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.