Before internal institutions and codes were put into place to regulate the content of Hollywood films, there were just some themes that even the most controversial filmmakers dare not depict. Clarence Brown is certainly not among those maverick firebrands, but A Woman of Affairs – adapted from a steamy novel by Michael Arlen entitled The Green Hat – is a prime example of cinematic self-censorship before the imposition of the Hays Code in Hollywood. The Green Hat had become a bestseller and contained provocative material for the 1920s: hard drugs (heroin specifically), illegitimate childbirth, and homosexuality (only hinted at in the film, and quite vaguely) being three such plot points erased for A Woman of Affairs. Furthermore, a character’s case of syphilis in The Green Hat turned into embezzlement for A Woman of Affairs.
But this melodrama is salvaged from obscurity and painful mediocrity thanks to the presence of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. Two of silent film’s thespian legends, Garbo and Gilbert’s careers were diverging: Garbo made a successful transition to talkie films where Gilbert did not.
Diana Merrick (Garbo) and Neville Holderness (Gilbert) are childhood friends in love, but his father, Sir Morton Holderness (Hobart Bosworth) disapproves of their affair. Sir Holderness believes Diana has distracted Neville from his familial duties and masculinity. Without informing Diana, Neville’s father sends him away to serve British colonial forces in Egypt, where he will be stationed for at least two years. Distraught, Diana denounces Sir Holderness for his deceptions as he calmly wishes that, during their time apart, the two might find somebody else to love. Diana waits two years for Neville’s return as fellow childhood playmate David Furness (John Mack Brown) professes his love for her. They marry, but David commits suicide without explanation or an apparent motive. Diana’s brother Jeffry (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), also friends with David, blames his sister for David’s suicide and hurtles himself into alcoholism. Diana spends an enormous amount of her time following David’s death by flirting with other men and engaging in a whirlwind spell of affairs, hence A Woman of Affairs.
Contrived? Absolutely. Trashy? Goodness me, yes. Worthless? That might be too harsh. It is Garbo and Gilbert – who had an on-off romantic affair that lasted two years and began with their roles in the indisputably superior Flesh and the Devil (1926) – that patch up an exceptionally cringeworthy Michael Arlen and Bess Meredyth screenplay beset by some clichéd, unimaginative romantic lines and plot developments (in the context of the film, syphilis would have made more sense than embezzlement). Some of the stodgiest silent films I have an encountered are sometimes due to the theatrical gesticulations and overacting from the actors involved (in other instances, silent film-era overacting makes me burst in laughter). Of the films I have seen with Garbo or Gilbert (who I’ve seen far less of), I’ve never encountered this problem and A Woman of Affairs is a testament to their talents. The way the two look at each other – especially the oft-complained-about scene where Neville returns from Egypt and sees Diana, asking whether she would like to spend the night with him – exudes gleaming Hollywood romance. Their chemistry swirls around in the night sky, never relenting when the two are sharing a scene. Garbo’s acting during what is lovingly described by silent film fans as “the flowers scene” is a career highlight. The range of acting on display in just a few minutes speaks to Garbo’s professionalism, heartbreaking even without dialogue.
Cinematographer William H. Daniels – an Erich von Stroheim regular whose best works include Greed (1924), Flesh and the Devil, and Queen Kelly (1928) – allows his camera to be mobile. Through a handful uses of dolly shots (a rarity at this juncture in film history and especially silent film in general), Daniels helps director Clarence Brown to heighten the dramatics and display the characteristically opulent Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) production values. The soft lighting in the more romantic moments is not as dreamlike like in Flesh and the Devil, but few other cinematographers in the silent era could be as wickedly suggestive as Daniels. How Garbo plays with a ring on one of her fingers in the love scenes – we see nothing more, suggesting her exhilaration whoever she might be romancing – is something from Ernst Lubitsch’s playbook (I can only imagine that Lubitsch, if he saw A Woman of Affairs, must have thought either that Brown and Daniels stole his idea or that he could not believe that he didn’t think of such a clever piece of framing first). Other points of aesthetic brilliance: the focus during the flowers scene when Diana realizes Neville is standing in front of him and the deep staging – though deep focus cinematography would not be perfected until the late 1930s/early 1940s, some of the deep staging seen throughout A Woman of Affairs is a decade ahead of its time.
Released after the introduction of synchronized sound in films, A Woman of Affairs arrived in an awkward era where talkies were in a curious experimental stage where aural experimentation was valued over visual elements. Many of the post-Jazz Singer silent films were shot in a silent format, but were provided with synchronized original scores. Two different scores have been written for A Woman of Affairs: William Axt (head of the music department at MGM) for the original print and Carl Davis’ restoration score (currently a conductor with the London Philharmonic Orchestra but best known for his accompanying scores for silent films). Most prints available of A Woman of Affairs will have Davis’ score – which is serviceable, but is nothing like his later compositions/re-orchestrations for many silent films such as the films of Charlie Chaplin, the 1925 Ben-Hur, and an adaptation score for the 1924 version of The Thief of Bagdad.
A Woman of Affairs could also be interpreted as a stalling tactic for MGM to transition Garbo into talkies. Fearful that audiences might reject her Swedish accent, MGM delayed Garbo’s introduction to talkies until her last silent film the following year, The Kiss (1929). 1930′s Anna Christie would be Garbo’s introduction into synchronized sound and, despite the intense trepidation in the MGM boardroom, the film was a smash, establishing Garbo as one of the most popular Hollywood actors in the silent and early sound era. For John Gilbert – considering the most desirable romantic lead following the death of Rudolph Valentino – A Woman of Affairs marked the final time he starred in a leading role in a critical and popular success. Gilbert engaged in ferocious clashes of personality and artistic difference with dictatorial MGM head Louis B. Mayer (other MGM contractees saw Mayer as a benevolent figure, but those winding up on his bad side were shown no quarter), which led Mayer to provide Gilbert with lesser scripts and directors in the early sound era. Depression seeped in as his name faded from the spotlight, exacerbating his alcoholism, and leading to his death at 40 years of age in 1936.
It might not be the best film starring Garbo or Gilbert or the best piece of work from director Clarence Brown or cinematographer William H. Daniels, but A Woman of Affairs is an adequate silent melodrama. Dated in some parts, but always resuscitated by the two central actors, students and fans of silent should watch it if only for the stars in love – off- and on-screen.
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