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Film Friday: "A Woman of Affairs" (1928)

This week on "Film Friday" I bring you the first (and so far only) silent film I ever saw. It is highly unplausible and overly melodramatic, but (surprisingly enough) I loved it.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Clarence Brown, A Woman of Affairs (1928) tells the story of Diana Merrick (Greta Garbo), a young British aristocrat in love with Neville Holderness (John Gilbert), to whom she pledged herself when their were children. Their plans to marry are thwarted by Neville's father, Sir Morton (Hobart Bosworth), who disapproves of the Merrick family's lifestyle. Hoping to force his son to forget Diana, Sir Morton sends Neville on a business trip to Egypt. After waiting in vain for two years for Neville's return, Diana marries David Furness (John Mack Brown), who is also in love with her and whom her alcoholic brother Jeffry (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) worships. During their honeymoon in Paris, they receive a visit from detectives, which ends with David committing suicide without explanation. 

Back in London, a distraught Jeffry blames Diana for his friend's death and falls deeper into alcohol. For her part, Diana leaves for Europe and seven years of dissipation with a succession of lovers. She returns to London upon learning that Jeffry is gravely ill, but he refuses to see her. Neville has moved on and is to marry Constance (Dorothy Sebastian), though this does not prevent him from spending the night with Diana as soon as she returns. The following morning, Dr. Hugh Trevelyan (Lewis Stone), a friend of the Merricks, tells them that Jeffry died during the night. Seven months later, Neville and Constance are married and Diana is seriously ill in Paris. Neville goes to visit her and she professes her love for him, before realizing that Constance is in the room. Shortly afterwards, the "truth" about David is revealed: he was an embezzler, pursued by the police. To protect Jeffry's memory of his hero, Diana spent all those years orchestrating a series of affairs with wealthy men to repay the victims of her dead groom. Diana, knowing that her love will ruin Neville, tells him that Constance is pregnant and sends him away. Then she kills herself by driving her car into a tree, in front of which she and Neville had fallen in love and sworn eternal fidelity.

Diana Merrick: When I was a little girl I said "I must hurry and grow up, so I can marry Neville before someone else gets him."

In the summer of 1928, John Gilbert and Greta Garbo were MGM's biggest male and female stars. Their latest picture, Edmund Goulding's Love (1927), had been doing so well that the studio quickly began looking for a new property to pair the two of them again. They found it in Michael Arlen's novel The Green Hat, "a tale of a lost generation of post-war Bright Young Things" that had shocked and aroused thousands of readers since its publication in 1924. This was the story of an idealistic, fast-living flapper named Iris March and her longtime sweetheart Napier Harpenden, whose family feels Iris is "not quite their kind." She married the clean-cut Boy Fenwick, who, having syphilis, kills himself on their wedding night. Napier marries a nice young girl, Venice, gets the widowed Iris pregnant (she eventually miscarries) and, in order to save him from herself, she crashes her car into a tree her and Napier's favorite tree from childhood. Tallulah Bankhead had played Iris March in a hugely successful stage production at the Adelphi Theatre in London, while Katharine Cornell triumphed with the part on Broadway during the 1925-1926 season.

After purchasing the rights to The Green Hat for a whopping $50,000, Irving Thalberg, head of production at MGM, struggled to gain approval from the Hays Office to proceed with the project. After all, the play's themes included adultery, suicide, abortion and veneral disease, in addition to a very strong homosexual subplot involving Iris's alcoholic brother, Gerald, and Boy Fenwick. When Arlen's own screenplay was rejected, scriptwriter Bess Meredyth was instructed to remove all references to veneral disease (Boy's "ailment" became embezzlement) and Gerald's homosexual tendencies. Thalberg then changed to the title to A Woman of Affairs, gave new names to all of the main characters and eliminated every mention to The Green Hat from the credits and publicity material (not that this would prevent reviewer from citing the film's original source). The title cards read only that this was an adaptation of "the famous story by Michael Arlen."

