not in our stars, but in ourselves
If that poster is correct, remind me not to see Susan Lenox. Oy gevalt. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Greta Garbo. I think she’s fabulous. But Mata Hari (1931) is a decidedly silly, not very good movie. It grieves me to say so – because really, I do love Garbo to death – but I can’t say anything else.
Garbo plays the titular femme fatale, an exotic dancer and courtesan in Paris who moonlighted (moonlit?) as a German spy during World War I. Among her many admirers are two Russians who are madly in love with her, and believe that she reciprocates: General Serge Shubin (Lionel Barrymore) and Lieutenant Alexis Rosanoff (Ramon Novarro). One is right, the other is not. Take a wild guess at who’s who.
Shubin knows she’s a spy, and is racked with guilt for betraying his country, but equally enthralled by Mata Hari. Rosanoff is a sweet innocent boy who thinks she’s just the loveliest and most perfect woman in all the world. Even though she wears outfits like this:
Adrian must have been really mad at Garbo. There can be no other explanation.
Anyway, Mata Hari seduces Rosanoff and arranges for a fellow spy to nip into his apartment while she “distracts” him, in order to steal and photograph secret papers Rosanoff was supposed to bring to some prime minister or other. While she was perfectly able to seduce the likes of Shubin without an ounce of contrition, she finds herself falling in love with her sweet little Russian lieutenant, and she decides she has to stop ruining his life. Aww.
Here’s the thing about Garbo, at least in my opinion. She’s best when she’s long-suffering. She can be vivacious and charming, she can be made radiantly happy by love, but she can’t really do unrepentant sinner. When she’s sinning and repenting, she’s on fire. Towards the end of Mata Hari, she switches gears and does just that (she even wonders what might have happened if she’d been a nun instead – to which I say: “Nunsense.”) – but for most of the movie, she’s playing the kind of role that would have been much more fun and convincing in the hands of Dietrich or Brooksie. Austere Garbo is quite simply miscast. Also, it must be said: she is NOT a dancer. At the beginning of the movie, Shubin and Rosanoff go to see her dance. It is absurd. Garbo just doesn’t move very well. In Grand Hotel (1932), she has the same problem as the melancholic ballerina, Grusinskaya: she has perhaps the most exquisitely expressive, emotive face in all of cinema, but her body is just a sturdy Scandanavian block of wood. It’s a very nice body, don’t get me wrong. But she’s about as convincing a dancer as I am a molecular physicist.
Garbo isn’t the only casting problem. The distinctly Mexican Novarro just doesn’t make for a convincing Russian. He’s such a Latin lover, in the way he speaks and the way he looks, that trying to snap back to reality when Mata keeps cooing, “Alexis, Alexis!” is a difficult mental exercise indeed. I guess the point is that all Russians are passionate, and so is Ramon Novarro, so that’s good enough – but not for me. It seems to me that a Russian who’d reached the rank of lieutenant in World War I in 1917 would be at least a little bit world-weary and cynical, but Rosanoff seems no less excitedly optimistic than an 18-year-old farm boy in the big city for the first time. If there’s one trait that has never applied to any Russian, ever, in reality or in art, it’s blind optimism. Barrymore is much better as Shubin, but he’s not meant to be the main point. He’s just a foil to remind the audience of how sexy and appealing Novarro is supposed to be.
MGM tried to re-release Mata Hari in 1936, and was refused by Joseph Breen and his gang of Code-enforcing thugs. They cut a bunch of things out and succeeded in re-releasing it in 1939. It strikes me, however, that aside from the obvious ellipses during which Mata has sex with Rosanoff, as well as the blatant references to Shubin or Rosanoff not being able to wait to tear off her ridiculous clothes, it’s a rather moralistic little film. Rosanoff tells her he loves her as one loves sacred things: “God, country, honor, you.” She decides to make good, and agrees to marry him as soon as possible, and is still letting him believe that that will happen when she’s led away to the firing squad. The Code stipulates that no good crime go unpunished, and she not only repents but also pays the ultimate price for her sins. The story of Mata Hari was well known enough in 1931 that MGM couldn’t exactly change the ending, but it would have been so much more interesting if she had gone out the way the real Mata Hari did: denying everything, refusing a blindfold, looking her last twelve men in the eyes as she dared them to destroy her.
Dietrich could have done it.