Among Garbo’s 14 sound films (15 if we count both versions of Anna Christie) there are several that are very famous and easy to find – among these Ninotchka, Anna Karenina, Camille, Grand Hotel and Queen Christina. All of the above are readily available on DVD, and whenever there used to be a season of her films on TV, and I remember two different seasons on Portuguese TV (oh, the good old days) most of these would be included. Some of the others however are really hard to find, so I was quite pleased when I got a chance to watch the 1934 adaptation of “The Painted Veil”.
I read Somerset Maugham’s novel many years ago, and then saw the 2006 adaptation with Naomi Watts and Edward Norton. The common story of the three versions is this: Kitty (or Katrin in Garbo’s version) marries a bacteriologist to run away from home. He takes her to Hong Kong and dotes on her until he finds out she’s been having an affair. He gives her three choices – if her lover would be willing to divorce his wife, he would let her go; otherwise, she must face a messy divorce or join him in a remote part of China where there is a cholera outbreak. From this point onwards, the two film adaptations differ slightly from each other and the novel.
The 2006 version is fairly faithful, if I recall correctly, but misses a couple of important points including not explaining why Kitty didn’t want to come back to London (an overbearing mother). The 1934 version is surprisingly faithful to the first part of the novel, sorting that problem, and also leaving no doubts that Garbo has indeed committed adultery. Yet, it transforms the English Kitty into the Austrian Katrin (thus giving a reason for Garbo’s accent, always an important issue) and gives the story an altogether different ending, in the opposite direction of that designed by Maugham, and rather unexpectedly, different from what I thought the Hays Code would impose.
This earlier version has of course some faults. Two of the most bland leading men ever appear as the vertices in the love triangle – Herbert Marshall as the husband and George Brent as the lover. Surprisingly, George Brent actually acts – he’s charmingly devious which works very well. I completely understood why a bored housewife would fall for him. More seriously miscasted is Herbert Marshall. He is a pain to watch – I always found him the weakest link in one of favourite films, William Wyler’s “The Letter”. He’s too nice and too pleasant (and let’s face it, too dull) to actually be believable as someone who takes his wife to the middle of an epidemic purely for revenge. Edward Norton pulled it much, much better. But this version has a big plus: Garbo, and from the opening credits she no longer needs a first name. And she’s relaxed and funny in the Austrian set scenes, and I was surprised on how MGM’s publicity machine made it sound that only in Ninotchka did she find her sense of humour. It is all here.
The more films of her earlier films I see, the more I am interested in her. I imagine that none will ever be as good as Ninotchka or Camille, but I am now keen to watch a VHS of Marie Walewska/Conquest recorded off TV a good 12 years ago that I have lying somewhere in Lisbon and never have watched. All I have to do is take a deep breath and swallow Charles Boyer the best I can. (Her leading men are often so not interesting...) Of course, I would love to get my hands on the remainder of her American film, silents and all, in nice pristine DVDs.