Greta Garbo was only around twenty-one when she made The Temptress, her second film in Hollywood, but my heavens was she stunning. When she removes her mask at the beginning of the film, her leading man, Antonio Moreno, is visibly staggered and can only mumble something obvious about how beautiful she is.
I’ve read countless articles where authors write in reverent, semi-spiritual tones about her mystery and allure, which contrarily, has inclined me to dismiss her. I’ve seen her in only three films, all talkies (including the delightful Ninotchka), but after watching her in a silent film, I begin to see what they mean.
The Temptress is a film that is obsessed with her beauty. The plot revolves around how every man that meets her can’t help falling madly in love. Friends fight and kill each other, men ruin themselves or neglect their work or even commit suicide. And then they blame her for it all.
No wonder she looks so weary at the beginning of the film, in a brilliantly shot scene where she stands in a theater box, looking out at masked revelers. Not many twenty-one year olds can look so weary. She is approached by a man, who demands an answer to some question. She replies that she does not love him. Then she tries to leave the party, but has to fight her way through the throng, many of whom try to draw her into the revelry. One can almost imagine her saying that she wants to be alone.
But she is followed into the garden by one man, Manuel Robledo (Antonio Moreno) and it is love at first sight. They spend the evening making vows of love and so on. Except that she is married and another man has ruined himself for her. So Manuel is disillusioned and returns to Argentina, where he is overseeing the construction of a great dam.
The majority of the film occurs in Argentina. Greta Garbo’s character, Elena, and her husband travel to Argentina to make a new start in life after a scandal in Paris regarding Elana. But Elena is determined to win Manuel back, the only man she ever loved. Except she manages to inflame nearly all the men, including Lionel Barrymore, which gets in the way of building the dam.
Manuel believes that she is evil and resolved not to yield, despite wishing to do so. It’s high melodrama and distinctly sensational at times. Still, the film is strikingly directed by Fred Niblo, who was also responsible for The Mark of Zorro and the 1925 Ben-Hur. There is also an exciting score by Michael Picton, who wrote the original score for the film in ’26.
The film is based on La Tierra de Todos, by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, who also wrote Blood and Sand. I am not sure exactly how the book goes, but the film appears to be skewed more towards Greta Garbo’s character, understandably. She holds the audience’s attention like no one else in the film and was well on her way to becoming one of MGM’s top stars.
Her character is not necessarily given a whole lot of development. In my sister’s analogy, she functions like the Congo River in Heart of Darkness. By going down the river, you find out what you really are like. Except in The Temptress, instead of going down the Congo, you meet her. Men suddenly find out that they are financially corrupt or have it in them to kill their friends. She basically just brings out what was already in the hearts of men.
Though it’s not at all clear that the film endorses this view. There are frequent intertitles extolling “Men’s work!” There are so many references to men and so many exclamation marks that they wouldn’t be out of place in one’s twitter feed. Women essentially get in the way. Especially Elena, who’s very beauty is presented as something of a curse which she has little control over. She certainly acts seductively, but it is suggested that it is her beauty that is the problem. She only acts the way it is expected of her to act.
It’s tough being Greta Garbo in this film. Though perhaps it was tough being Greta Garbo in real life, perhaps even why she retired at only thirty-six, having made twenty-eight feature films in her entire life.
It’s difficult to describe exactly what it was that made Greta Garbo so mesmerizing. She seems to draw you in with curiosity, but never actually satisfies that curiosity. What is she really thinking or feeling? Perhaps that is what kept audiences coming back, through silent and sound films.
This post is part of “The Greta Garbo Blogathon,” hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Click here for more posts from the blogathon.
The opening sequence of The Temptress.