Flesh and the Devil (1926.)

If one reads reviews online, one is bound to stumble upon the notion of homoeroticism that has been used in the context of this move time and time again. It just goes to show how we tend to overanalyze things, especially when dealing with “ancient” texts (two digressions are needed: in movies, ancient is everything that has not been made yesterday; I can’t count the times I’ve heard such rationale – second: overanalyzing or not, nobody can dissuade me from the fact that Lord of the Rings trilogy is the grandest homoerotic movie ever made). The other thing one might come across is the misogyny. Unlike the homoeroticism part, this one is spot on. It doesn’t really surprise, especially if one considers Christian overtones present throughout the narrative (that’s the thing with Christians, Catholics especially; girl makes a single mistake 6000 years ago and you never forgive her), but what surprises even less is that the same paradigm has been used over and over again throughout the hundred years of moviemaking even without Christian morality drama context. It’s rather simple. When dealing with a love triangle, women are Devil incarnated and men are just weak. Since God tends to care for the weak (at least that’s what his PR is saying) it is understandable that the women should be punished. Just think of the nerve of the bitch! This ridiculous notion somehow still lingers on.vlcsnap-2014-02-12-15h12m03s88

It has been noted by others as well that plot has been stale in 1926. What wasn’t stale (and what has just rarely been surpassed in Silent Era) were the camera work of William Daniels and the direction of Clarence Brown who was sensible enough to understand that great melodrama doesn’t just come from male – female relation on screen but that it can be empowered by imagery, sound and editing which were all superb here. It took a great deal of skill (from Garbo, Daniels and Brown) to make a sex goddess within the limitations of Silent Era. Without the possibility to undress their female lead, Daniels and Brown were left just with what they could muster from contrast and Garbo’s presence. And what a presence it was. Compared with Garbo, mousy presence of Barbara Kent couldn’t really compete no matter how hard the movie tried to steer in that direction. Garbo was the future incarnated, Kent was the relict of the past decade, dominated by Lillian Gish and gishalikes.vlcsnap-2014-02-12-15h12m09s142

Femme fatale will return, and housewives will remain collateral damage. This dynamic will, in decades that’ll come, cause much angst and both tropes will be demonized and vindicated depending of the times. Later filmmakers will discover how to complicate the simple plot of Flesh and the Devil. As times change, they will be “allowed” to present different solutions to the problem. Still, however complex this narrative eventually becomes, whichever relativistic moral framework comes in play, the simplicity of the plot and the alluring power of transgression (within the boundaries of fantasy) will remain an ever present factor that will fuel the need for revisiting this stale old bread. We will judge the movie on how well it handles this simple triangle. It won’t just be a test of storytelling skills. It will be a test of times and the reflection of zeitgeist as well. It took Hollywood quite a while to give voice to Garbo types though I’m not sure if that managed to “help”. It is 2014. and there are still those inclined to blame it all to provisional Eve. We call them idiots now, but they are still around. They vote as well. Be scared.

 

Directed by

Clarence Brown

Produced by

Irving Thalberg

Written by

Benjamin Glazer
Marian Ainslee (titles)
Hermann Sudermann (play The Undying Past)

Starring

Greta Garbo
John Gilbert
Lars Hanson
Barbara Kent

Studio

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

 

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