The Veil of Garbo

Greta Garbo in The Painted Veil gets the real star intro—GARBO, as the credits list her; one word, all caps.  Her name is almost the first thing seen (right after MGM’s opening credit—importance must be given its due), and it remains onscreen, in stark black text that bleeds through the other credits of names, jobs, and dates, which flow on, linger a second or two, then fade to make way for more—but always there’s GARBO, her name hovering behind it all like a veil itself.  Is she, Garbo herself, the Veil?  Is she the mystery to be lifted, penetrated, perceived?  The film doesn’t give an outright answer, but, given who’s the lead, I think we can see for ourselves.

The film is the first (1934) adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel.  The book’s story concerns a mésalliance between a stiff, humorless medical researcher and a shallow, frivolous young woman who, living in boredom with her husband in Hong Kong, engages in an adulterous affair.  Discovering her infidelity, the husband forces the wife to accompany him to an isolated village where an epidemic rages.  We’re meant to infer that the husband is deliberately risking his wife’s life in revenge for her unfaithfulness, but instead it’s the husband who dies—quoting, as he expires, the last line of Oliver Goldsmith’s “Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog,” in ironic realization that he’s been hoisted by his own petard.  Perhaps by his own hatreds projected onto his wife; or perhaps by his acceptance of her own blossoming transformation, as she cares for him as he dies.  The novel is essentially about the redemption of a shallow soul, maybe the most difficult redemption there is—to find emotional depths where there haven’t been any.  Can one deepen a puddle?  Maugham was unsentimental in his story, and his view of both husband and wife is cold and clear-eyed; but he could grant grace to his characters. I think The Painted Veil is his best novel.

But changes have been made from novel to film, the most significant caused by its lead actress.  Simply put, Garbo can’t do shallow.  Garbo is anything but.  She is soundless depths, she is infinite soul, she is a plunge into the boundless knowledge of Self, a reflecting pool of profound awareness that recreates the gazing viewer endlessly in its distances.  In the film her character is not silly, selfish, or vain, but instead is a woman who seeks the infinitude of love and is denied it.  She’s not frivolous but has frivolity thrust upon her through her husband’s neglect; and it’s her need, her hunger, her desperation for another soul in which to lose her own infinite, eternal self, that trips her.  Garbo is all soul, and her soul is too intense, too yearning, too searching, for mere trifling pleasures.  It burns, it gleams with its dream of love, and this gleam is captured in the film’s cinematography, which etches Garbo in pearly grey tints, her mouth and eyes key-lit so they shine like silver.  Was there ever a face, and features, more suited for the camera’s clear, concentrated gaze?  There are moments, in the film’s frequent, absorbing close-ups, in their ecstatic contemplation of Garbo’s face, when, if I may dare note, she recalls Falconetti.

As the film depicts it, it’s through this search, for an answering soul, rather than through boredom or restlessness, that Garbo dallies with George Brent as her lover.  Though I wonder about the casting of Brent against the likes of Garbo.  As an actor he was all gleam but no depth, stolid and smooth, nary a line or mark ruffling his glossy exterior.  He suggests nothing so much as a polished pillar, holding up his part in the plot.  Brent always struck me as a safe prop for a strong leading lady, a sounding board and mirror for her depths and brilliance (Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Kay Francis, Ruth Chatterton, Myrna Loy…), one who won’t dazzle, and upstage in his own right.  He had a nice, humorous grin, as if he knows he’s really a joke and doesn’t mind (there’s a paycheck at the end, yes?), and, dressed always in the best suits, with a neat mustache and slicked-down hair, he dashed enough onscreen to please the fans.  The film grants him a last-minute turnaround into soulfulness (not in the novel), though it doesn’t quite work (did MGM insist on it? Did the Production Code?  Did George?).  The bit seems slapped on, an afterthought, and Garbo appropriately ignores him.  Poor George.  I hope the paycheck was good.

The movie has that splendid quality of Golden-Age Hollywood cinema, that meticulous, sensual recreation of a foreign land (meaning: beyond southern California).  Take our introduction to Hong Kong, as director Richard Boleslawski scans his camera over a panorama of people—moving, talking, eating, twisting, turning, sitting, waving—caught in mundane actions writ large on the screen.  (When one man is seen tying up a piglet, we feel sorry for that small, squirming creature; it seems so vital.)  We’re seeing “Hong Kong” as the exotic, tumultuous, crowded, dirty, beautiful Hong Kong, of ours, and MGM’s, stereotyped dreams.  And here comes Garbo, to live here with her husband, Herbert Marshall, who yearns at her with eyes as soulful as hers, all the inarticulateness of his character strained through those gleaming orbs.  Marshall’s quite good in his role; he looks at Garbo with such longing and loss, and speaks his lines with such suppressed feeling, that we yearn with him; it’s an echt Marshall performance.  Marshall wasn’t an exciting actor, but he could inhabit space solidly, believably, and he supports his leading lady by reflecting our own feelings towards her.  The 1930s in Hollywood was the great age of the Actress; but for every luminous Garbo, there was a placid but dependable Marshall to back her up.

Another major change in the film (which came out after the Code crackdown) is to give it a happy ending.  Here, Garbo (re)falls in love with Marshall, who survives (a knifing, not in the novel), and it leads to a revelatory scene, in a drab kitchen, with Marshall confessing his love and forgiveness, and asking for hers—so beautifully, so simply done.  Boleslawski places a coffee pot between the two, a humdrum object of separation that acquires a weight of meaning from its placement; it’s the small, everyday details, we realize, that matter in a marriage.  The pair talk with such a sense of intimacy that you sense the veil being lifted between them, pulled away by exhaustion, fear, dependence, and a burgeoning knowledge, of themselves and of each other.  They will go on, we feel, to live and grow together, in this hard-won victory of self-awareness, needed for awareness of the other.  And Garbo is at her most glorious here, in a great, long scene, a sustained closeup of poured-out passion, confessing her love for her husband, her realization of his love, her desire to be loved back—Garbo sustains the scrutiny, in her face and eyes, in all her moods, deep, spontaneous, and sincere.  Her eyes are alight with a purified emotion—of love, divine, passionate, sensual, pure love.  She is redeemed and revealed to us as a reborn being, the veil being lifted thus to show us—GARBO.

Maugham’s novel was adapted to film two more times. The 2006 version dips into sentimentality: as the husband dies, he and the wife confess their newfound love for each other just before he expires.  It’s a cliché and not in the novel (as I said, Maugham was not sentimental).  The 1957 version (called The Seventh Sin, no doubt as box-office bait) stars Eleanor Parker as the erring wife, and she’s very good; the film overall remains more faithful to the book, even to including the dying husband’s last words.  This version keeps the character of the Mother Superior, who oversees the care of orphans who’ve lost their families to the plague.  The actress who plays her here is very good, but what wouldn’t I give to have seen Garbo cast in the role.  She wouldn’t have done it, of course, but how she could have acted this woman, as portrayed by Maugham—someone so purged of human dross, yet so forgiving of human error, that she nearly approaches the divine.  It remains one of those alternative film histories we can always dream about—as Garbo dreams, and as we ourselves dream about Garbo—GARBO—herself.

BONUS CLIP:  MGM poured on the pageantry with this (non-Maugham) sequence from The Painted Veil, depicting a staged extravaganza of a supposed Chinese folk tale, while Garbo and George Brent watch.  They really don’t do stuff like this in movies any more:

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