Sunday, January 31, 2016

Tonight's Movie: Flesh and the Devil (1926)

Last year I wrote the final review for my 2014 10 Classics list on February 1st. My last review for the 2015 10 Classics list will beat that by one day. Perhaps 2016 will be the year I finish this annual project by New Year's Eve!

The final film seen from my 2015 list was the Greta Garbo-John Gilbert silent film FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1926). FLESH AND THE DEVIL also starred Barbara Kent, enjoyed last year in the wonderful LONESOME (1928).

FLESH AND THE DEVIL was an elegant, beautiful film which continued to deepen my appreciation of silent cinema; it contained moments which will long linger in my memory.

Gilbert and Lars Hanson play Leo and Ulrich, soldiers who have been friends since childhood. Ulrich's sweet little sister, Hertha (Kent), crushes on Leo and dreams of attracting his romantic attention.

Leo instead falls for Felicitas (Greta Garbo), not realizing that she's married. We're shown a lingering (and rather hot) love scene, just before Felicitas's husband (Marc McDermott) comes home unexpectedly and catches Felicitas and Leo together in her bedroom.

There's a duel, and then things get really complicated when Leo is banished to serve in the army in Africa for five years. Felicitas, who had pledged to wait for Leo, sets her sights on wealthy Ulrich...

In essence it's the simple tale of a wicked woman coming between two friends, while a good woman looks on helplessly and prays. But, as is so often the case, it's the telling that makes the difference.

There are some incredible visuals, such as Leo lighting a match for Felicitas in a dark garden; Gilbert was actually holding a tiny spotlight, and it's movie magic the way it lights up their faces.

The duel is done entirely in silhouettes, foreshadowing the look of some scenes in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) decades later. All that is seen is the guns fired and the seconds running to the two men...fade to Felicitas trying on a widow's veil, smirking. In that moment, thanks to Garbo's expressions, we first begin to comprehend Felicitas was not just a woman carried away by passion, but something rather more evil.

The full extent of Felicitas' cold heart is seen in church, when she ignores the cautionary sermon of the pastor (George Fawcett), instead fixing her makeup and then ostentatiously taking a nap. When it's time for Communion, she turns the cup so that she'll be drinking exactly where Leo just drank, as she glances toward him, taunting him.

The ending is rather wild but nonetheless appropriate, as Hertha's prayers are answered in an unexpected way.

My favorite scene of all was when Leo and Felicitas say farewell before he leaves for Africa, just because it looks so striking; it's dusk and cold, the pavement is wet and the lamplighter walks by lighting the street lamps. Exquisite.

The gorgeous photography was by William Daniels, with direction by Clarence Brown. The film runs 112 well-paced minutes.

FLESH AND THE DEVIL is available as part of the TCM Archives Garbo Silents Collection. That Silents Collection is also included within the Greta Garbo Signature Collection, which is a much better deal, many more films for about the same price as buying the silents alone!

The film on this DVD contains a superb score by Carl Davis. Extras include a commentary track, featurette, and an alternate ending. I read the director didn't care for the alternate ending, but seeing it left me a more satisfied viewer.

I'm especially glad that my 10 Classics lists have pushed me to try more silents over the last few years, as it's wonderful to have an entirely new world of movie watching opening up before me!


Blogger Clayton said...

Gilbert had such a screen presence. Some say he had an effeninate voice in talkies, but I thought it just sounded a bit odd, like when Johnny Carson would speak through his nose in comedy bits. In any case, some folks were made to burn in silent pictures.

Honestly, I wish more were made today.

Clayton @ Phantom Empires

4:21 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Clayton!

Best wishes,

9:05 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

With my many years of vigilant moviegoing, I'll usually know any movie on your "10 classics" list. But not this one! Somehow, I've just never seen it though have always intended to. Reading what you wrote makes it sound fascinating, and not only the melodrama--I know the visual beauty Clarence Brown and William Daniels could create.

So, guess I'll make a point of it now. Thanks!

1:57 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Blake, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. It's kind of fun to be able to suggest one to you, rather than the other way around! I think you would really enjoy this, and I'd love to know your thoughts when you see it. It was a richly detailed film which I think will have much to offer on successive viewings.

Best wishes,

5:51 PM  
Blogger Biograph Consulting said...

Because of her legendary reputation as the Most Beautiful Woman In FIlms, it takes a while before the viewer catches on that indeed, Greta is the Devil in the Flesh, that she will ruthlessly help herself to whatever is on offer at the time, and let the men scramble for crumbs. Her demise the this Gilbert film came as a total surprise, but not an unwelcome one, and the final scene with the two friends is strange for our times. I much enjoy and love and care you put into your reviews!

10:35 PM  

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