SPOTLIGHT: Gorgeous Pre-Code Garbo (II)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the divine Greta Garbo (1905-1990). We’ve already covered two of this Queen’s Pre-Codes: Susan Lenox (Her Fall And Rise) (1931) and Grand Hotel (1932), but we’ll be featuring five more in these upcoming weeks. We began last week with Garbo’s first talkie, Anna Christie (1930). Today…

 

Inspiration (1931)

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Yvonne is a Parisian woman with a disreputable past. When this past returns to haunt her, she decides to leave her boyfriend in order to presever his honor. Later, she returns to him, but the couple have many more trials to face. Starring Greta Garbo, Robert Montgomery, Lewis Stone, and Marjorie Rambeau. Dialogue by Gene Markey. Directed by Clarence Brown. 

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Garbo is paired for the first, last, and only time with Robert Montgomery in this undeniably Pre-Code tale of a woman with a past (seeds of Sweet Charity — I’m kidding, kind of) and then men she inspires. On paper, the story (which you can read in full below) works great, and the casting of the leads seems on point. However, things don’t seem to work out as well as they should.

INSPIRATION, Greta Garbo, Lewis Stone (center), 1931

“In Paris, artist’s model Yvonne has been immortalized by the painter Jouvet, the sculptor Henry Coutant and Galand, the author of a book of love. Said to be “as well-known as the Eiffel Tower,” the popular and free-spirited Yvonne has served as the inspiration to some of the greatest artists and writers in Europe. At a party attended by bohemians and artists, Yvonne becomes bored by the pretentious guests, including Coutant, who tries to rekindle his romance with the model to no avail. Yvonne sulks in a corner until she meets the handsome André Montell, who, to her astonishment, is not an artist, but a student studying at the Consular Service. Immediately taken by André, Yvonne suggests that they leave the party. Yvonne neglects to tell her husband Vignaud, whom she does not love, that she is leaving with another man. She also neglects to tell André that she is married. A romance between André and the model soon flourishes, and Yvonne shows her willingness to give up the security and comfort of her marriage for André. Meanwhile, André is visited by his uncle Julian and Madeleine, a childhood playmate of his. Yvonne instantly becomes jealous of André’s attentions to Madeleine. Later, after Yvonne tells her husband that she does not plan to return to him, she tries to throw him out of his own house. André, overhearing the fracas, realizes that Yvonne is married and after apologizing to Vignaud for the affair, leaves.

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“Later, while modelling for Coutant, Yvonne tells André that she loves only him, but she is immediately attacked by Odette, a jealous model who insinuates that Yvonne is a wanton woman with a sordid past. Although Yvonne tries to convince André that the allegations are not true, he does not believe her and tells her that he wants to forget that he ever knew her. On her way out, Yvonne slaps Odette for driving André away. Time passes, and Yvonne, destitute, walks by André on the street near his school, but he ignores her. When Yvonne is unable to pay a small bill at a nearby cafe, André sees her distress and pays it for her. He then takes her to dinner and realizes that she has been living like a pauper. Before André leaves for Algiers, Yvonne discovers that he is going to marry another woman and calls him a coward and a liar for not telling her earlier. Tragedy strikes when Yvonne’s friend Liane Latour commits suicide after being spurned by playboy Delval. Shocked by the news, André fears the same fate may befall Yvonne and decides to return to her. However, since André last saw Yvonne, she has been seeing Mr. Normand, an ex-lover who was imprisoned for writing bad checks. Intent on preventing her suicide, André pleads with Yvonne to marry him, and she accepts. Later, though, Yvonne realizes that he came back to her out of sympathy. After writing André a farewell letter, in which she tells him to forget her and marry the right woman, Yvonne leaves him.” (This summary is brought to your courtesy of TCM.)

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The story is interesting in that it’s both perfect and ill-suited for a Garbo vehicle. Like in last week’s film, she’s playing a woman with a past (Pre-Code talk for “she’s a whore”) who desperately yearns for love and understanding, even though her own views of whether or not she deserves it are complex. Thus, the character itself is rich with potential and ripe for varying shades of interpretation. Perfect for our favorite Swede, right? Yes, except that the character — and I blame this on the script — comes across lacking when it pertains to multi-dimensionality. I mean, much of what the character is forced to say and do comes across as one-note, and not deep enough for Garbo. And what’s more, Yvonne is pitiful – so pitiful, in fact, that all she seems to inspire is dislike. So, not a great role for her, even though she herself, as always, finds moments here and there.

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Montgomery has been on this blog before (often with Shearer or Crawford) and he’s excellent at playing frigid and shallow leading men opposite externally cold and internally hot leading ladies. But with Garbo — WOW! There is absolutely no chemistry to be found. Truthfully, I can’t say I’m surprised, and I set my expectations lower to avoid disappointment, but really — this is a mismatched pair that never clicks. (And sometimes the mismatched ones click really loud — like Shearer and Gable). Not the case here. He doesn’t know how to handle her. And even if he did, he probably couldn’t. Herein lies the biggest problem with Inspiration, for if the leads were more electric together, the film would be a more entertaining watch.

And I don’t mean to imply that the film isn’t entertaining. On the contrary, there is lots to enjoy — chiefly that iconically Pre-Code story, which ends in sadness (like a Post-Code film would), but doesn’t force Garbo’s character to apologize (like a Post-Code film would) and in our leading lady’s performance itself. But the film is a much more tedious experience than the majority of Garbo’s other talkies. And I chalk this up mostly to the chemistry, but also, generally speaking, to the script’s lack of cohesion. It’s an adequate time filler. Good for Garbophiles who must see their Queen’s entire filmography.

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Come back next Friday for more Garbo! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment! 

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