John Gilbert and Greta Garbo
To direct A Woman of Affairs, Thalberg brought in Clarence Brown, who had directed Gilbert and Garbo in Flesh and the Devil (1926), their first film together. A veteran of World I, Brown began his professional career as an editor and assistant to Maurice Tourneur, who gave him his first co-directing credit for The Great Reedemer (1920). He was finally recognized as a talent in his own right when he saved Rudolph Valentino's fading career by directing him in The Eagle (1925), produced for Universal Pictures. Signing a contract with MGM in 1926, Brown quickly became the studio's leading "glamour director" in the late 1920s and 1930s, working with some of their biggest female stars, notably Garbo and Joan Crawford. In a career that spanned almost 40 years, six of his films earned him Academy Award nominations for Best Director: Anna Christie (1930), Romance (1930), A Free Soul (1931), The Human Comedy (1943), National Velvet (1944) and The Yearling (1946).

For the role of David Furness, MGM chose John Mack Brown, a former All-American halfback whom the studio had also signed in 1926. Debuting in Slide, Kelly, Slide (1927), Brown went on the appear in such films as Coquette (1929), starring Mary Pickford in her first talking role, and The Secret Six (1931), with Jean Harlow and Clark Gable. After being abruptly replaced by Gable in Laughing Sinners (1931), his career took a downturn and he resorted to making low-budget westerns for independent producers. Luckily, these productions were successful and he eventually became one of the screen's top B-movie cowboys, first at Universal and then at Monogram Pictures. Hailing from the Deep South, Brown constantly amused Garbo during the making of A Woman of Affairs by addressing her as "sugah" and "honey chile."

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Greta Garbo
Just a few months away from turning 19, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was given one of his first high-profile adult roles in the film, that of the troubled alcoholic Jeffry Merrick. The only child of legendary film star Douglas Fairbanks and his first wife, Anna Beth Sully, Fairbanks Jr. began his Hollywood career in the early silent era, appearing in an uncredited role as a newsboy in American Aristocracy (1916), which starred his father. At age 13, he signed a contract with Paramount Pictures and made his actual film debut playing the lead role in the now lost comedy Stephen Steps Out (1923). He made a successful transition into sound pictures, achieving critical and commercial acclaim in such films as Little Caesar (1931), Morning Glory (1933), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) and Gunga Din (1939). After serving in World War II, his film career waned, but he made several appearances on television, including in his own anthology series, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Presents (1953-1957).

While working together in Flesh and the Devil, Gilbert and Garbo became romantically involved and, once production finished, she moved into his luxurious Spanish-style home in Beverly Hills. The relationship, however, was marred by arguments and infidelities and was over long before the cameras stopped rolling on Love. By the time A Woman of Affairs began filming in August 1928, they "finally seemed to have cooled down to a workable friendship" and were occasionally seen together at parties or restaurants. Fairbanks Jr., engaged to Joan Crawford at the time, later recalled that whenever the couple argued, Gilbert would ask him "to be a go-between, carrying his scribbled note to her and, he hoped, returning with her loving reply. The offstage atmosphere seemed quite chilly for days. Then all would be well again until the next time."

Dorothy Sebastian and John Gilbert
Gilbert did not mind that the role of Neville Holderness was only a supporting one. He reportedly told Brown, "I'd rather you didn't touch my part a bit. My character is a weak character and he's got to be played that way." Brown later remembered that Gilbert demonstrated on the set what he planned to do for his first sound picture and "went completely ham in the middle of shooting [...] he began speaking titles with great flamboyance." Unfortunately, Gilbert's popularity declined drastically with the advent of the "talkies" and he became increasingly depressed with the progressively inferior projects he was being given. Garbo tried to restore his career when she insisted that he be her co-star in Queen Christina (1933), but by then it was already too late. He appeared in only one more film before his untimely death in January 1936.

