Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Greta Garbo Acts the Whore

I’ve been haunted by Greta Garbo for a few days now. Well, not just Garbo, also John Gilbert, an actor far less well known today, but who was, in 1926, quite the hunk to be paired with her in a film like “Flesh and the Devil.”

Cat mentioned when I told her the plot of this flick that she didn’t understand why I like these old silent movies, because women are always either whores or angels. Aside from the fact that it’s still a common enough pair of options for female roles in popular culture, I didn’t have an answer that made much sense. I love the silents for the way they tell the stories, for the skills of the actors and the directors, not so much for the cultural values they enforced. On the other hand, there is a lot to learn by looking at cultural values of 80 years ago, especially when considering how they’ve changed or for that matter, not changed.

Here’s the plot this time. Garbo is a whore. But, interestingly, she’s a whore who splits up sex and payment into two different roles. She offers sex to Gilbert’s character, Leo, but gets paid first by her husband Count Van Rhaden, and then by her second husband, Leo’s best friend Ulrich.

Leo and Ulrich are as close to being lovers as 1926 conventions would allow. Flashback scenes show their childhood bond as blood brothers, and every time they meet on screen, there is a palpable sexiness about the way they hug each other and stare into each others eyes. Their mouths come within an inch of each others more than once in this movie. Back in the day, male friendships were often shown as being this intimate; now, intimacy between men starts the libido flowing every time.

Anyway, after early scenes set in the Austrian army camp where Leo and Ulrich serve, which are there to show which one is the top – that would be virile Leo, who literally has the top bunk – and which the bottom – Ulrich, who has to cover for Leo’s AWOL late night escapades, and who tires easily when performing physical labor which Leo can knock out with a smile on his lips – we encounter Garbo, and things get going.

The seduction scene between Garbo and Gilbert is easily one of the sexiest things I’ve seen. The key is Gilbert’s lighting of her cigarette, the symbolic setting off of orgasm. He does it smoothly, without much effort but with plenty of passion. Later, when Ulrich gets a chance to light Garbo’s cigarette, he fumbles with the match and it goes out early. I wonder if there was a Freud passage out there that gave them the idea for this contrast.

Anyway, Garbo and Gilbert are lying in exquisite post-coital satisfaction when her hitherto unrevealed husband shows up. Challenging Leo to a duel, but with the proviso that they pretend it’s over a disagreement playing cards, the Count winds up dead the next morning. Leo is sent away to Africa by the army because of this murder, and Leo asks Ulrich to watch over the Countess.

Three years go by, and Ulrich is now married to Garbo, who needs the luxury he can provide, but who desperately wants the passion offered by Leo. She tries to have it both ways, he tries to avoid her. Leo gets advice from Pastor Voss, an old family friend, who tells him that if the devil can’t get you through the spirit, he’ll send a woman to get you through the flesh. Yep, women’s sexuality freaked guys out back then. (As if it still doesn’t, but there is a little progress given that few would say anything quite this insane, anymore.)

Well, you know what happens. Eventually, Leo gives in, and if there is no indication he actually sleeps with Garbo this time, the intention is there when they agree to run away together. She backs down at the last minute when Ulrich gives her an expensive gift, and then Leo is caught with his pants down (or his bags packed, I forget which). Now Ulrich must challenge his best friend to a duel.

This sets the stage for a climactic scene set on the island where the boys had forged their blood brother bond. It’s winter, so they must trudge across the frozen river before taking awkward strides in the deep snow to set the stage for their duel. Meanwhile, Ulrich’s little sister – I forgot to mention her; she loves Leo, but has remained a virgin, and is thus the pure, good angel sort of woman – begs Garbo to get out of bed and go talk them out of this duel by telling Ulrich she was really a whore.

Hertha – and I do love that name – has her prayers answered. Garbo gets up, and starts trudging across the ice just when the duel is about to begin. Do you know what happens when you cross ice too often in a movie? It’s kind of like when you see a gun in the first scene, you know it’s going to go off. Well, just when she falls in and drowns, a light goes off in the male heads, and they realize they can’t kill each other after all. Cut and print.

Apparently, there was an original ending which showed Leo talking to Hertha after they got back home, but I much prefer this sudden stop, with Leo and Ulrich being miserable yet alive, and a final shot of the water bubbling slightly where Garbo fell in. It’s way bleaker, and offers no chance of redemption, which would just be a snore after all this drama.

In 1926, women had to be punished for desiring sex. The only way to imagine them desiring sex, in fact, was to imagine them desiring evil in general. They were agents of the devil, because sexual pleasure was a sin. This particular pattern has subtly shifted since then, and if I didn’t have to go to work right now, I’d look into it. Feel free to comment on what’s happened over these last 80 years in this area.

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