***Inspired by my friend Jeffrey Goodman's ongoing series at his fine site, I have decided to undertake the rather mammoth job of selecting my favorite film for each year from 1926 to the present. This will take awhile, as I will just sporadically post these little tributes in between my regular posts, but hopefully they will prove interesting. It will also give me the chance to revisit some of my favorite films, which is as far from a bad thing as possible.***
Fractured by her increasing social anxieties and dreadfully homesick for her home in Sweden, 21 year old Greta Garbo had everything on her mind except her upcoming film assignment in 1925. Battling both a raging Louis B. Mayer, who was all but fed up with her, and her upcoming co-star John Gilbert, who thought of her as nothing but an odd looking snob, Garbo almost lost her shot at becoming one of cinema's most legendary stars when she nearly didn't show up for her scenes in Clarence Brown's now legendary Flesh and the Devil.
Of course the behind the scenes stories from Flesh and the Devil are the stuff of legend, and they are especially well-documented in Mark A. Vieira's extraordinary Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy, but they would only be footnotes if Brown's film wasn't so perfectly realized and brilliantly executed. Shot by Brown with the incredibly inventive cinematographer William Daniels, Flesh and the Devil is one of those films that feels like it is creating some sort of strange alchemy. It's a magic act featuring Brown's inventive direction, William's stunning lighting schemes, the unforgettable masculinity of Gilbert and the erotic gaze of Garbo. Flesh and the Devil shocked audiences in 1926 and it has lost none of its seductively poetic pull since.
Viewed today Flesh and the Devil can be thought of as a film about two very inspired pairings. The first being Brown and Williams and the other being Garbo and Gilbert. Vieira noted in his wonderful book on Garbo's Hollywood career that Daniels thought the cinematographer was, "an inventory of detail", who was there to add, "to the imagination of a director with his own scientific skills." Brown turned out to be the perfect director for Williams often startling creations of light and shadow and Flesh and the Devil remains one of the most striking looking films ever made. Watch this wonderous scene for example:
The magic wasn't just happening behind the camera as the once hostile relationship between Garbo and Gilbert took and unexpected turn their first day of shooting together. Crew members noted that it seemed to be love at first site for the two great actors and their on-screen chemistry is still the stuff of legend. Flesh and the Devil manages a real sexual spark in its scenes between Garbo and Gilbert and it's easy to see why it titillated and provoked so many film-goers and critics upon its release in 1926.
Despite everything it has going for it, my favorite element of Flesh and the Devil is Garbo's beautifully precise performance. Vieira notes in his book that Brown was the, "first director since (her mentor) Stiller to see the distinctly cinematic possibility in her technique, the first who was sensitive enough to elicit a subtle performance from her." Garbo's work in Flesh and the Devil is poetry in motion and it is the true beginning of one of the most remarkable careers in film history.
Flesh and the Devil is available in the excellent Garbo Silents Collection from Turner and the Garbo box set. It's a wonderfully provocative and striking film that is an ideal entryway into silent cinema for newcomers, and a potent reminder of the power of true alchemy in cinema.