John Gilbert and Greta Garbo, the greatest silent movie lovers.
Flesh and the Devil is the movie that made Greta Garbo a legend. She had appeared in a few movies for MGM but hadn’t really caught the public’s attention until she played the vamp Felicitas von Rhaden opposite John Gilbert’s Leo von Harden in the adaptation of the novel “The Undying Past” by Hermann Sudermann. This was her first movie with Gilbert and her first movie with director Clarence Brown. They made a legendary threesome. With the death of Rudolph Valentino in August of 1926 John Gilbert was the undisputed reigning romantic leading man in Hollywood. Still no one could have predicted the remarkable onscreen charisma he would share with the young Swedish actress.
The movie is set in Austria before the First World War. John Gilbert as Leo and Lars Hanson as Ulrich, play soldiers and best friends from childhood. Ulrich has a younger sister named Hertha, who is in love with Leo. She was played by Barbara Kent who, as of this writing, is still alive. She turns 104 on December 16th, 2010 and is probably the oldest living screen actress. She made her last movie in 1935 and today refuses to give interviews about her screen career. No doubt she grew tired of being asked what it was like working with Greta Garbo. Flesh and the Devil is her most famous movie.
Garbo plays a completely wicked woman. Every move she makes is calculated to tempt. She plays the part to the hilt and demonstrates that her face had no bad camera angle. She seduces Gilbert’s rather hapless Leo even though she is already married. Oops, she forgot to mention that little detail to Leo. Her husband, Count von Rhaden, catches them together and demands satisfaction in a duel.
Leo kills her husband and is “advised” by the military tribunal that he go away for 5 years. He leaves for Africa but asks his best friend to look after the widow of the man he killed while he is away. Ulrich has no idea of the relationship between Leo and Felicitas, since a dispute at cards was given as the reason for the pistol duel. Leo returns after 3 years, Ulrich got him an early pardon, only to learn that his rich friend has married Felicitas. This woman has no shame. You can probably guess where the story is heading so I will say no more.
The success of Flesh and the Devil is due to the ineffable chemistry between Gilbert and Garbo. They fell in love during filming and it shows in their scenes together. Garbo literally glows on the screen and never looked more beautiful. The scene where they waltz together is iconic as is their first kiss in the moonlit garden. Clarence Brown, along with his cinematographer William Daniels, accomplished remarkable things with lighting and shadows.
The weakest aspect is the melodramatic plot. This is yet another love triangle between two male best friends and a wanton woman. This was a particularly popular plot devise during the silent era. The acting near the climax gets a bit heavy-handed but visually this movie is a feast for the eyes; and Garbo and Gilbert together are unforgettable.
Photos © Copyright Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) (1926)