(director: George Fitzmaurice; screenwriters: Benjamin Glazer/Leo Birinksy; cinematographer: William Daniels; editor: Frank Sullivan; music: ; cast: Greta Garbo (Mata Hari), Ramon Novarro (Lt. Alexis Rosanoff), Lionel Barrymore (General Serge Shubin), Lewis Stone (Andriani), C. Henry Gordon (Dubois), Karen Morley (Carlotta), Alec B. Francis (Caron), Mischa Auer (executed spy), Reginald Barlow (Prosecutor); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Irving Thalberg; MGM; 1931)
“This is the role that the Swedish beauty Greta Garbo is best known for.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is the role that the Swedish beauty Greta Garbo is best known for. It’s a ludicrous outdated fictionalized historical drama rife with silly dialogue, but can be forgiven for its excesses to a certain extent since it makes for campy entertainment and Garbo is at her corniest and sexiest. To define her character, she wears elegant gowns designed by Adrian and is always bejeweled. Outside of Garbo’s eye-catching silky performance, it’s a witless film that is directed by the second-rate George Fitzmaurice (“Suzy”/”One Heavenly Night”/”As You Desire Me”) in a fitfully melodramatic way. The film has the ‘mother lode’ of all sappy endings, one that is unintentionally hilarious but meant to be weepie. Paramount, in the same year, had their European discovery Marlene Dietrich play Mata Hari and top-notch director Josef von Sternberg directs her in the much superior Dishonored (1931).

Writers Benjamin Glazer and Leo Birinksy tell the story of the latter days of the life of the high-living Dutch dancer and courtesan, Mata Hari, who was shot as a spy by the French in 1917 for giving war secrets to the Germans.

The real Mata Hari was born as Margeretha Geertruida Zelle to a prosperous hatter in The Netherlands in 1876. She attended a convent school and later attended a teacher’s college. In 1895 she married British-born Campbell MacLeod, a captain in the Dutch colonial army and lived with him in Java & Sumatra from 1897 until 1902. After their divorce, Margeretha settled in Paris, where she changed her name to the Malay ‘Mata Hari,’ which means ‘eye of the day.’ From 1907 on, her spy activities in Paris were vaguely recorded by history until her execution–she might even have been a double-agent and her spy activity might have been minor rather than major as legend has it.

The film opens in Paris during WW I, and a spy (Mischa Auer) is executed by the French firing squad and would rather die than give up the seductive Mata Hari (Greta Garbo) as a German spy to Dubois (C. Henry Gordon), chief of the French Spy Bureau. We later see that Mata poses as an exotic dancer in a nightclub (doing an Oriental dance that ends in a near striptease, which might have been performed by her double) and is on the payroll of the demanding Andriani (Lewis Stone), the head of the German agents in the French capital.

Mata’s downfall begins when she falls in love for the first time with the young handsome Lieutenant Alexis Rosanoff (Ramon Novarro) of the Russian Imperial Air Force, a celebrated brave flier who just had a flight over German lines. By chance, Alexis possesses the war documents Mata was sent to steal. When Mata learns this, she manages to have another spy copy the secrets while he sleeps with her in the dark.

When one of Andriani’s spies, Carlotta (Karen Morley), falls in love while on the job, the ruthless ringleader of the spies has her killed. Andriani then warns Mata to continue her relationship with Alexis, but not to fall in love with him or else. Dubois, who has always suspected Mata of being a spy, tells her ex-lover General Shubin (Lionel Barrymore) and former accomplice about her affair with Alexis. This gets Shubin in a jealous snit and he rats her out to Dubois by telephone. But before Dubois can arrive in Shubin’s flat to collect some physical evidence, Mata kills the general. Andriani terminates Mata’s mission in Paris and sends her to Amsterdam on another assignment. He also tells her that Alexis has been injured in an airplane crash and has been hospitalized. When she goes to visit him, she learns that he’s blind. This sets the stage for the cornball scene where Garbo utters the now-famous “Let me be your eyes.” Arrested after leaving the hospital, Mata is tried in a French court and ably defended by her lawyer Caron (Alec B. Francis). When Mata’s convicted and sentenced to be executed rather than have Alexis testify and know she’s a spy, the blind Alexis visits her prison cell just before she’s to be shot but is told she’s in a sanitarium waiting for an operation.

None of it had style or was it emotionally involving, nor was the story anything more than trite melodrama. All it had going for it was a sexy Garbo speaking with a funny foreign accent and acting coolly languid, who for a mass audience exuded some magical charm as a film goddess. Barrymore gave his usual dreadful hammy performance as the broken top general who lost his honor and then his life. Ramon, star in the silents, seemed to be only a foil for Garbo and was barely noticed in his scenes with the hot Swede, even when they were making love (which is no easy trick).

Greta Garbo and Ramon Novarro in Mata Hari (1931)