#274) Flesh and the Devil (1926)

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#274) Flesh and the Devil (1926)

OR “Garbo Cheats!”

Directed by Clarence Brown

Written by Benjamin Glazer. Based on the novel “Es war” (English title: “The Undying Past”) by Hermann Sudermann.

Class of 2006

The Plot: While on leave from the German military, Leo von Harden (John Gilbert) meets and falls for the beautiful Felicitas von Rhaden (Greta Garbo). The sparks fly immediately and a great romance begins, but abruptly ends when Felicitas’ husband the Count (Marc McDermott) comes home and finds them together. The Count challenges Leo to a duel, which Leo wins with a fatal shot. The military sends Leo to Africa for five years, but he is able to get his sentence reduced to three years, thinking of returning to Felicitas the whole time. When Leo does return home, he discovers Felicitas is now married to Ulrich von Eltz (Lars Hanson), his best friend since childhood. And this little love triangle just gets more melodramatic from here.

Why It Matters: The NFR acknowledges the “blistering chemistry” between Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, while calling the film “[o]ne of the last silent film classics”.

But Does It Really?: I will give the film the historical significance of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, but that’s about as generous as I’m feeling. On the whole the film, like many other silent movies, just doesn’t hold up. Everything in this movie goes on a little too long, and melodrama as a genre is very hard to view through a modern lens. I give “Flesh and the Devil” a slight pass, but I’m in no rush to watch it again.

Everybody Gets One: It’s the studio system in its prime: I’ve really got to start calling this section “Everybody Gets At Least Two in the Studio Era”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Among other things, this movie features a ball where the women carry actual dance cards.

Take a Shot: No one says the title, but Pastor Voss does tell Leo, “When the devil cannot reach us through the spirit…he creates a woman beautiful enough to reach us through the flesh.” So there’s that.

Other notes

  • Despite the poster, the Devil does not actually appear in this movie.
  • Every time the MGM logo shows up in a silent movie I keep hoping for an intertitle that says, “Roar!”
  • Lars Hanson kinda looks like young Peter Cushing. Where was he during “Rogue One”?
  • Leo and Ulrich are physically close to each other a lot. Forget Gilbert and Garbo, I think this is the romance.
  • The kids on the “Isle of Friendship” made the same blood pact as the kids from “It”.
  • Oooh, early matte paintings. That was cutting edge for 1926.
  • But seriously, is Garbo a beard for these two? Get a room!
  • Wow, that is one bright lighter. Is it powered by Marcellus Wallace’s soul?
  • I’m sure this is what the filmmakers were going for, but having Leo and Felicitas smoking cigarettes strongly implies that they did it.
  • You know Leo, if you want your moustache to be that tiny, do you really want a moustache to begin with?
  • Shoutout to cinematographer William Daniels (no, not that one). There’s some really good use of light and shadow throughout the film.
  • John Gilbert definitely paved the way for your Errol Flynn’s and your Kevin Kline’s.
  • The Felicitas montage is unintentionally hilarious. Someone had fun with those intertitles.
  • The second half of the movie gives you a better idea of why most silent movies don’t hold up today: too dialogue heavy. If it’s not being conveyed visually, you might as well just read the book.
  • The running gag with the twins is a bit weird, and without a real payoff either. Fun Fact: one of the twins is Cecila Parker, best known as Marian Hardy in the “Andy Hardy” movies.
  • Boy, the Pastor is really preaching fire and brimstone because of one infidelity. This is why I distrust organized religion.
  • At one point Hertha calls Leo “a surly old bear”. I’ve been called something along those lines.
  • Nice optical effect for the snowfall. Are they inside the Rosebud snow globe?
  • One of my notes simply reads, “Oy, these two.” I know it’s a melodrama, but all this “it’s okay because we love each other” crap is really too much.
  • Now Gilbert’s giving me an early Clouseau look.
  • Maybe it’s just the print I’m watching, but that last reel needs a bit of a cleaning. “Decasia” looks better.
  • This movie’s ending is the ultimate cinematic depiction of “bros before hoes”.

Legacy

  • “Flesh and the Devil” helped launch Garbo’s star. She was so grateful to director Clarence Brown and cinematographer William Daniels that she ensured they work on as many of her subsequent films as possible.
  • Garbo and John Gilbert made three more romantic pictures for MGM, and continued their chemistry off-screen as well. After their relationship ended, Garbo tried to get Gilbert more work, but his alcoholism led to a fatal heart attack at the age of 36.
  • The relationship between Garbo and Gilbert was turned into the 1980 TV movie “The Silent Lovers” with Barry Bostwick and Kristina Wayborn.

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