Although there would be no sound in A Woman of Affairs, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer worried whether Garbo would prove convincing as a "rustic Englishwoman" as she had when playing all those "exotic Europeans." With this in mind, Mayer instructed costume designer Adrian to tone down her wardrobe: aside from one scene in which she wears jewels and a party gown, Garbo is dressed "pretty much like a spinster from an Agatha Christie novel short tweed skirts, sensible shoes, pullovers, and that ubiquitous green felt hat." It was in A Woman of Affairs that Adrian began his tradition of "emphasiz[ing] the bad features of a woman to the point where they seemingly disappear." Because Garbo's shoulders were broad, Adrian extended the shoulders on her clothes so that the over width became unnoticeable. In addition, he covered Garbo's long arms with wide sleeves, making the audience notice the sleeves and not the arms.

Greta Garbo and John Mack Brown
Finishing principal photography in September, A Woman of Affairs opened on December 15, 1928 to excellent box-office results, eventually becoming one of the top 20 biggest moneymakers of 1929. Critical reviews, on the other hand, were somewhat mixed. In Judge magazine, Pare Lorentz wrote, "The most interesting feature of A Woman of Affairs is the treatment accorded it by the censors. [...] For some strange reason, instead of using the word 'purity' (the boy died of purity, according to Irish March) they substituted the oft-repeated word 'decency.' To anyone who can show me why 'purity' is a more immoral word than 'decency,' I'll gladly sent and eighty-five cent Paramount ticket, to be used at your own risk." Despite its "purification," Lorentz considered the film "a good dramatization" of Arlen's novel, praising Garbo for her "grace and sincerity" and Fairbanks Jr. for his "splendid performance."

Variety called A Woman of Affairs a "vague and sterilized version of Michael Arlen's erotic play," considering Gilbert's role "utterly blah. Most of the footage he stands around rather sheepishly." The reviewer did, however, find Garbo's acting "magnificent," writing: "Garbo saves an unfortunate situation throughout by a subtle something in her playing that suggests just the erotic note that is essential to the whole theme and story." He also praised the "superb technical production" for "its beauty of setting and atmosphere." For his part, Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times described the film as "an adroitly arranged pictorial conception" of the original novel, adding that "Miss Garbo gives a most intelligent and fascinating impersonation" of Diana Merrick and "Mr. Gilbert does nicely as the man with whom Diana is madly in love." In addition, Hall highlighted the "invariably beautifully phographed and admirably constructed" scenes and took notice of Fairbanks Jr.'s performance, saying that he "reveals great promise as an actor."
Lobby card for A Woman of Affairs

When I started watching classic films three years ago, I was convinced I would never see a silent picture in my life. I was able to overcome my "allergy" to black and white films, but silents was going too far. However, after seeing Queen Christina and falling in love with John Gilbert and Greta Garbo as a couple, I became curious to watch the other films they did together. Since they were all silent, I obviously had to go with that. I could have chosen either Flesh and the Devil or Love, which, from what I could gather, are better films, but I picked A Woman of Affairs because it also featured Dongles, I mean, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., whom I adore. I could not watch the film on one go, though; I had to watch half on one day and the other half on the next. Nevertheless, and surprisingly enough, I really liked it. I did, however, think that it was rather absurd, especially regarding the explanation of why David committed suicide. It was so anti-climatic! Seriously, who kills themselves because they are thieves and the police is after them? I actually thought David killed himself because he was having an affair with Jeffry (homosexuality was a crime in England at the time). I mean, Jeffry was clearly in love with him. Besides, Diana said that "David died for decency." That would have been a much more plausible explanation. Also, Diana crashing her car at the end... Not sure about that either. All in all, A Woman of Affairs is a very enjoyable film. The amazing chemistry between Gilbert and Garbo makes up for all the flaws that the film has.

Creating the Illusion: A Fashionable History of Hollywood Costume Designers by Jay Jorgensen and Donald Scoggins (2015) | Greta Garbo: A Divine Star by David Bret (2013) | John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars by Eve Golden (2013) | TCMDb (Articles) The New York Times review | Variety review


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