Sunday, March 21, 2010


British heiress Diana Merrick (Greta Garbo) grew up with two boys in love with her: the safe, bland David (Johnny Mack Brown) and the darkly handsome Neville (John Gilbert). Her younger brother Jeff (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), who has become a dissolute sot, has always had a bit a hero-worship thing for David (sort of a man-crush), but Diana prefers Neville. However, Neville's father doesn't approve of Diana and doesn't want her supporting his working-class son, so he packs Neville off to Egypt to work for a few years. Diana begs Neville to marry her before he leaves, but he doesn't, so seemingly out of spite, she marries David instead. On their honeymoon, two men come to the door of their room holding handcuffs; David then leaps to his death. When questioned, Diana says he "died for decency."

Diana goes on to a string of well-publicized affairs, and seven years later she returns to England to see her dying brother on the eve of Neville's marriage to the wholesome Constance. Though they try to fight their attraction, Diana and Neville have sex at the very moment that poor Jeff dies (rather calmly and beautifully like Ali McGraw in Love Story). Still, Neville marries Constance and now it's Diana's turn at dissolution, winding up months later in a sanitarium. Neville comes to comfort her, and as the tragic climax approaches, we finally learn the scandalous truth behind David's death and discover that Diana has been much more noble than anyone knows.

I'm on a bit of a John Gilbert kick after having read the bio Dark Star by his daughter Leatrice Gilbert Fountain. In this one, he doesn't have much to do except shoot smoldering looks at Garbo and get pushed around by his priss of a father. He certainly smolders well; he always seems to be undressing, with his eyes, every woman he looks at. Garbo is the typical silent Garbo, alternating between being stone-faced and being melodramatically expressive. More interesting here is Fairbanks (at right), who is a stunningly handsome teenager (he was only 18 when he made this) and gives the best performance in the film. Lewis Stone is also fine as an older friend of the Merricks, sort of a father surrogate. There is some interesting camerawork, including nice use of long takes, long shots, and zooms. It feels a bit too long in its last half-hour, but it's still quite watchable. [TCM]

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