Building My Movie Posters Puzzle: The Painted Veil

In late June of last year I took advantage of some free days to visit my Mother in Virginia for her birthday. It was a fun long weekend that included meals out, a screening of Finding Dory, and an unexpected shared activity when I ran across a puzzle in the book store that was just too good to pass up. It consists of thirty-nine posters from a wide variety of classic films stretching from the silent era of the 1920s into the 1970s. It was an engrossing project to undertake alongside my Mother and we naturally discussed several of the featured movies as we built it. What stunned me a little was that I had actually only seen twenty-six of the thirty-nine films honored. I have vowed to fill these gaps in my knowledge of film and take you along for the ride as I reconstruct the puzzle in question. I’ll re-watch the movies I’ve already seen along with experiencing the ones that are new to me and share my thoughts on each one.

When I set this task for myself, there were obviously some of the included films that I had already seen and there were some others which I had yet to experience. Of the latter group, my anticipation in tackling them has varied for a range of reasons. A movie like For Whom the Bell Tolls comes with its own attached literary and historical interests beyond the content of the actual film. Meanwhile, something like Tarzan the Fearless was an opportunity to consider a character whose wild popularity has mostly dissipated in the intervening years. This time around, the primary interest was in getting an additional look at a legendary film actress: one Great Garbo.

Garbo is one of the more unique performers in the history of cinema for a variety of reasons. Her success in “talkies” after making a name for herself first in silent films is remarkable enough, but the fact that she became a huge star in English-speaking markets without ever fully ridding herself of her Swedish accent is doubly impressive.

After being noticed and recruited by MGM executive Louis B Mayer, she became a sensation in the enticingly-titled Flesh and the Devil, released in January of 1927. Garbo had been strong armed into continuing work on the picture instead of returning to Sweden upon the news of her sister’s death. Although the incident certainly makes the studio look pretty insensitive, the resulting movie was a huge boon for her career, and in the following contract talks, MGM would be forced to make her one of the highest-paid actresses in the business.

She and co-star John Gilbert began a love affair on the set of Flesh and the Devil which never resulted in marriage, but the pair appeared together on screen three additional times between 1927 and 1933. Gilbert asked her to marry him multiple times, but she always ended up putting him off, later admitting that she had loved him, but worried that he would become overbearing as a husband. “I always wanted to be boss.” Later revelations have suggested that her unwillingness to commit to Gilbert or any of her other suitors may have been due to bi-sexuality. She was undeniably well-acquainted with openly lesbian women of the time, and many personal letters which became available in later years have vaguely indicated that she had romantic relationships with more than one of them. The biography of writer Mercedes de Acosta reports an on-again off-again love affair between the two women that lasted for most of thirty years.

When Garbo starred in her first “talkie” picture, Anna Christie in 1930 the accompanying marketing for the film ballyhooed the fact. The legend credits the repeated exclamation of “Garbo Talks!!” but I have to admit that I found little evidence of this beyond the legend itself.

Most examples are along the lines of the above poster, in which her new speaking role is indeed trumpeted, but the famous pronouncement “Garbo Talks!” is nowhere to be found. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any original trailer for the film that might have contained the line, either.

What I did find was a photograph of a trade magazine with a relatively similar phrase printed on the cover. The legend of the slogan is powerful enough that it became the title of a 1984 film directed by Sidney Lumet in which the main character’s dying mother expresses the wish to meet the reclusive star before she passes away.

I’m not going to make the claim that the slogan was never used widely, and I’d love it if any of our readers could direct me to a primary source for its dominance. As it stands now, though, this seems like one of those cases in which a famous line is actually remembered inaccurately. You know, along with stuff like “Play it again, Sam” from Casablanca, and “Luke, I am your Father” from The Empire Strikes Back.

Garbo’s performance in Anna Christie, along with her turn in that same year’s Romance led to her first nomination for the Best Actress Oscar (at the time, performers could be honored for the totality of their output in a given year). The movie also did well at the box office, having taken in more than $1 million to this date and ranking among the top earners of the year.

Her popularity was unquestioned for several years, with film after film showing good returns at the box office. In 1931, only the classics Frankenstein and City Lights out-grossed her wildly popular films Mata Hari with Lionel Barrymore, and Susan Lenox (Her Rise and Fall), which co-starred the young Clark Gable. Her run of success continued the following year with her appearance in the star-studded Best Picture winner Grand Hotel, which was the second-ranked film at the box office of 1932.

The above scene from Grand Hotel would become perhaps the most indelible of her career, emblematic not only of her mysterious screen presence, but also of her own interactions with the outside world. As early as 1928 she had a reputation for a distaste for the social and marketing side of the business, stating in an interview “as early as I can remember, I have wanted to be alone. I detest crowds, don’t like many people.” It’s hard to argue that the scene and her casting in it did not play off of her already established public persona, but as the saying goes, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

In the early 1930s Garbo was proclaimed as “the greatest money-making machine ever put on screen” in some quarters, and to modern eyes her withdrawal from elements of her fame does not seem surprising at all. She briefly left America and returned to her native Sweden, but a round of negotiations resulted in her returning to star in the lavishly produced drama Queen Christina. The film garnered both critical praise and a financial boom for the studio, becoming the top-earning movie of 1933. It did create some controversy for some viewers, however. See if you can spot the reason why in the below scene.

