Cine-East Film Club Presents #32: 1926, Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown)

by George_East on November 24, 2013

Pastor Voss: ‘My boy, when the devil cannot reach us through the spirit he creates a woman beautiful enough to reach us through the flesh.’

Like Fred and Ginger dancing or Humphrey Bogart in a mac and a hat with a cigarette hanging from his lips, the impassive face of Greta Garbo is one of the iconic images of the golden age of Hollywood Cinema.

The Swedish Garbo (her real name was Greta Gustafsson) became such a huge figure in the Hollywood of the late 1920s and 1930s that almost uniquely for a major star, she was often referred to by her surname alone – the only other star of whom this was true, was Universal Horror picture star, Boris Karloff.   For the latter calling him by his surname alone suggested he was somehow inhuman, reflecting the monsters he would play – in films like Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Ghoul.  For Garbo, it instead emphasised her enigma and untouchability.

This Week’s Cine-East Film Presentation is the film that made her into a superstar: Flesh and the Devil.   It was her third American film but would be the one that resulted in her becoming one of the most photographed women in the world.   It would also see her fall head over heels for her co-star who was at the time of the film the bigger name, John Gilbert, who in a real life version of A Star Is Born would see his career rapidly descend into disappointment, alcoholism and early death, as Garbo’s soared.

The first 30 or so years of cinema’s history were silent.  By the time sound came with The Jazz Singer (1927) Hollywood had learned how to tell compelling stories through visual  means alone with greater artistry than perhaps it ever reached again.   The late Hollywood silents contain some of the greatest gems of cinema – it is sad, I think, that they are so rarely seen now.

Flesh and the Devil is the second silent film to be presented by the Cine-East Film Club, after the German expressionist masterpiece that is  The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.  It is though the first from the United States.

It is at its heart a love triangle.   Leo (Gilbert) and Ulrich (Lars Hanson) have been close friends since childhood.   They swore a blood oath as children to be loyal and true to each other and served as officers in the German army.   Into this friendship will come the married Felicitas von Rhaden (Garbo).  Leo will fall for her and once caught by her husband, be forced to fight a duel.   Having won the duel Leo, in disgrace in the army, will be dispatched to Africa to serve in the colonial forces for 5 years.  While he is away, Ulrich, who has no knowledge of Leo’s affair with Felicitas, will fall in love with and marry her.   On Leo’s return the relationship between Leo and Ulrich will become increasingly strained leading ultimately to a second duel between the friends in front of the statute where they had, as children, sworn their blood oath.

Although the plot is firmly in the melodrama box,  the film never feels false.  This I think is largely down to the wonderful performances by Garbo and Gilbert.  Their sexual attraction seems very real from their first meeting, when Gilbert cannot take his eyes off of the woman who has emerged from the train he is waiting for.  In the later scene in which the husband of Felicitas, Count von Rhaden (Marc McDermott) catches the lovers in his apartment, the pair are positively post-coital in their satiated expressions.   It is hardly surprising that 22 minutes were cut out of the print for the UK release and it was banned in Garbo’s native Sweden.  It positively sizzles.

By contrast Ulrich always seems to have more eyes for Leo than for Felicitas.  The homo-erotic subtext in the relationship between the pair is enough to make Flesh and the Devil something of a lost gay classic.  The opening sequence of scenes set in an Army Barracks when we first meet the pair will involve Ulrich being given the task of looking after the bed bound Leo, who is pretending to be ill after failing to show up for parade.   The final scene of the film does not result, in the stereotypical way, in a romantic clinch between the male lead and the ‘good’ woman – in this case Ulrich’s sister, Hertha (Barbara Kent) but rather a reconciliatory hug between Ulrich and Leo, who can resume their ‘friendship’  now that Felicitas is out of the way.

Clarence Brown’s direction is throughout fluid and assured – doing romance, comedy and tragedy all equally well.  The comic set piece at the Baron’s ball at which Leo and Felicitas first get together is laugh out loud funny – as the baron falsely smiles and does clipped nods to the arriving guests (a scene that I think may have influenced the wonderful duel preparation scenes in Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) and the pastor gets so drunk on the over flowing tankards of beer that he is worried when he sees twins at the ball that it is the drink affecting his vision.

The duel between Leo and Count von Rhaden is beautifully realised, as the camera pulls back and back until the duelists and their seconds are small silhouetted figures against the breaking of dawn.  In another thing it shares with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp we do not see who shoots whom.  It is only in the next scene, as Felicitas puts on her mourning clothes, that the outcome of the duel  is made clear.

Gilbert is superb as Leo – a thoroughly decent man who will end up killing one man and almost killing his best friend as a result of his obsession with Felicitas.

But most of all there is Garbo – with those heavy lidded eyes and starkly defined cheek bones, oozing sex and manipulating the men around her to her own ends, whether that is pleasure or money.   It takes only an expensive bracelet for Felicitas to change her mind about running away with Leo.   Garbo’s performance is knowing and enigmatic – it is never clear whether she ever loved Leo – was he just there to satisfy her carnal needs, while her much older husband (and then Ulrich) satisfied her financial needs.  Whatever is the truth the look she gives Leo as the holy communion wine is passed from him to her at the altar rail as the parson delivers a hell fire and damnation sermon on adultery is one of the most electric in all cinema.  It is no wonder that Leo is totally helpless in her presence.

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