The Screen's Great Lover- The Screen's Great Vampire- One Great Picture...
My boy, when the devil cannot reach us through the spirit... he creates a woman beautiful enough to reach us through the flesh.
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Flesh and the Devil (1926), directed by Clarence Brown is one of the most stunningly shot movies of all time.
We’re not great fans of the director personally. He used his wife’s contacts to get started in Hollywood then promptly dumped her for a much younger actress. From Frederica Sagor’s fascinating memoir The Shocking Miss Pilgrim:
Ona married for love, but Clarence Brown, cold, calculating hombre that he was, married Ona for other reasons: Ona was aggressive, fearless, and could open doors to make way for his future — none of which he could do for himself…
He also mortified Greta Garbo by announcing on the red carpet that she and John Gilbert were at it during shooting. Literally. He claimed they got carried away during a love scene and the crew withdrew to leave them to it.
However, we’re big enough to admit that the boy could direct.
Freddie Sagor agreed: “Eventually… Clarence Brown became a full-fledged director and climbed the ladder of success because he was good and had what it takes”. Flesh and the Devil is well worth a watch for the cinematography alone: just about every frame in the entire picture could hang in an art gallery.
Also, this shot 👇 made waves in the press for allegedly* being the first instance of a man being positioned in a vulnerable or inferior position to a woman.
*I say allegedly because that strikes me as a historically dicey claim. Given the sheer preponderance of vamp movies at the time, it seems unlikely a man had ever been shown under a woman, as it were, on film. And even if so, are there not paintings — Renaissance, maybe? My art history is shaky! — featuring men sprawled akimbo at the feet of goddesses?!
The fact it probably wasn’t true makes the claim all the more interesting.
A few months back, I talked about how Hollywood is in the business of selling us what we want to hear. Looking at movie publicity and celebrity gossip from any given period gives us huge insight into what the cultural mores and standards were.
Are we hearing stories of stars bathing in champagne or washing their own cars? Are we celebrating actresses who “may or may not believe in marriage, but definitely believe in divorce” (Gloria Swanson), or those who miss premiers to finger paint with their kids? There’s nothing inherently right or wrong with filling a bath with champagne (I mean, it sounds cold to me, but that’s because I’m writing this in Scotland in January) or finger painting (big fan, don’t even need a child about my person to indulge), but noting which narrative is in vogue tells us a lot about where we are culturally.
So the sheer fact that MGM made a song and dance about Garbo owning the shot, suggests that even as late as 1926, girl bossing was still selling like hotcakes.
Even if it was no longer the reality for many female filmmakers. Just a year earlier, MGM screwed June Mathis when they summarily removed her from the helm of her baby, Ben Hur (yup, the fifties version is a remake — surprise!) and didn’t even give her credit. Greta Garbo was, at that point, a shy 21 year old still struggling with her English and only on her third movie, so I suspect it was safe to present her as powerful, for PR reasons, if that makes sense.
This was a move MGM would very much come to regret. More on that later 😎
It also — sadly, because I think he was a decent, if weak, guy — foreshadowed the relationship between Garbo and John Gilbert that would play out over the next few years.
It’s said that their real life romance was the inspiration for the original A Star is Born (the very first version, released in 1937 was about actors — it switched to musicians for the fifties, Judy Garland version). Who knows whether or not that’s true, but the story certainly fits.
They met on the set of Flesh and the Devil. Bear in mind that Jack Gilbert was the hottest male star of the moment, and Garbo had made two, moderately successful films. On the first day of shooting, he apparently bounded up to her, all American-ly exuberant, held out a hand and shouted “pleased to meet you, Greta!”
She coldly looked him up and down, informed him, “it’s Miss Garbo” and wandered off.
(This should be giving you a hint as to just how badly MGM underestimated her…)
Apparently he eventually won her round, because, so the story goes, they were living together by the time production wrapped. They were the first ‘It’ couple, the original Brangelina, and gossip magazines breathlessly documented their many dramatic ups and downs. Supposedly, she left him at the alter three times.
By 1931, Garbo had become The Divine Garbo, the biggest star in the world, head and shoulders above any other actor working at the time. She was also highest-paid woman in America, with a top-secret production deal that gave her creative control over her films.
She returned to LA after an extended break in Sweden to make Queen Christina, a biopic of a bisexual (and possibly what we would today recognise as intersex or non binary) medieval Swedish queen. This was Garbo’s passion project, her baby — and one of the first things she did was fire a fresh-off-the-boat Laurence Olivier and replace him with Jack Gilbert.
By this time, Gilbert was all but washed up. Like many silent stars, he hadn’t quite managed the transition to talkies. There are long standing rumours around the idea that either his voice didn’t register for sound well, or that Louis B Mayer had tampered with his soundtracks to make his voice sound squeaky and shrill. I wouldn’t put that past Mayer, frankly, but in my opinion, Gilbert’s downfall was a combination of his acting style, his personal demons, and the fact that Hollywood is just a fickle place.
Gilbert was a phenomenal silent actor. He was physical, exuding emotion from tip to toes and owning the screen with sheer force of energy. Ironically, I’d argue that Greta Garbo pioneered what we now think of as movie acting, which lives in a flick of the eye or a tension in the jaw. In fact, I’d say that’s the core of why they were so dynamic on screen together — her powerful stillness contrasted with his wild exuberance and ignited any shot they shared.
But that style didn’t translate well into talkies. You don’t need to gesture wildly while you’re saying words — in fact, you quickly start to look daft if you do. You can see it in Queen Christina: the very vivacity that made him a star makes him look as though he’s overacting in a high school play.
It may have been due to the alcoholism that was starting to get the better of him by the advent of talkies, that he just wasn’t capable of changing. As his fame evaporated so too did his grip on functional adulting. Throughout the production of Christina, Garbo covered for him, announcing that *she* was unwell and wouldn’t be shooting that day, when he was too hungover to work.
I’ve said “supposedly”, “allegedly” and “so the story goes” about their relationship — for the simple reason that nobody actually knows for certain whether it wasn’t a showmance dreamed up by the MGM publicity department.
The loyalty that she showed him towards the end of his career suggests a bond between them, but there is no definitive evidence that it was romantic behind closed doors. I have a collection of her letters written to friends in Stockholm throughout the twenties, and not once does she refer to him as anything other than a colleague. Which of course doesn’t mean that she wasn't just being careful for privacy reasons, just that we can’t know for sure either way.
And just to bring this Flesh and the Devil chat full circle, the story was originally worked up by none other than Freddie Sagor, but thanks to MGM politics she never got credit.
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