Apr 29, 2019

On DVD: Garbo and Gilbert in A Woman of Affairs (1928)

With Clarence Brown directing and a polished cast headed by Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, A Woman of Affairs (1928) rises above the limitations of its material: a scandalous novel neutered for the screen. Now available on DVD from Warner Archive, this second pairing of Brown and Garbo’s celebrated seven film screen collaboration is one of their best.

The source material was Michael Arlen’s scandalous novel The Green Hat, which he had also adapted into a play. So outrageous was the material, with references to venereal disease, drug use, and homosexuality, that the version that made it to the screen became a dramatically different story. Unfortunately, it was the risqué material that made it a hit in the first place, but that ultimately mattered little to the Garbo fans that made the production a modest success. They just wanted to see their queen and Gilbert was eager to re-team with the actress in an effort save his faltering career.

The supporting cast is a plush assembly of MGM players at varying points in their careers: Lewis Stone, Johnny Mack Brown, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Dorothy Sebastian (who would have an affair with her director). I was particularly fascinated to see Fairbanks Jr. in an early performance, struggling to emerge from his father’s towering shadow and playing Garbo’s brother Jeffry in an angry, dispirited role so different from the playful persona that he’d eventually develop.

Garbo is the wealthy Diana Merrick, loved since childhood by Neville (Gilbert) and David (Brown). Though she wants to marry Neville, his father disapproves of her freewheeling ways and sends his son abroad to make his fortune. Diana marries David, who commits suicide on their wedding night. Not knowing the secret of David’s despair, Jeffry (Fairbanks) blames Diana for his demise and begins to slowly drink himself to death. Diana eventually reunites with Neville for a night, which seals her fate in a way the censors approved with vigor.

When director Clarence Brown had first worked with Garbo and Gilbert on Flesh and the Devil (1926), the stars were in the midst of a passionate love affair. As clinches performed for the camera would continue after the end of a scene, Brown got in the habit of letting the lovers go on and discreetly excusing himself. The situation was much different on the set of A Woman of Affairs, with their romance thoroughly done and the pair much cooler toward each other, a feeling which unfortunately translated to the screen. However, Garbo’s growing maturity as a performer did much to inject more life into the picture as a whole.

It’s definitely a film where you are required to read between the lines, translating an “illness” to pregnancy and miscarriage and understanding that the pain endured by David and Jeffry are for reasons too scandalous to be spoken. It is the direction and the cast that elevate this lesser, but still worthy Garbo vehicle.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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