Many films of the silent era are now lost, but only one of them starred Greta Garbo. In 1993, a nine-minute reel from The Divine Woman (1928) was found at Moscow’s Gosfilmofond archive.
Philip J. Riley, a former musician, has published a series of books about vintage monster films, including another lost silent gem, London After Midnight (1927), starring Lon Chaney, also novelised.
Following the Chaney vehicle, Riley has reprinted Gladys Unger’s The Divine Woman with a short introduction, shedding new light on a long-forgotten story.
In 1928, MGM’s production chief, Irving Thalberg, commissioned Unger – author of the 1925 play, Starlight, on which Dorothy Farnum’s screenplay was based – to write a tie-in ‘novelette’ to accompany The Divine Woman’s cinematic release.
The story is loosely based on the early life of Sarah Bernhardt, the fabled actress who dominated the Parisian theatre during the later 19th century. Known as ‘the divine Sarah’, she died in 1923. Bernhardt was known for embellishment, so if the plot is mostly fantasy, this may not be a grave concern.
Perhaps more than any other movie star, Greta Garbo inspired not merely lust, or envy, but awe. She too was often described as ‘divine’.
Born in Stockholm in 1905, and ‘discovered’ by the Swedish film-maker, Mauritz Stiller, Garbo made her Hollywood debut at twenty, and quickly became the world’s most feted star. She played alongside her real-life lover, John Gilbert, in Flesh and the Devil (1927.)
Garbo’s austere beauty and melancholic persona were far removed from the flappers of the day – and yet, she captured the imagination. Her innate shyness only enhanced her mystique.
The narrative can be divided into three distinct episodes. In the first, the young Marah is brought from the provincial farm (where she was raised by her adoptive family), to Paris by a theatrical producer, Monsieur Carre, who introduces Marah to her real mother, the courtesan Rosine.
Next, the rejected daughter finds herself on the streets of Paris, where she falls in love with Lucien, a soldier. She goes to work for Madame Pigonnier, an elderly seamstress. After hearing that he is to be dispatched to Africa, Lucien deserts the army and goes into hiding with Marah.
In the final chapters, Lucien is arrested. Alone again, Marah is drawn to the stage and quickly becomes the most popular actress in Paris. But she is privately unhappy and longs for Lucien’s return, though he feels that she has betrayed him.
This melodramatic storyline is typical of Garbo’s early films. However, The Divine Woman was directed by Victor Sjöström, edited by Conrad A. Nervig, and featured another Swede, Lars Hanson, as Lucien. This would have been very agreeable to Garbo, who was lonely in Hollywood. (Just four years earlier, Hanson had appeared in The Saga of Gösta Berling, Garbo’s breakthrough film with Stiller.)
A year after The Divine Woman, Garbo starred in Love, an adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Unlike many silent stars (including John Gilbert), Garbo made a successful transition to sound in Anna Christie (1930.)
She became MGM’s highest-paid star, and was able to pick and choose her later roles: from historical figures like Sweden’s Queen Christina (1933) to literary heroines like Camille (1936.) In 1939’s Ninotchka, she played a rare comedic role to further acclaim.
In 1941, aged just 36, Garbo retired from the screen. Several comeback projects were mooted but never materialised. She later moved to New York and was dubbed the world’s most famous recluse, though she travelled quite widely.
Garbo had lasting relationships with both men and women, but never married and preferred to live alone. She died in 1990, aged 84, at a New York hospital. Her entire estate – amounting to about $32 million – was left to her niece, Gray Reisfield.
Five years later, after a convoluted legal battle, Garbo’s ashes were interred near Stockholm.
‘It is my hope to reconstruct this film using photographs, set stills and silent film titles,’ Philip C. Riley writes in his introduction to the book. The film in its entirety may have differed from Gladys Unger’s story to some degree, as Irving Thalberg had final approval. (For example, we know that the name of Garbo’s character, Marah, was later changed to Marianne.)
I had hoped for a more detailed commentary, and a greater number of pictures. Nonetheless, this book will certainly be of interest to Garbo fans, as well as those with an interest in silent movies and the romantic fiction of the era.
Garbo Forever website
The Divine Woman on Flickr
Garbo by David Robinson