Since getting into the early talkies, I’ve been thinking I ought to try silent films, but I’ve found it difficult. Voices are just about everything for me, and with most of my favourite actors the voice is hugely important – so I struggle to get engrossed by silent pictures. I’ve also found it hard to get used to the way the actors constantly move their mouths, saying words which can’t be lipread, while also nervously moving their eyes back and forwards and waving their arms around.
However, when I watched the 1920s classic Flesh and the Devil, starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, shown on TCM in a beautifully restored print with full orchestral accompaniment, suddenly I got it.
I didn’t get it immediately, I must admit. I found it hard to concentrate on the opening scenes with Gilbert at a military academy – but, as soon as he glimpsed Garbo in the distance and fell in love, the film came alive for me. Both actors seem to have a strange luminous quality, making it hard to take your eyes off them, and there is also masses of chemistry between them – a scene where they share a cigarette has to be one of the sexiest scenes I’ve ever seen.
The way scenes fade into one another, with dream-like flashbacks for just a few seconds, or Garbo’s face hovering in the mist beyond the train window, is astonishing.
There are plenty of things that disturb me about the movie. It has a strong streak of misogyny, with the pastor telling Gilbert’s character at one point that the devil puts beautiful/evil women on earth to tempt men from the path of good. Garbo’s vamp character also seems to have a lot of the vampire about her, with another memorable scene where she and Gilbert share a communion cup, and it seems to be suggested that she is somehow drinking his blood, or his soul.
But my feeling is that Garbo gives the woman she is playing too much character to be dismissed, however much the pastor might try to do so. The impression of the love scenes is that she loves Gilbert just as much as he loves her, and is trying to struggle against their fatal attraction just as he does.