In the following few years, despite some films such as Anna Karenina, which won her an award from the New York Film Critics, her movies’ financial success became sporadic in part due to her own high salary and generally relied on her strong following in European markets. 1936’s production of Camille was cast under a shadow when both John Gilbert and Irving Thalberg passed away unexpectedly. It was guessed by some that the resulting pallor had actually aided in creating some of the film’s more somber moments, and Garbo was rewarded with another Oscar nomination for her performance.

Fortunes can turn quickly in the fame business, however, and when Garbo’s 1937 film Conquest turned out to be an enormous bomb, losing the studio more than $1 million, the backlash was quick and strong. A 1938 article published widely declared Garbo as “box office poison” alongside other stars such as Mae West, Katherine Hepburn, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, and Fred Astaire. While the article did not impugn the artistic skills of the listed performers, it did criticize their high salaries. Though some of the named individuals openly scoffed at the article and quickly re-signed even bigger contracts, Garbo’s recent retreat to Sweden along with the expiration of her contract at this inopportune time did not appear to help her.

The response was to break from the grand dramas and period pieces Garbo had been known for up to that point in favor of her first patently comic movie. The result was both a critical and financial success, the Ernst Lubistch directed Ninotchka, which was in part written by Billy Wilder who would go on to huge later success. The movie continues to be one of her most fondly remembered vehicles and was equally popular in its time, honored with four Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture, Best Screenplay,  and Garbo’s own third career nomination for Best Actress (she would lose to Vivien Leigh for her turn in Gone With the Wind).

Unfortunately, a combination of factors conspired to bring Garbo’s career to an end sooner than it should have. Her follow-up to Ninotchka, called Two-Faced Woman was another comedy, which had her performing in ways which had rarely been seen from her before. The film, however, ended up being critically panned and did not live up to many of her other films at the box office (while not being an actual flop). The movie’s poor reception did little to help Garbo’s predisposition for a solitary life, but while some have said it ended her career on its own there were other elements at play. The ongoing war in Europe had closed off large portions of the markets her movies had so often relied on, so finding roles was not as easy for her as it had been in previous years. She actually signed on for a few productions, but when these encountered stumbling blocks, she had the habit of dropping out. After the war, Billy Wilder reportedly attempted to cast her in the Norma Desmond role in his legendary noir-ish Hollywood satire Sunset Boulevard, but after a single meeting Garbo was apparently not interested. As time went on, her own insecurity over her aging only encouraged her continued avoidance of the public sphere.

Eventually, Garbo would become the default example of the reclusive celebrity, with her well-worn “I want to be alone” regurgitated again and again. One example is the above cartoon from a set of satirical family crests for famous people as published in a 1952 issue of Mad Magazine. More recently, the same quote was revived for a gag about the possible Twitter accounts of classic Hollywood stars.

In 1975, nine years prior to her death, Garbo sent a letter to a lifelong friend of hers named Mimi Pollak. Included in the letter was a poem of her own writing which was focused on not being able to touch the hand of her beloved friend with whom she might have been walking through life. The meaning of this poem has been interpreted different ways. I will leave you to your own conclusions.

“But wait!” I hear you saying, “What about The Painted Veil? Isn’t that what we’re here to talk about?” Well, yeah, that was the leaping off point, but I felt like talking about Garbo was actually more interesting than one of her less famous and less honored films. The Painted Veil has some compelling qualities, including a technically impressive scene depicting a Chinese celebration and Garbo’s own performance. The difficulties I have with the 1934 version of The Painted Veil can be explained simply. The film is based on a novel of the same name and has that tone, but does not sprawl effectively enough to sell its own pretense at grandeur. Instead it rushes through the relationships of its characters in a mere 85 minutes. This results in a decrease in our feeling that we know these characters and can understand their motivations. One of the possible fatalities of this situation is the utter lack of likability in a character who our main character is supposed to be helplessly in love with. I don’t discount that the performance of the actor does not help, but my conclusion is rather that the writing of his scenes is not skilled enough to take us along with her as she makes mistakes. Because of this, we are left adrift in a movie without a sympathetic lead when the movie appears to believe that its lead is, in fact, sympathetic.

So there you have it. My movie posters puzzle selected a poor example of a Greta Garbo film to feature in my estimation. Instead, I would recommend that you take a look at Ninotchka or perhaps Grand Hotel. If any of our readers have other Garbo pictures they prefer I would love to have recommendations more compelling than The Painted Veil.


Posted on August 11, 2017, in Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I am mostly familiar with Garbo from Ninotchka and would second daffy’s recommendation—if you want to get a little feel for why there was a mystique surrounding her, that is where to start.


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