Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Mysterious Lady (1928)

“No man knew what she really was. And no man could resist her exotic beauty. A famous Russian spy, moving through the lives of men, in a maze of intrigue, passion and love. “

I just saw The Mysterious Lady starring Greta Garbo and Conrad Nagel, a splendid MGM production that originally opened in august of 1928. Here in Stockholm, Garbo’s hometown, it was released January 31st 1929. In my opinion it’s one of director Fred Niblo’s best works. Niblo is mostly known for his other Garbo movie - The Temptress, and even more so for Ben Hur with Ramon Novarro. The Mysterious Lady is beautifully photographed by William Daniels who did so many of the really stylish MGM productions during the late 20’s and early 30’s, The Kiss and Their Own Desire to name a few. The sets are naturally signed by MGM’s house designer, the magnificent Cedric Gibbons. The Mysterios Lady is more or less a run of the mill MGM production of 1928 with the exception that it was MGM’s first movie to be released with a synchronized score. MGM was the last of the big studios to be wired for sound. Some say The Mysterious Lady served as a blueprint for Mata Hari which is basically the same story.

The movie is set in pre-First World War Vienna. An Austrian Captain, Karl von Raden (Conrad Nagel) attends the opera one evening and finds himself being seated next to a woman, Tania Fedorovna (Garbo) expecting the arrival of her cousin who never comes. After the opera, Karl notices the attractive woman he sat next to now standing in the rain. She informs him that she has no money for taxi fair, so he agrees to escort her home himself. While at her apartment, they immediately embrace and have a romantic affair. They even spend the next day on a romantic outing. That evening, Karl must deliver some important plans to Berlin. Just before boarding his train, he learns that Tania is really a Russian spy. She comes to see him aboard the train, and admits that she set things up on purpose so as to meet him, but she also insists that she truly has fallen in love with him. When Karl rebuffs her coldly, she steals the plans, which leads to him being court-martialed and imprisoned. Karl's influential uncle is able to provide him with one last chance to clear his name…

I was really surprised Conrad Nagel was such a good silent actor. I haven’t seen much of his early work. He has a minimalist style I really like and one can read his small expressions like a book. I always find Garbo a bit overly theatrical with a lot of "patent expressions" and sometimes she poses more than she acts. But here she's great, and really beautiful to. Her late silents are fantastic, she never was better than in those. A funny thing struck me, when making period pictures it's always important to get costumes and hairstyles right for the period. But usually the times when the film was made always shines through in some way, don't they? In this film however, they didn’t seem to have bothered with that at all. It's set just before the First World War which sets it no later than summer 1914. But Gilbert Clark’s magnificent gowns have 1928 written all over them! Brilliant!

I just love the silent movies use of historical and litterary references sneaked in here and there to emphasize the story. This picture of Tania betraying her emperor the tzar, just like Brute betryed Ceasar.

As a whole, The Mysterious Lady is a treat indeed, very nice camera work and an all over lush feeling about it. The print I have access to is frightfully scratchy at times. I guess this is the Turner “restored” version. Well, they certainly didn’t overdo it this time. To be honest, I find it hard to spot any signs of restoration at all apart from the music. The new soundtrack by Vivek Maddala is quite pleasing, but I must make one remark. When Conrad and Greta meet at the opera, the performance they attend seems to be Puccini's Tosca. Good choice, it makes sense to the plot. I think adding some Puccini music would have been appropriate. It could have added further to the story. Conrad is repeatedly playing tunes from the Opera throughout the movie, first at Garbo's home and later at the reception when he's an undercover musician. We even get to see a glimpse of sheet music from the opera in those scenes. The theme is love and betrayal, in the Opera as well as in the movie. Furthermore, the Puccini music lies in the public domain and could be used without restrictions. I don’t know whether the original score included any Puccini music. It would have been great to have the original score as an option but maybe it didn’t survive to our times. Luckily the movie did.

Let's try a few scenes with some music from the second act of Puccini's Tosca. I think it works really well.


bostonblakie said...

Excellent blog. I am familiar with your You Tube material and discovered the blog while browsing there. I will be sure to check in from time to time to check out your latest postings.

Jonas Nordin said...

Hi Blakie,
Thank You! You're welcome!
I will also use this blog to give a somewhat fuller story to some of my YouTube clips.

Raquel Stecher said...

I am SO watching this film. I love that image of Greta Garbo in front of the Caesar bust. Like you, I love finding historical and literary references in films!

Jonas Nordin said...

Yes, It's sad most people don't have the patience (or knowledge) to fully understand a silent drama today.

gorgonzola said...

hello, thank you for this information, it will be important for a work i have to do for cinema school. by the way, i found vivek's score amazing, specially the sad-jazzy tune Conrad's playing in the first time we see him in his mission. so, i've tried to find the soundtrack in the internet, but there seems to be no cd available. do you know where i might find it? thanks

Jonas Nordin said...

Thanks! But why don't you just buy the DVD? It has Vivek's score all over it! :)

Nik said...

This has to be my favorite silent Garbo film.

Conrad Nagel is so dreamy next to Garbo.

I love how in the publicity shots of Garbo, this movie looks very modern. From the hair and the make-up, this film could have passed as one of Garbo's films from the 1930's.

I enjoyed the plot very much too.

Do you have something against the way Miss Garbo "poses rather than acts?" I think that's a great quality in her and what set her apart.

Garbo can feel the light and she understood how movie cameras and how slow frame rates worked...she instinctively made sure that her emotion registers on film.

I can get very sensitive and defensive when it comes to Garbo.

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