Monday, April 28, 2014


The streets of Paris, so we are told by a costumed troubadour, throb with love and desire in the spring. At a crowded masked ball, the beautiful Elena (Greta Garbo) turns away Fontenoy, her ardent suitor, and gets swept up and lost in the masses, but the handsome Robledo (Antonio Moreno), an engineer who is visiting from the Argentine, rescues her. They unmask, he claims that fate has brought them together, and they see a falling star. She tells him her heart is free and they spend a lushly romantic night together. The next morning, when Robledo visits his old friend the Marquis, he gets a shock when he discovers that his wife is none other than Elena. All three attend an elaborate dinner party thrown by Fontenoy, climaxed by Fontenoy announcing his financial ruin, blaming Elena, on whom he wasted his fortune, and killing himself at the head of the table by drinking poison. Robledo returns to the Argentine (the "Land of Men," we are constantly reminded by intertitles) where he is supervising the building of a dam and tries to forget Elena, but soon she and the Marquis arrive for a visit, and Elena's presence throws the male workers for a loop. Friends fight with friends over her, and Robledo winds up in a bullwhip duel with the bandit Duras, both for mastery of the area and for Elena's honor. At the climax, Duras kills the Marquis and blows up the dam. Will Robledo be able to salvage anything from the mess that Elena has triggered?

This silent film often teeters on the verge of camp, what with the exaggerated gestures and facial expressions of the supporting cast and the crazy ups and downs of the characters' fates, but for the most part, this is a fun, sometimes deliriously so, melodrama. Though Garbo is the title figure, she is shoved aside for most of the last third, and the story is really about Robledo and how he suffers for love and career, and Moreno is more than able to carry the film, giving a fairly modern-feeling performance, as opposed to much of the rest of the cast, including Lionel Barrymore as a dam worker, Armand Kaliz as the Marquis, and Garbo herself, who, to be fair, doesn't have a strongly defined character; we learn almost nothing about her as a person because she isn’t really a person but a temptress stereotype who leads men to their doom and moves on. The worst performance comes from Roy D'Arcy as Duras, who has a goofy, almost comical hairstyle and an evil grimace plastered on his face all the time. There are a number of fine scenes: the first ten minutes, tinted in blue and set at night at the masked ball, are lovely and atmospheric; the dinner party scene includes a marvelous tracking shot down the table with nearly a hundred guests seated; the bullwhip fight is very well staged, though it goes on a smidge too long (I enjoyed Garbo's looks of lust as the men strip to the waist); and the climactic dam explosion, followed by storms which cause flooding, is exciting. I know that love and lust are often irrational feelings, but it was never clear why, after one evening, Robledo and Elena continued to feel such a strong bond. Despite my caveats, I did enjoy this and would recommend it those seeking more silent movie experiences. [DVD]

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