Greta Garbo in Anna Karenina (1935)


(director: Clarence Brown; screenwriters: novel by Leo Tolstoy/S.N. Behrman/Clemence Dane/Salka Viertel; cinematographer: William Daniels; editor: Robert J. Kern; music: Herbert Stothart; cast: Greta Garbo (Anna Karenina), Fredric March (Vronsky), Freddie Bartholomew (Sergei), Maureen O’Sullivan (Kitty), May Robson (Countess Vronsky), Basil Rathbone (Alexis Karenin), Reginald Owen (Stiva), Phoebe Foster (Dolly), May Robson (Countess Vronsky), Reginald Denny (Yashvin), Gyles Isham (Levin); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: David O. Selznick; MGM; 1935)

“Given the full glossy MGM treatment.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Warning: spoilers throughout.

Count Leo Tolstoy’s tragic romantic novel about pageantry, elite society’s mores, and forbidden passion in tsarist Russia is adapted to the screen by S.N. Behrman, Clemence Dane, and Salka Viertel, and is elegantly directed by Clarence Brown. It was previously filmed as a silent in 1927 entitled Love, with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. This stronger version is given the full glossy MGM treatment, and is filmed with two endings–one happy and the other sad. The one I saw had the more fitting sad one. Garbo as Anna Karenina, the wife of a wealthy St. Petersburg nobleman minister, is in top form showing off her aloofness and gets all the good close-ups, while her obsessed lover Fredric March as the dashing nobleman cavalry officer Vronsky looks eerily outrageous with his tweaked mustache and numerous tics when in Garbo’s presence. Garbo’s hubby is the officious Alexis, strongly played by Basil Rathbone with the fiendish know-how in turning the screws deeply into his passionately tortured wife. The only really annoying character was Garbo’s gushing ‘mama’s boy’ young son played by Freddie Bartholomew with so much goo, that his scenes with his doting mom become unbearable.

Anna Karenina journeys by train from her home to Moscow to visit her philandering brother Stiva (Reginald Owen) and reconcile him with his frustrated wife Dolly (Phoebe Foster). On the train Anna converses with Countess Vronsky (May Robson), whose son Count Vronsky is a friend of Stiva’s. When the Count meets his mother at the train station, he falls in love with Anna at first sight and becomes obsessed with conquering her. The night before the Count enjoyed the company of the officers of his cavalry regiment, where he literally drunk everyone under the table.

At Stiva’s home, Anna is welcomed as a saintly figure and much admired for her successful marriage and her radiant beauty. She gives Stiva’s children presents and promises to next time bring her son Sergei to visit. Dolly bemoans that Stiva is having an affair with the governess, but Anna counsels her to forgive him because he’s like a child and will never desert the family–which he considers sacred. At a ball for the nobles, Kitty (Maureen O’Sullivan) tells Anna she’s in love with Vronsky although her long-time farmer boyfriend from the country Levin (Gyles Isham) has asked for her hand in marriage and is attending the ball. It seems Kitty doesn’t want to live in the country and finds Levin unsophisticated. But Vronsky shows no interest in Kitty, but entices Anna to dance the mazurka with him–which evidently means something in those swell circles because Kitty soon afterwards accepts Levin’s proposal even though she still loves Vronsky. Meanwhile Anna is afraid of her feelings for the smooth talking Vronsky and unexpectedly returns the next day by train to St. Petersburg. The impulsive Vronsky leaves his jolly regiment companions and boards the same train as Anna, somewhat risking his military career. Vronsky forces his company on her and escorts her to all the social events, and they play croquet together while the guests gossip. Anna’s workaholic hubby warns her about indiscretions and keeping up appearances. In an outburst, Anna tells hubby that she can’t stand him and is love with Captain Vronsky. Hubby says he’ll never give her a divorce and if she deserts him, she’ll never see her beloved Sergei again. As a month goes by Anna can’t bear her loveless marriage anymore and gives up everything to be with Vronsky. But after a short time happy together while vacationing in Venice and living in isolation in the Russian country, Vronsky becomes bored and unsettled. Vronsky reunites with his best friend in the regiment Captain Yashvin (Reginald Denny) and learns the regiment is planning to volunteer its services to fight for their fellow Serbs in the Serbian-Turkish skirmish. Vronsky leaves without telling her that he still loves her. A disheartened Anna goes to the Moscow station to catch Vronsky before he leaves for the front and sees him saying good-bye to the eligible Princess Sorokino (Mary Forbes) and his mother. Anna waits at the station until night in a confused state, realizing that she’s given up everything to now only be alone, and then throws herself under the moving train.

This complex Tolstoy novel is told in a stunningly visual manner, but has difficulty being much more than exasperating. It ridicules the superficiality of society life and unmasks its hypocritical morals, and how it glorifies war as an adventurer’s game. The bold Vronsky comes to the conclusion that love isn’t everything but he still hasn’t lost his lust for battle. The couple’s doomed affair never sizzled or reached any great tragic depths, rather it relentlessly moved forward as if it were a train chugging along that is bound by a schedule.