Director: Fred Niblo
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In 1928, the silent film era was nearing its end, Greta Garbo was at the height of her popularity, and her frequent director, Fred Niblo, was four years from the end of his career. The Mysterious Lady, a fairly standard-issue Mata Hari story, paired Garbo, as Russian spy Tania Fedorova, with leading man Conrad Nagel, as Austrian officer Karl von Raden. Only the year before, Garbo repeated the great sensation she made with her Flesh and the Devil costar John Gilbert in Love. They were an electifying pair on screen, but Gilbert’s frequent dust-ups with studio head Louis B. Mayer brought his career to a premature end. As Garbo’s leading man in The Mysterious Lady, Nagel offers fans a rougher sexuality, one that helped Garbo reach further into a darker aspect of herself—moving from someone who is born evil (The Temptress, Flesh and the Devil) to one whose evil is pragmatic and ostensibly patriotic. The Mysterious Lady thus presents a certain evolution in the Garbo oeuvre, one that enhances her exoticism while allowing her to emotionally shade her shady ladies.
Niblo opens the films with a wonderful scene. Horse-drawn carriages bunched together, moving in and out of the frame in a dense tapestry, deposit their elegantly dressed passengers at the entrance of a Vienna opera house. Two soldiers, von Raden and his friend Max Heinrich (Albert Pollet), rush to the box office to buy tickets at the last minute. The performance is sold out. Just then, a man returns a ticket to the box office. He gives the pair a suspicious sidelong glance, but leaves quickly. The ticket clerk says he can sell the soldiers one ticket. Max insists that Karl take it; Max intends to let a few cabaret girls entertain him.
Max is seated in a box. In front of him is the sumptuous back of a woman leaning on the edge of the box, paying rapt attention to the singers on stage. He concentrates his gaze on her, her soft curls, her curved arms. During a brief lull in the action, she turns to him and says, “Franz, you’re very late.” Surprised that he is not her cousin, she blushes. The pair are obviously attracted to each other, as they both squirm deliciously in their chairs, a really wonderful scene. The opera ends with the soprano dropping to her knees and moving toward the tenor in what looks like a declaration of love and plea for forgiveness.
The woman leaves and goes outside, only to be greeted with heavy rains and no ride home. As she stands on the street in confusion, Karl catches up to her and offers to take her home. She accepts, and when they arrive, she invites him in. They drink cognac and chat. Then Karl sits down to play her piano. He reprises the theme from the last scene of the opera, and she sings it. He falls in love on the spot. In rough passion, he grabs her from behind. She turns and invites his kiss. It’s a wonderfully choreographed scene of seduction, moving from polite to alarming to passionate.
Karl and Tania spend the next day in typical movie happiness—frolicking in nature. When their day is at its end, Karl tells Tania he must leave for Berlin for a short while. Tania wonders if there can again be days as wonderful as they have had. Karl vows to come back soon, and they will have many more such days. When he leaves, Tania goes inside and opens a letter. Someone named Boris tells her he misses her terribly. A rueful look crosses her face. Foreboding is in the air.
Karl picks up some important military plans from his superiors and is told by his Uncle Eric (Edward Connelly) that the woman he was seen with the previous night is a notorious Russian spy. Karl’s disbelief turns to anger. Karl boards the train and secures the documents in a briefcase. Tania bursts into his compartment from the adjoining compartment, telling him she had to see him one more time. He rebuffs her and accuses her of setting him up. She admits it, but says she really does love him and wants him to give her a chance. He becomes enraged. She says, “Don’t make me hate you, Karl,” but nothing will get through to him. In the morning, he awakens and finds that the documents are missing. He is arrested, courtmartialed for treason, and thrown in prison. The rest of the film details his escape and his plot to track down Tania and recover the documents and his honor.
There are so many wonderful moments in this film. For example, Karl’s public disgrace is really excruciating to watch. The ritual—broken sword, removal of all signs of rank and medals of accomplishment, and finally, cutting of buttons from the uniform coat—is done with precision and a horrible coldness we don’t feel Karl deserves. In another memorable scene, Boris (Gustav von Seyffertitz), Tania’s lover in waiting (it appears they have never had sex), throws her a birthday party. The camera movements for the party are done in standard movie language—close-up on a tray of champagne glasses opening up to the party full of guests laughing, talking, and dancing. But a titillating undercurrent moves through this swirl as Karl, posing as a professional musician, sits down at the piano with his stack of music. A quick glance at Boris and then at Tania sets up the major tension for the remainder of the film. In a nice double exposure, we see Karl’s thoughts as his image gets up from the piano bench and strangles Tania, who is standing next to him singing.
Garbo is excellent throughout. She wears little make-up in her opening appearance, looking fresh and innocently lovely. Her flirtation with Nagel at her home is perfectly orchestrated—step close, move back, circle around a table to pour a drink. When she is cornered by Boris, who has had her watched ever since he discovered that von Raden was on the premises, her fear and confusion are those of a wild animal. She has no plan for escape—indeed, probably knows there is no hope of it—but keeps working selflessly to free Karl, wondering all the while whether he plans to take his revenge on her or believes that she loves him. It’s a real tour de force that is a pleasure to watch.
The film is part of a recently issued Turner Classic Movies collection of Garbo films. It was scored by TCM’s 2000 Young Film Composers Contest Winner, Vivek Maddala. I thought his score was a bit cheesy in spots, particularly his sentimentality during the love scenes, but the love theme from the opera that recurs when Tania thinks of Karl is touching. The film from which the DVD was made was in a poor condition in parts, particularly the first reel, but it’s all there and visible even through the scratches and pops. This film is a must-see for Garbo fans, and well worth any film lovers’ time.