated Mata Hari beyond its more ludicrous elements. Mordaunt Hall, in the New York Times, said, "there is...enough truth to make a most compelling melodrama." There have been other movie Matas before and since, but many fans agree with Screen Book that "the real Mata Hari was a colorful person, but she could in no way touch the personality displayed by the Swedish star."

Director: George Fitzmaurice
Producer: Irving Thalberg (uncredited)
Screenplay: Benjamin Glazer and Leo Birinksy
Editor: Frank Sullivan
Cinematography: William Daniels
Costumes: Adrian
Principal Cast: Greta Garbo (Mata Hari), Ramon Novarro (Lt. Alexis Rosanoff), Lionel Barrymore (General Serge Shubin), Lewis Stone (Andriani), C. Henry Gordon (Dubois), Karen Morley (Carlotta)
BW-89m Closed captioning.

by Margarita Landazuri



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