This is my very belated contribution to the Barrymore Trilogy blogathon – many apologies for being so late (I forgot the blogathon’s date), but please do visit Crystal’s blog, In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, to read the other entries.
This smash hit romantic melodrama is dominated by Greta Garbo, playing the woman whose name has become a byword for seductive spying. However, Lionel Barrymore also gives a powerful performance as a General who falls under her spell. Although Ramon Novarro is ostensibly the male lead, Barrymore has a more interesting role and manages to steal a large number of scenes.
The film is only loosely based on the life of the real Mata Hari, a Dutch exotic dancer living in Paris who was executed for spying for the Germans in the First World War. A recent biographer argues that she wasn’t a spy at all and says there was little evidence against her. Be that as it may, Mata was around 40 during the war and her career as a dancer was on the wane. By contrast, Garbo was only 26 when she made the film and at the height of her beauty – so the character doesn’t quite have the desperation which Mata would have had in real life. Another difference is that the real Mata was Eurasian, but fortunately, although Garbo is seen performing a sexy Oriental dance, the studio didn’t try to alter her appearance.
TCM’s article about the film explains how there was a lot of interest in the character of Mata Hari at the time the movie was made, with studios racing to film her story. Marlene Dietrich played a similar character in Dishonored, made the same year. Mata’s story clearly fed into the whole Hollywood fascination with temptresses leading men into deadly danger, stretching from the vamps of many silent films to Dietrich’s character in another von Sternberg film, The Devil Is a Woman, and of course to the femmes fatales of film noir.
At the start of the film, Mata is clearly portrayed as a character of this type. Before she even appears, there is a disturbing opening scene where three soldiers are seen being shot dead by a firing squad. One of their number is told his life can be saved if he agrees to give the French authorities the evidence they need to convict Mata of spying. He refuses and is killed, giving up his life for her. This actor, Mischa Auer, has only a moment in the spotlight and is uncredited, but makes a very strong impression and it’s no surprise to learn that a few years later he received an Oscar nomination for his role in My Man Godfrey.
When Garbo finally appears, she gives Mata a magnetic quality, both through her dance and showing how she enjoys playing off one man against another. She reluctantly keeps dates with her lover, Russian General Serge Shubin (Barrymore) not because she wants to, but because she needs to pick up information. And even when she falls under the spell of a handsome younger Russian, Lt. Alexis Rosanoff (Novarro) , she is still on the lookout for information she can pass on to her paymasters. However, it is quickly apparent that this version of Mata Hari is not the cold-hearted temptress that opening scene led us to expect. As she falls in love with Alexis, she becomes more of a tragic heroine in the mould of later Garbo roles like Camille and Anna Karenina.
Lionel Barrymore was often cast as ageing and frail characters in the early 1930s, for instance in Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight. However, cast as a General in Mata Hari, he looks robust and handsome – he was in fact only 53 when he made this film and for once looks his age. Suddenly you remember that he was only four years older than his brother John, who was one of the top romantic leads in Hollywood at this time. Lionel brings an intensity and dry wit to his scenes with Garbo, making it clear that Shubin knows how low he has fallen through his relationship with Mata. He recognises clearly that she does not love him and is only using him, but he can’t break free and allows himself to be used.
Novarro’s character, a wide-eyed young man who believes Mata is everything he wants her to be, is much less interesting. This contrast between older and younger male lovers is something that turns up in a succession of 1930s films, including Nana, also partly directed by George Fitzmaurice, where Lionel Attwill’s character is possibly more interesting than that of Phillips Holmes.
Overall, I don’t think the film quite lives up to its stunning opening scene, but it is still highly enjoyable. Towards the end the mood of sacrificial melodrama becomes a bit over-the-top, but this does allow Garbo some great scenes. It’s just a shame she has to share them with Novarro rather than Barrymore!
The film is available on DVD in both region 1 and 2. I got it as part of a Greta Garbo: The Signature Collection box set, and the picture quality looks great, but there are no special features except for the trailer.