SPOTLIGHT: Gorgeous Pre-Code Garbo (IV)

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 in this spotlighted series we’ve featured  Anna Christie (1930), Inspiration (1931), and Mata Hari (1931). Today…


As You Desire Me (1932)


A woman recovering from amnesia must choose between her current lover and the husband she’s potentially forgotten. Starring Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Erich von Stroheim, Owen Moore, and Hedda Hopper. Based on the play Luigi Pirandello. Adaptation by Gene Markey. Directed by George Fitzmaurice.


This melodramatic Pre-Code Garbo vehicle arouses mixed sentiments, as the the idea on paper (adapted from a romantic Italian play) seems far superior to the final celluloid product. And while the premise captivates, the way the story is told — with routinized directing and overcompensating performers — leaves much to be desired. Not a horrible film, but will it appeal to those who aren’t hardcore Garbophiles? We shall see…


Zara, a sultry singer in a Budapest nightclub, is a cynical alcoholic. She lives with novelist Karl Salter, who loves her, and tolerates her life of drinking and picking up men. When a man named Tony comes for her and calls her “Maria,” Karl is told that Tony has been looking for her for ten years to take her back to his best friend, Count Bruno Varelli. Tony says that she is Maria, Bruno’s wife, who had disappeared ten years before during World War I, but Zara denies that she is Maria and orders Tony out. She soon relents, however, and goes with him, despite the fact that Karl threatens her and shoots her in the arm. At the Varelli estate, when Bruno receives word that his long-presumed dead wife is returning, he is ecstatic, but when Zara arrives, she is like a stranger and doesn’t recognize him or their devoted family servants. She claims that she is not really Maria, but when he begs her to stay, she asks him to help her be the woman he desires–Maria as she appeared when Tony painted her portrait many years before. Meanwhile, Karl goes to visit Ines Montari, Maria’s sister, seeking her help in exposing Zara as an imposter. As Zara and Bruno get to know each other, she falls in love with him and wants to devote her life to him.

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“Just as she seems to be grasping the happiness that has eluded her for so long, however, Karl comes to the estate to see her. He tells her that one week from that day, Maria was to be declared legally dead and that her property would have gone to her sister Ines instead of Bruno. When Zara realizes that he is telling the truth, she thinks that Bruno has merely been playing a game for the property. Bruno protests, but Zara does not believe him. When Karl then says that the real Maria, who has been confined to a sanitarium since the war, is with him, they demand to see her. As the woman enters, she calls Ines and the maid Lena by name and, though veiled, she is accepted as Maria by most of the family. Bruno and Tony refuse to believe that the woman is Maria, however. Through questioning, the woman regains bits of her memory and they realize that she is not Maria, but one of the women who lived on the estate before the war. Finally, Bruno tells Zara that he loves her, no matter who she is or was. When he says that he has found his lost love in her, Zara realizes that they can be happy.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)


If one were to read the above two paragraphs, the synopsis so handily provided by Turner Classic Movies, it would be very easy (and not entirely inaccurate) to predict that this film would not only be a very exciting and engaging watch, but that it would make for the perfect Greta Garbo film: passionate, mysterious, and adult. And to its credit, the film has many moments that fulfill its expectations. Garbo as always, is a font of passion, flowing forth freer than ever, while the very design of her character ensures a certain amount of mystery: who is this woman? And, no doubt about it, there are several moments between Garbo and her two suitors with implications that are inflamingly adult (see: von Stroheim).

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However, the ingenuity of the story is never fully excavated within the confines of the screenplay; it is impossible to shake the exceedingly pervasive feeling that everything that is happening — the action, the dialogue, the visuals — could all be much more. Not that there must be an abundance of the aforementioned, but that everything concocted by the magic-making folks at MGM could be more fully-realized and more coherently assembled. There simply aren’t enough good moments to sustain this already abbreviated picture (running at about 70 minutes), and the fascinatingly complex story — which seems to imply the existence of deeper motifs —  never comes to life in the way that it should.


Most of the fault comes to the script itself. Without having read the play from which the screenplay was adapted, I can only rely on heresay, which generally contends that the fault lies with MGM and not in the work of the distinguished Italian playwright. However, we must be careful to wallop the studio with all of the blame for the script — some works are best left on stage. And given the premise’s emphasis on a plot hinged entirely on the interactions between human beings, maybe it needs a different kind of intimacy than that promised by a lens. Maybe it needs the liveness: that spontaneous single moment, “the first time.” But this is conjecture. Simply: the script makes things less exciting and is scarcely worth mentioning. It is ordinary.


It seems the actors may have known this, for everyone (with the possible exception of Hedda Hopper, whose onscreen persona appears to vary quite minutely from picture to picture) adopts a heightened style of performance. (Now, as performers in older films are unfairly slapped with the contemporary critique that begins with “over” and ends with “acting”, I must impress that a lot of the stars of this era are quite capable of more restrained — and therefore, natural — performances. It’s simply that the pictures themselves require an elevated technique, and that’s what is being delivered.) Unfortunately, while the story fools one into thinking it requires melodrama, the final product, in which everyone overacts (including the Divine One herself), proves that the actors are not helping the script, despite their best efforts.

Perhaps some of this can be attributed to Douglas’ futile attempts to match Garbo. He comes off looking imbicilic, and while he shares more chemistry with her than the frigid Robert Montgomery, he lacks the unsettling whimsy of Ramon Navarro or the pure strength of Clark Gable, to make both himself and his leading lady look good. Of course, our spotlighted star needs no help in the beauty department; she radiates whenever she’s on the screen. However, it is impossible to absolve her of the charges above that I’ve leveled at the performers, for she is indeed the ringleader. And yes, this is part of her usual regime, but it evens seems like the Divine Garbo is forcing things that just wouldn’t naturally be there. I often find Garbo melodramatic, but I rarely find her false — and that’s part of her magic. In this film, some things ring false. (This could open up a debate about whether or not this is intentional on her part — after all, this is a woman who doesn’t know who she is — but I’m inclined to believe the performance is simply taking its cue from the histrionic script.)

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That’s not to say that there aren’t moments of riveting truth. There are moments — especially with Garbo. But they are few and far between, and that’s ultimately what holds the film back: there’s not enough to recommend here. The story is great, the actors themselves are great, but the combination… disappointing. Thus, this picture will probably appeal most to those previously mentioned Garbophiles. There’ll find something to enjoy here. (I’d watch it again, simply because it is fascinating to see a picture that really should work, but simply does not.) The rest of you readers: you might have better luck elsewhere.




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