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FLESH AND THE DEVIL (director: Clarence Brown; screenwriters: from the novel The Undying Past by Hermann Sudermann/Benjamin F. Glazer; cinematographer: William Daniels; editor: Lloyd Nosler; music: Carl Davis; cast: John Gilbert (Leo von Harden), Greta Garbo (Felicitas von Rhaden), Lars Hanson (Ulrich von Eltz), Barbara Kent (Hertha von Eltz), William Orlamond (Uncle Kutowski), George Fawcett (Pastor Voss), Eugenie Besserer (Leo’s Mother), Marc McDermott (Count von Rhaden); Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Irving Thalberg; MGM; 1926-silent)
“Garbo makes love!”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Basically a film that has nothing more to say than Garbo makes love! It’s based on the novel The Undying Past by Herman Suderman. Swedish beauty Greta Garbo was only 21 when she made her third American silent film for MGM, which came after the Torrent (1926) and The Temptress (1926). This one became her breakout film, where she became recognized as a big star. Flesh and the Devil became a big commercial hit, known for its steamy love scenes (relatively tame by modern standards). Greta was teamed with the 29-year-old John Gilbert, the twice married man and number one silent romantic lead. The two sizzled together on and off-screen, which became the film’s primary reason for its huge success. Otherwise this is only a glossy soap opera that suffers from being corny and not having much to say about romance in its lightweight presentation. It’s a shame the talented Garbo got on the track of making too many such fluff films in her abbreviated career, whereby she retired from acting after the poorly received Two-Faced Woman (1941). The affluent Greta became a semi-recluse dividing her time between Switzerland, the Riviera, and an East Side New York apartment This was Clarence Brown’s (“National Velvet”) first film for MGM, and the studio liked it so much he made seven more with Garbo.

Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.

Upper-crust best friends since childhood Leo von Harden (John Gilbert) and Ulrich von Eltz (Lars Hanson) come home from military leave together and are met at the railroad station by Leo’s mother (Eugenie Besserer) and Ulrich’s 15-year-old sister Hertha (Barbara Kent), who has a secret crush on Leo. Also at the station is the radiantly beautiful married Countess Felicitas von Rhaden (Greta Garbo), whom Leo falls in love with at first sight. They meets at the Stoltenhof Ball and become lovers. Felicitas’s hubby the Count (Marc McDermott) catches them in a compromising position and challenges Leo to a duel, which is said to be over a card game to stop a public scandal. Leo slays the Count, but is punished by the military to serve five years in exile in Africa. Before Leo leaves for his new post he tells Ulrich, who knows nothing about the affair, to look after the widow. His Majesty intervenes and Leo returns home after only three years, but is shocked to find that Felicitas remarried his best friend. Leo is warned by Pastor Voss (George Fawcett), who knows of the affair, to never see Felicitas again because his love for her would ruin his friendship with Ulrich. The Pastor also lays on him a ‘hell and brimstone rant,’ telling him “the Devil uses the Flesh of women to try and tempt men.” But Leo makes no such promise to not see her, but for a long time refuses to visit the couple. Felicitas manages to get him to visit her castle when Ulrich is not in, as she tells him Ulrich is despondent that their friendship soured and needs to see him. When she makes a pass at Leo, he starts choking her in the bedroom. At that time Ulrich returns and she lies, saying Leo broke in and when she wouldn’t leave with him he choked her. When Leo doesn’t deny this, it leads to Ulrich challenging him to a gun duel on the Isle of Friendship, which evokes memories when they as children made a blood pact on the Isle to be friends forever. It reaches its climax when the heroine meets her death on an ice floe while rushing to stop the duel.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”