SPOTLIGHT: Gorgeous Pre-Code Garbo (III)

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. So far we’ve covered  Anna Christie (1930) and Inspiration (1931). Today…

 

Mata Hari (1931)

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A semi-fictionalized account of the life of Mata Hari, an exotic dancer who was accused of spying for Germany during World War I. Starring Greta Garbo, Ramon Navarro, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, C. Henry Gordon, and Karen Morley. Written by Benjamin Glazer and Leo Birinski. Additional dialogue by Doris Anderson and Gilbert Emery. Directed by George Fitzmaurice. 

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A romantic “biopic” (before the word was even invented) about the life of exotic dancer turned spy Mata Hari, this film is an excellent representation — especially to newer fans — of what a Garbo film is typically like, and also why this talented beauty still manages to captivate over 70 years after leaving the industry. As for the film itself, it’s purely perfunctory — but never to the point of boredom or disgust. Merely, it’s an okay film with a wonderful lead. And thus, it makes for a good watch.

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In 1917 during World War I, France deals summarily with traitors and spies. After presiding over the execution of the latest group of convicted spies, Dubois, chief of the French Spy Bureau, vows that he will someday find enough evidence to prosecute France’s greatest enemy, Mata Hari, a German spy posing as a dancer. Mata, a resident of Paris, receives her assignments from a man named Andriani, who instructs the beautiful agent to use her charms to procure messages and maps detailing Russian troop movements. Soon after meeting the handsome Lieutenant Alexis Rosanoff of the Russian Imperial Air Force, a flier who was celebrated for his successful flight over German lines to bring back a secret message, Mata begins an affair with him. Mata, who initially does not know that Alexis possesses the very documents she has been ordered to steal, falls in love with him. Later, when Mata learns that Alexis is carrying the secret documents, she sleeps with him and darkens the apartment so that her fellow agents can take the papers, copy them and return them without notice. The ruthless Andriani, who believes that a spy is permitted no friends, emotions or personal life, has Carlotta, one of his spies, killed for falling in love on the job. After this, he tells Mata that she must continue her relationship with Alexis without becoming attached to him. Using a different tactic to get the evidence he needs to snare Mata, Dubois tells General Shubin, Mata’s ex-lover and former accomplice, that Mata has been having an affair with Alexis, hoping that his jealous rage will result in him exposing her treachery. As predicted, Shubin angrily confronts Mata, and Mata tries to prove that she does not love Alexis by showing Shubin the secret photographs she stole from the young lieutenant. Not convinced, Shubin places a call to the embassy in order to have Mata arrested, but Mata shoots him before he can reveal her.

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“After begging Alexis to leave and forget that he ever knew her, Mata flees from the murder scene. Fearful of what might happen to his espionage operation now that Mata has murdered Shubin, Andriani tells her that her Paris assignment is over and that she must now go to Amsterdam to avoid harm. Before Mata leaves, however, Andriani informs her that Alexis has been injured in an airplane crash and has been hospitalized. When Andriani forbids her to visit Alexis, Mata resigns from the spy ring and goes to her lover. At his bedside, Mata promises the blinded Alexis that she will never leave him again. As soon as Mata leaves the hospital, though, she is arrested by Dubois and put on trial for murder and espionage. In order to prevent Alexis from ever knowing about her crimes, Mata pleads guilty before the prosecution can call him to the witness stand. Though Mata’s execution has been set, she anxiously waits for a reprieve. The reprieve never comes, and just prior to her execution, Alexis, having been told that she is in a sanitarium awaiting an operation, visits her and is fooled into thinking that the prison is a hospital. Mata asks Alexis to promise not to grieve too much if her operation fails and she dies, and she is then led outdoors, where the firing squad is prepared to execute her.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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Whew! That was a long synopsis, and that whole last paragraph just accounts for the last 30 minutes of the film. As with most spy pictures — and despite it being more GARBO (a.k.a. romance) than thriller, it is undeniably a part of the espionage genre — there’s a lot of story. Usually, I decry films or sitcom episodes (in particular) which contain an abundance of plot, for usually that means there’s little time to explore character. But as often the case in Pre-Codes, part of the make-up of both the characters and the films themselves is actually a result (and product) of this fast-paced storytelling. And it’s part of the Pre-Code charm. This picture, which many contemporary reviewers cite as “campy” (a word that I can’t say is inapplicable to the film, but that I also refuse to use because I think there’s a better word: heightened), benefits from all of the goings on. Because if not for the action, we’d be left to listen to some of the potentially trite script machinations. Thus, we are saved by the twists and turns — and the often breathtaking visuals: customary in a Garbo film.

Perhaps the film is most worthwhile for its acting. To the untrained viewer (and I’ve spoken about this before) Garbo may be a difficult phenomenon to understand. Many of my contemporaries decry her as hammy or artificial. But I never get that impression from Garbo. (The Barrymores, Crawford, and even Shearer, sometimes, but never Garbo.) Instead, I see a person feeling — raw and restrained, too much and too little, complex and simple. She’s made of magic and mystery, and though her performance style may not be the 21st century norm, her unique forms of emoting are captivating, and I think, brilliant. And even in this emotionally cheap and over-exuberant weepy motion picture, Garbo makes the whole affair something grand. But her grandiosity is both a blessing and a curse to the film. For while she’s elevating the mediocre material, she’s also feeding into its false sense of creative ingenuity. It is only in the moments in which Garbo gets to act one on one with Navarro, with whom she shares a respectable amount of chemistry, that the stars seem to momentarily align, and her brilliance clicks within the confines of the only adequate script. So like many of Garbo’s pics, I enjoy them most for the performances — hers, in particular.

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In many ways this is the ideal Garbo picture. Or rather, this is a perfect example of what a typical Garbo film is about. She plays an exotic femme fatale in a foreign locale, and while her co-stars are solid (if not great), Garbo acts up a storm, making the less-than-stellar script blossom into a highly watchable and often entertaining film. And I must emphasize: it IS entertaining… and recommended to all classic film lovers.

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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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