Monday, June 17, 2024

The Painted Veil (1934)

The Painted Veil is a Greta Garbo romantic melodrama released by MGM in November 1934. It was directed by Richard Boleslawski. This was her first movie made under the radically changed circumstances brought about by the draconian Production Code, something that is very evident throughout the film.

Katrin (Greta Garbo) lives with her family in a town in Austria. Her younger sister is about to be married. Her parents worry that Katrin will never marry. There are suitable young men but they never seem to please her. Not being married has never worried her but now, with her sister married, she is worried by the prospect of loneliness.

That may be why she accepts a proposal of marriage from Walter Fane (Herbert Marshall). She doesn’t love him but he’s a good man and would make a good husband. Perhaps love isn’t everything.

Then she meets diplomat Jack Townsend (George Brent). Walter is worthy but dull. No woman could be excited by Walter. Jack is a different matter. He’s amusing, cheerful, charming, handsome and a woman could very definitely be excited by him. Katrin has found love at last. She has realised that love really is everything. Unfortunately she has already married Walter.

She knows she never did love Walter. She resists the temptation offered by Jack, at least at first. This being a movie made under the Production Code it’s very coy about whether they actually sleep together. They obviously do, but this has to be conveyed obliquely. Of course under the Production Code just thinking about committing adultery was proof of moral wickedness.

Walter is set to return to China where he’s a noble self-sacrificing doctor. He will be in the middle of a cholera epidemic. It would be madness for Katrin to accompany him and she has no intention of doing so and no reasonable person would expect her to.

Walter however has found out about her affair with Jack. He insists that Katrin accompany him to China. Katrin assumes that he intends this to be a death sentence for her and she’s undoubtedly correct.

The situation in China is chaotic. Walter has become even more noble and self-sacrificing. It is possible that for him it is a kind of deliberate suicide.

You know exactly how this tale is going to end but in fact it plays out in a manner that is not quite what you might have expected.

It is of course possible that this project was conceived prior to the Code. It does give a slight impression that it may originally have been intended to be a very different movie.

The Production Code Authority didn’t just ban certain kinds of content. They laid down strict instructions on how stories were to be told, they mandated sweeping script changes and radical changes to the ways in which characters were to be portrayed. As a result while Garbo is good she is forced to spend an inordinate amount of time wallowing in self-loathing, shame and guilt.

Herbert Marshall is awful but the problem is the way his character is written rather than any weaknesses in his acting. No actor could have made Walter anything but loathsome and self-righteous.

George Brent doesn’t get to do much apart from being charming.

Walter Oland is quite impressive as General Yu, the only character in the movie who is more than a cliché. He’s not a particularly good man but he’s not a bad man. He’s doing his best.

The movie looks good and Garbo gets to wear a couple of amazing outfits.

The Painted Veil was based on a Somerset Maugham story and adapting any of his stories during the dark days of the Production Code was a challenge. He wrote stories for grown-ups.

This movie has plenty of problems. Almost certainly as a result of the Code both Walter and Jack come across as totally unconvincing characters who do things because the Code said they had to do such things. Garbo is the reason to watch this movie. Somehow, in her inimitable and subtle way, she persuades us to believe in Katrin and to care about her. Recommended, purely because of Garbo.

The Warner Archive DVD looks reasonably good.


  1. Remade in 2006--when they could tell the whole story, of course--with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. It still doesn't work.

    1. I suspect that it could only have worked in the pre-code era. A modern version cannot work because modern filmmakers just cannot understand the world of the past. They just cannot comprehend a time when social attitudes were not the same as 21st century social attitudes.

  2. Excellent theory, and I think generally true, though I will be running a number of movies through my mind to test it. The exceptions I think of immediately are the work of genuinely great filmmakers: Andrei Rublev comes to mind first, and that may be too old to qualify as modern (and Tarkovsky was probably never modern anyway). But you're right that almost every costume drama is either flat, phony, or a conscious reinterpretation.

    1. Makers of films and TV these days just don't have any real knowledge of the past, because most people these days don't have that knowledge. They either assume that the past was exactly like today, or they assume it was a Dark Age of repression and wickedness. They don't gain any real knowledge of the past at school.

      And when they become aware that the past was not exactly like today's world it makes them frightened and angry.

      Modern filmmakers also have very little understanding of the pop culture of the past.