directed by Edmund Goulding, starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, 1927
If you’re trying to impress your date with the magic of silent film, then LOVE might not be quite the right choice, despite its promising title. It’s not the best example of the ‘golden age’ of silent film and was of interest to 1920s movie-goers principally because the two stars, Greta Garbo and John Gilbert were, at the time, in love – a double entendre that MGM turned into a slogan for the film. Love is Edmund Goulding’s version of Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, the turbulence of her life being echoed in the emotional dramas played off screen by G & G. It didn’t end well for the hard-drinking Gilbert: Garbo refused to marry him. After struggling to make the transition to sound films, he suffered a fatal heart attack nine years later.
In February, at London’s glorious Royal Festival Hall on a chilly end-of-winter night, Love launched the UK-Russia Year of Language and Literature, led by the British Council Frank Strobel conducted the resident, and brilliant, Philharmonia Orchestra for the world premiere of Aphrodite Raickopoulou’s new symphonic score, written especially for the Russian virtuoso Vadim Repin, whose tone and sensitivity with the violin was remarkable. According to the RFH website Yehudi Menuhin described him as ‘the best violinist I have ever heard’.
The screenplay pares down the 800+ pages of the novel to focus almost entirely on Anna and Count Vronsky, an Army captain; few other characters in the story have much depth. They meet during an ice storm, she veiled and mysterious, he pushy and laddish. Vronsky tries rather forcefully to woo her but she resists; after all she’s married to a much older man. And Vronsky is obviously a bit of a cad. Highly unsuitable!
We first see Anna and her husband Karenin together in a scene that occurs some months later when she has been partying and once again obliged to resist Vronsky’s overtures. However on the post-party home front, she drapes herself about the place, beautiful and elegant in her slinky party frock but Karenin is already in his pjs, propped up in bed writing a speech. Anna can see that her life with Vronsky would be a lot more fun than with her dull old husband; she’s tempted!
However, she’s also the doting mum to a cute 10-year-old son, Sergei (played by Philippe de Lacy). Their relationship is, for me, the best thing about the entire film, which is another reason that it’s not a great date movie; its strength is in the mother/son relationship. To see the divine Ms G, then aged 22, shower what looks like genuine affection on the boy shows her in a very different light to how we think of her now. In fact, in those early Hollywood years (Love was her 4th US film), she reportedly didn’t want to play the exotic, worldly woman. But, with Sergei, she’s playful, tactile, tender and cuddly. Yes sirree, she is cuddly. Garbo was famously not at all maternal but here she’s a convincing mother (I know, I know, she’s acting but…). Watching these scenes, it was so easy to recall the feel of a squirming little boy’s bony ribcage beneath the fingers, just as Anna does here; it’s completely believable.
Karenin catches the lovers together and threatens to derail Vronsky’s precious career so the couple take off for Italy. The idyll doesn’t last; she’s missing Sergei too much. On her return to the family home, Anna learns that Karenin has banished her from the house and has cruelly told Sergei that she is dead – she has brought disgrace on the family; of course it’s all her fault! Still it’s the stuff of 19th century fiction so on we go. On Sergei’s birthday she sneaks in to his room and they are reunited. What happens next you’ll have to seek out yourself. Two endings were made – a happy (Hollywood) ending and the tragic Tolstoy version. Which one would you choose? The tragic ending was surprisingly popular among American audiences along the coast, but for inland audiences, happy endings were required.
Raickopoulou’s music is rich, romantic and dramatic – full of love. To begin with the score didn’t quite match the onscreen action, just missing out on complementing the story but there’s a frenetic testosterone-fuelled horse race about half-way through and from then sound and vision meet and hold hands in the dark until the end credits. Repin interpreted Anna’s emotional turmoil with grace and intelligence, never overbearing – merely suggesting, and therefore more powerful.
Love addresses all kinds of love – the passion between Anna and Vronsky, Karenin’s love of propriety and status, Vronsky’s devotion to his regiment and career, but most of all the love between mother and son. Love should have been hot stuff, but I found myself comparing it rather unfavourably to some of the jewels in Britain’s silent cinema crown: Underground, A Cottage On Dartmoor and Hindle Wakes knock Love into a cocked hat. The persistent soft focus becomes a little tedious; some of the storm scenes are over-cranked, unnecessarily speeding up the action. It’s a below-par effort, which is not what you want if you’re trying to impress someone.
Read another eye view of the event over on Paul Joyce’s blog: http://ithankyouarthur.blogspot.co.uk/ where you’ll also see that a decent print is available from Warner Archives but it doesn’t have Raickopoulou’s score.
And here are some tasters to the three great British silent films mentioned above: