Sunday, March 31, 2024

The Temptress (1926)

The Temptress is one of Greta Garbo’s very early MGM silent pictures. It was released in 1926.

She was already a rising star (The Temptress would be a major box-office success) but was not to become what would later be called a superstar until the release of Flesh and the Devil a year later.

At this stage Garbo was rather frustrated at the course her American career was taking. MGM seemed to see her as another vamp. Garbo was not comfortable with this. She was not interested in playing women who were heartless predators. She felt she would achieve more playing women who experienced intense emotions. She was of course correct. She could play bad girls and dangerous women, but she was at her best when they were more than mere vamps. And she proved to be superb at playing women who suffer for love.

Elena (Garbo) meets the handsome dashing Manuel Robledo (Antonio Moreno) at a masquerade ball in Paris. He has returned to Paris after a period trying to make his fortune in the Argentine. He is captivated by her mystery and her beauty. She tells him that she is madly in love with him, and there is no other man in her life.

Disillusionment follows for Robledo when he discovers that Elena is married, to the Marquis de Torre Bianca (Armand Kaliz). She assures Robledo that this doesn’t matter, that she will go way with him anyway. Robledo is shocked at the idea. He is shocked that he has fallen for a wicked temptress.

It soon becomes apparent that Elena has had quite a career as a seductress. Men have ruined themselves for her. At least one was driven to suicide.

Robledo decides to return to Argentina, to escape the wickedness of Paris, and mostly to escape the wickedness of Elena.

He is pleased when his old friend the Marquis de Torre Bianca shows up in the Argentine. He is not so pleased that de Torre Bianca has brought his wife with him - the temptress herself. The Argentine is a place where a man can make a new start, but not with a woman like Elena around.

Robledo has problems with the notorious Manos Duras (Roy D’Arcy), the leader of a large band of what are in practice bandits and trouble-makers. When Manos Duras catches sight of Elena you know there will be problems.

Pretty soon men are making fools of themselves over Elena, and fighting over her. This excites and amuses her. Robledo is determined to have nothing to do with her, but it’s not easy to keep away from such a woman. More trouble is sure to follow, and it does.

The question is whether Elena really is wicked or not. She certainly has a way of leading men to their doom, but they want to be led. There are suggestions that Elena is to some extent a victim. Her effete husband was hiring her out to a rich banker in order to finance his gambling debts. The men in her life have certainly not always behaved honourably, and sometimes perhaps they deserved their fates. Elena’s true nature remains enigmatic. Perhaps she wants to reform, and perhaps she doesn’t.

The Temptress was set to be directed by Garbo’s mentor Mauritz Stiller, whom she idolised. Stiller was one of the greats of the early Swedish film industry. He had directed her in Gösta Berlings Saga in Sweden in 1924. Unfortunately Stiller clashed with the MGM hierarchy and was fired from The Temptress which was completed by Fred Niblo.

There’s an extraordinary deep-focus tracking shot early on in which the camera pulls away to reveal guests sitting at an incredibly long table, a shot very reminiscent of shots in Citizen Kane, except that it was done in The Temptress fifteen years before Citizen Kane. It would be tempting to think that some of the other rather bold shots in this movie may have been Stiller’s work but in fact not a single frame shot by Stiller remained in the finished film. Stiller had shot a lot of footage but Niblo reshot every single scene.

It has to be said that Niblo did a fine job, and having William H. Daniels as cinematographer helped a good deal. Right from the start Bill Daniels knew how to photograph Garbo. He makes her look stunning, and seductive, and mysterious.

This is unabashed melodrama but it’s a beautifully crafted film and Garbo already had very obvious star quality. This is fine entertainment and it’s highly recommended.

This movie is included in the Garbo Silents two-disc set which was bundled with the wonderful Warner Garbo Signature Collection DVD boxed set. The Temptress looks pretty good and the print includes some tinted scenes (I just love the tinting in silent movies).

The studio felt that the ending would work for sophisticated big city audiences but that less sophisticated audiences would require a lot more sugar coating so they filmed an atrocious alternate ending which is included as an extra.

I’ve reviewed one of Mauritz Stiller early Swedish movies, the delightfully wicked and outrageously immoral Erotikon (1920).

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