Early & Silent Film

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The Mysterious Lady, M-G-M 1928

Posted by keith1942 on December 3, 2016

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This film provided the opening night attraction at the 35th Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. We enjoyed Greta Garbo in a fine Photoplay 35mm print. And with Carl Davis conducting the Orchestra San Marco di Pordenone playing his 1980s score for the film. A presentation fit for the nearly 1,000 film fans filling the Teatro Verdi.

Mark A. Vieira praises the film in the Festival Catalogue:

“Greta Garbo’s sixth American film provides a fine introduction to the Garbo of the silent era. It shows how silent-film technology was evolving, even as sound film encroached. it is also a landmark in the evolution of the Garbo image. In 1928 she was not remote, stately or tragic. She was vital and sexualised. The post-adolescent with the sleepy stare was creating a sensation. There had never been a vamp with a heart, a mind, and a conscience.”

The production and Garbo as lead performer are both excellent. Other aspects of the film are more conventional. The plot was developed from a novelette by Ludwig Wolff, War in the Dark. Essentially it is a war time spy story with Tania Fedorova (Garbo) torn between her Russian spy master General Boris Alexandroff (Gustav von Seyffertitz) and a young Austrian officer Captain Karl Heinrich (Conrad Nagel). M-G-M employed at least six writers over six months producing a final screen treatment. Even then the plot remains predictable and lacking the subtlety of the best spy dramas. It is clear that none of the characters have actually watched or read spy stories, otherwise they would have known what was coming and presumably avoided the perils.

Whilst Garbo is luminous Conrad Nagel is romantic but not inspiring. And his character is certainly juvenile. Leaving Vienna by train Karl is carefully warned about spies and security and he still sleeps soundly through eight hours of the train journey. You can surmise what occurs.

The romance is assisted by some of the motifs placed in the plot. So Karl first sees Tania at the Vienna Opera House during a performance of Verdi’s Tosca; setting up suggestive themes that echo later in the film. We have two border crossing with their particular associations. And all the paraphernalia of spy stories, with secret papers and pre-arranged set-ups.

The film does supply great scenes between the romantic couple. Benjamin Christensen, who worked on the script, supplied one sequence:

“Tania walks over to a, little table where she lights a candle in a beautiful old French candlestick. George [changed to Karl] is playing the piano again, but stealthily his eyes follow her. This strange adventuress seems more and more interesting to him. And the melancholia which rests upon her seems to enhance this woman’s strange charm.”

Niblo, Garbo and Nagel.

Niblo, Garbo and Nagel.

This sequence is one of the many well served by the technology and craft of the production. Mark Vieira records that:

“This career landmark [for Garbo] is seldom mentioned but it was due to a technical innovation, panchromatic film. Before this, orthochromatic film had been the standard. “Ortho” could not see red and saw too much blue; lips went dark and blue eyes turned white. Garbo was beautiful but ghost-like. “Pan” saw the full spectrum, so the black & whit image showed the actual values of the subject.”

And this technical advance was, in this film, in the hands of a fine cinematographer and Garbo’s favourite lighting cameraman:

“The improved rendering of Garbo’s skin, lips, and eyes was more than helpful; it was stunning. In scene after scene, William Daniels used pan film and incandescent lights to paint glowing images of a performer whose presence was so unusual that even co-workers had difficulty describing it.”

The great pleasure of the screening was watching scenes like the one described. The sequence in the darkened mansion set round the piano was lustrous and Garbo looked as fine as in any of her films. In fact, some in a preview audience found this over the top and some shots were cut from the final print version. So the photograph of the production set-up used on the cover of the Catalogue with Nagel, Garbo, Daniels and director Fred Niblo is a shot that is not seen in the final scene. But it does demonstrate nicely the craft of the period and the mood musicians who accompanied the stars.

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