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Flesh and the Devil
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by Jay Seaver

"Garbo & Gilbert goodness."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL: Though "Flesh and the Devil" was both the film that solidified Greta Garbo's image as a sex symbol in America and where she and co-star John Gilbert began their passionate real-life love affair, it's also the sort where one eventually wishes the two male leads would just kiss already. That's not happening in 1926, obviously, and trying to make the movie fit that narrative means discounting a lot of what's actually going on, but... Well, this film has enough heat for the main pot to boil over, and the overflow's got to go somewhere!

It starts in the army, where aristocratic young soldier Ulrich von Eltz (Lars Hanson) is frantically trying to cover for bunkmate and lifelong friend Leo von Harden (Gilbert), who has been on the town into the wee hours again. Though put on grunt duty, they are eligible for furlough a few weeks later, and at the first dance of the season, Leo ignores Ulrich's sister Hertha (Barbara Kent) and makes a beeline straight for the sultry Felicitas (Garbo). Alas, she turns out to be married, which leads to a duel, which leads to an exile to the African colonies, and when Leo returns, it seems everything but his and Felicitas's attraction has changed - but not to make things simpler.

The stories of how Gilbert and Garbo came together on this set - including a day where director Clarence Brown didn't yell "cut!" but just quietly speed the camera and left the set with the crew so that the stars could take the love scene to its logical conclusion - are Hollywood legend, and that heat certainly does make the screen. There's a fiery directness to Garbo's Felicitas, whether lusting after Leo or reacting to Ulrich innocently mentioning that he is quite wealthy; even after the audience gets some idea of how mercenary she can potentially be, it's not difficult to recognize her ability to draw men into her orbit at all.

John Gilbert reciprocates well as Leo; he's not quite so well remembered as a matinee Idol as others are among the general public, but he was no slouch at that job. Here, he's got an easy charm that easily explains Hertha's crush on Leo, and manages to shift to another level of intensity when Felicitas appears, either in person or conversation, although without looking the fool (even if he's also not quite so aware of the score as he thinks). Just as importantly, he's got impressive chemistry with Lars Hanson. Hanson plays the more serious half of this pair of longtime friends without making Ulrich seem bland or dour, loosening up at the right moments and doing his part to establish this friendship as having enough weight that Felicitas endangering it would feel like a tragedy. Barbara Kent, on the other hand, never makes Hertha the worthy good-girl alternative she's meant to be.

Funny thing - it's not clear whether her describing half as "sixteen, almost" derails her part when seen today because she's just old enough for it not to fly or because setting up someone that young as a potential love interest is kind of creepy. It wasn't uncommon in gothic romances such as the novel this was based upon (The Undying Past by Hermann Sundermann), although the script by Benjamin Glazer doesn't so much modernize it as turn the lights on and let it feel modern even as its set in nineteenth-century Germany.

Interestingly, scrubbing the gothic trappings off the story leaves something akin to what would later be called film noir, and the moments when he seems to be anticipating those films are some of the best: The duel between Leo and Count von Rhaden, for instance, is all sharp shadows, and Felicitas seems much more like a femme fatale than the classic scheming aristocrat. Ultimately the original genre starts to reassert itself - or the types of stories show similar roots - and the melodrama that goes with the men asserting their affection for each other starts getting laid on pretty thick, to the extent that it starts to become a little much, and the idea that their "Isle of Friendship" might be code for a different sort of relationship starts to take hold. It probably shouldn't - Flesh and the Devil is plenty romantic and sexy enough on its own without trying to slip something subversive in.

Besides, doing so might make the "happy ending" that Brown was forced to film (but which isn't included in the film) less of a betrayal and more of a tragedy. You can tie yourself in knots thinking that way without really gaining anything, and it's not necessary; this is still a highly entertaining film (and a massive hit) without those contortions.

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originally posted: 06/03/15 13:49:36
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  25-Dec-1926 (NR)

  N/A (PG)


Directed by
  Clarence Brown

Written by
  Benjamin Glazer
  Marian Ainslee

  John Gilbert
  Greta Garbo
  Lars Hanson
  Barbara Kent

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