This is my contribution to the Silent Cinema Blogathon being organised by Crystal of The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please do take a look at the other postings – a lot of great films are being covered.
Greta Garbo made her name as a goddess of silent film. Yet, today, her silents are far harder to see than her talkies – especially in the UK, where I don’t think a single one of her silent films is available on DVD, except on import. I’d love to see a boxed set of her silents released, since the few I’ve managed to see are excellent. A Woman of Affairs is no exception, featuring a luminous performance by Garbo, with her ever-changing expressions conveying her emotions with no need for words. Sadly, it has only ever had home video releases on VHS and laser disc, but it was available on Youtube at the time of me writing this posting.
This film was directed by Clarence Brown, who also made another great Garbo silent, Flesh and the Devil. Once again, she has a part full of intensity, as a woman who refuses to let go of her lover. However, where her character in the earlier film could be described as a vamp, here she plays a more rounded character. The film is loosely based on the novel The Green Hat by Michael Arlen, but, according to the TCM and Wikipedia articles on the movie, major changes to the plot had to be made because the book mentions VD and heroin. Even in this era before the Hays Code was fully enforced, the censors wouldn’t stand for that – and indeed the Hays office banned any mention of The Green Hat in the credits. Reviewers tend to be dismayed by the watering down of the book’s plot, but, as I haven’t read The Green Hat, I looked at the film in its own right and found it a powerful melodrama as it is. It also contains some quite controversial subject matter even after the changes forced by the censors.
The film’s story moves between the UK and France, and Garbo plays bored English beauty Diana Merrick, with Douglas Fairbanks Jr as her brother, Jeffry. We’re told at the start that the pair are known as the ‘mad Merricks’, and it’s immediately apparent that both are troubled – especially Jeffry, who is hitting the bottle heavily from the opening scene onwards. (Apparently this caused problems in the Prohibition era, but the Hays office eventually let it go.) I wouldn’t have thought there was much resemblance between these two actors, but, with Fairbanks having tousled blond hair in this film, and both having huge, expressive eyes, they manage to create an illusion of similarity.
Fairbanks was only 18 when he made this film, although it was already his 19th movie. He burns the screen up as the self-destructive Jeffry, who idolises David (Johnny Mack Brown), one of his sister’s two suitors. When David asks him to stop drinking, Jeffry impulsively throws the glass into the fire and nearly obliges – but he doesn’t manage to last out the rest of the scene. Although nothing is said outright about his sexuality, as it couldn’t be in this era, I think it’s strongly hinted that he is in love with David and bitterly jealous of Diana. I understand this sexual rivalry is also hinted at in the novel, and that the Hays office wanted all reference to homosexuality removed – but it’s still there, simmering under the surface.
Ironically, Diana isn’t interested in her brother’s idol, who is a handsome rowing champion, but only has eyes for her childhood sweetheart, Neville (John Gilbert). Garbo and Gilbert of course were a couple in real life, and, although they don’t have any scenes in this film quite as breathtakingly sexy as their shared cigarette in Flesh and the Devil, they still ooze chemistry and are riveting to watch together. In terms of the plot, it’s quite hard to understand why Diana goes on loving Neville, who meekly agrees to break up with her when ordered to do so by his dad and obediently travels off to take up a job in Egypt. But the fact that it is Gilbert playing the part makes it just about believable. When a deserted Diana decides to marry David for consolation, the scene is set for a series of tragic plot twists.
The film has an excellent supporting cast, including Hobart Bosworth, who I’ve come across in several films lately, as Neville’s interfering father, Sir Morton, and Lewis Stone as Diana’s devoted doctor, Hugh. Former Ziegfeld girl Dorothy Sebastian plays the other woman in Neville’s life, the aptly-named Constance, and gives the character a sweet touch of humour – she always seems about to giggle, avoiding any danger of her character becoming prissy and unlikable.
A Woman of Affairs was originally released with synchronised music and sound effects, but the print released on laser disc had orchestral music composed by Carl Davis, which is very atmospheric and brings out the emotions of the characters. I’d love to see this version get a DVD release – and I’d also love to see the film on the big screen, which it really cries out for. A talkie remake was released just at the start of the Code era, in September 1934, Outcast Lady, starring Constance Bennett and Herbert Marshall, and I’d really like to see that version too.
Most of the photos in this posting are gratefully taken from Dr Macro.