Greta Garbo, cinema’s greatest actress and most intoxicating beauty, played Anna Karenina twice, both times for Clarence Brown, her favorite director: in 1927, in the silent Love; in 1935, in the talkie, which reclaimed two things: the title of Lev Tolstoi’s novel; Anna’s suicidal end, which a happy ending had replaced for the sake of love. The newly formed New York Film Critics Circle named Garbo its first “best actress.” Hers is both a precise and a fluent performance, one so brilliantly judged that the characterization never submits to soap opera. This was producer David O. Selznick’s penultimate film at M-G-M before Selznick “went independent”; in New York City, his A Tale of Two Cities (directed by Jack Conway and Robert Z. Leonard) was released just two days later, on December 27.
At 96 minutes, Brown’s film ruthlessly condenses the 900-page novel; playwrights Clemence Dane and S.N. Behrman nonetheless achieved a smooth, polished script, while Salka Viertel deepened the result by providing at least one woman’s viewpoint. Moreover, all hands, but especially Garbo, Brown, cinematographer William H. Daniels and scorer Herbert Stothart, give the film (despite little philosophy) a philosophical air, a melancholy beneath the upper-crust tsarist opulence, a sense of foreboding and fate—the idea that we are puppets of our feelings, which our intelligence or wit helps us to either deny or exaggerate.
I am presuming that every reader of this blog already knows the story contained in what many (including I) consider the single greatest novel ever written. In any case, married to an ambitious bureaucrat, Anna resists Count Vronsky’s professions of love until she falls in love with him. Karenin, throwing Anna out and forbidding her to see their young son, will not allow social murmurings about her affair to sabotage his career. I was plain wrong, in my review of Julien Duvivier’s Anna Karenina (1948), when I described Basil Rathbone’s Karenin, for Brown, as villainous, unnuanced. It is sympathetic acting, making plain (at least to me now) the range of Karenin’s feelings, including the self-righteous, self-rationalizing ones. Garbo absolutely convinces when she confesses to her husband that he terrifies her and then, shortly after, just as convincingly, shows her bravery by lambasting him for his selfishness and hypocrisy. Unlike Vivien Leigh’s, Garbo’s Anna remains sane; her suicide is the result of her feeling she has lost all other options, including Vronsky’s love and access to her son.
For me, the most captivating scene comes early on, at a ball, before Anna and Vronsky have become lovers. The mazurka is one of those light group dances where women flit from one partner to the next. (Chester Hale choreographed.) Anna begins the dance with Vronsky; when they are reunited on the dance floor, he tells her: “Our meetings are so brief. The dance, also.” Once she reciprocates Vronsky’s love, almost from the start Anna feels her life slipping away.
As a lover, Vronsky remains a military man, and one wonders, had he and Anna remained a couple, whether Vronsky might have become Karenin’s mirror-image; already he is self-absorbed. Both characters, note, bear the same name: Aleksei. Fredric March, who plays Vronsky, is never at his best at romance; he is superb, however, in the last scene following Anna’s death, where Vronsky is past icy pride and full of regret. Vronsky is assured that Anna forgave him. “Who knows?” Vronsky replies. “Who knows?”
The camera has already moved to a framed picture of Anna. Count Vronsky will remain haunted by his memory of her for the rest of his life.
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