Let’s not kid ourselves. John Gilbert is, without a doubt, Greta Garbo’s greatest co-star. The two had a sizzling onscreen chemistry that’s difficult to match. It’s that chemistry that makes their films, Flesh and the Devil, one of the sexiest movies ever made, even after over 80 years. That onscreen chemistry leaked into the stars’ offscreen lives, and the couple carried on an affair that both delighted and disturbed Louis B. Mayer.
But Garbo had a longer career, with a lot of different costars. She starred with Melvyn Douglas three times, twice in comedies and once in a psychological drama. Her pairing with Robert Taylor in Camille is much loved (they were feature in TCM’s recent book “Leading Couples”). She adored John Barrymore, her costar in Grand Hotel.
I’m particularly fond of her pairings with Conrad Nagel, a costar who doesn’t get enough attention in Garbo’s canon (really, he’s an actor who doesn’t get enough attention in general). Nagel, like Garbo, had a unique look and a smoldering screen presense. He wasn’t of any strange or exotic nationality like Garbo was. He was born and bred American. But the silent screen helped to give him an interesting and sensual presense.
Garbo and Nagel starred in two films together, The Mysterious Lady and The Kiss. Strangely enough, despite the fact that both stars went on to have successful sound careers throughout the 1930s, and remained on MGM contract, they never made a talkie together. (In fact, the only silent leading man of Garbo’s that she made a talkie with was Gilbert, when she tried to help revive his career with 1934’s Queen Christina). Perhaps that’s a good thing, though. As wonderful as they both were in sound films, they both underwent an inevitable change in image with the transition to sound. Perhaps they wouldn’t have been as wonderful actually talking to each other.
The Mysterious Lady is often overshadowed by the similar Garbo film Mata Hari from five years later. The Mysterious Lady, though, is a much, MUCH better film. Garbo plays a sexy spy lady who seduces secrets out of soldier Conrad Nagel, only to fall in love with him while doing so. It features an incredible introduction scene for Garbo, where Nagel walks into a box at the theater to see Garbo sitting there, beautiful and completely enraptured in the opera being performed in front of her. In fact, I don’t think Garbo was ever filmed or lit more carefully and lovingly as she was in this movie.
Overall, it’s just an incredible looking movie. There’s such a mysterious and romantic atmosphere established with the lighting and cinematography. The way light and shadow is used works brilliantly for both a spy thriller and a romantic tale. There’s one particular romantic sequence, in which Garbo is seducing Nagel, where she is lit only by candlelight. She never looked so luminous.
With their smoldering chemistry, Nagel and Garbo give their characters so much tension and sensuality. They love and hate each other all at the same time, and both actors are able to perfectly sell the intensity of both emotions. Without a single word, they pass feelings between themselves and the viewers using just their eyes. Anger, desire, lust, longing, hatred. Just subtle facial ticks that speak volumes, and creates a much sexier film than any other kind of physicality ever could.
Nagel and Garbo’s second pairing was in 1929’s The Kiss. It was the last silent film Garbo made before making her transition into talkies the next year, as well as being the last major film of the silent era. Garbo plays a woman married to a wealthy man. She begins a flirtation with a very young Lew Ayres. When her husband catches them kissing, a struggle occurs and her husband is shot. Nagel must then defend Garbo, who he’s loved for some time, in court.
While it’s not nearly as intense or romantic as The Mysterious Lady, The Kiss is an exceptionally good looking movie. It was directed by Jacques Feyder, who was a visual master. The domestic scenes with restless housewife Garbo are intentionally cold and lifeless. It’s beautiful, of course, but it’s a cold beauty. Even her moments with Ayres have an empty feeling to them. Though his friendship does bring her joy, the infatuation is very much one-sided, so there isn’t much feeling on Garbo’s part, and that’s reflected by her surroundings. The courtroom scenes are remarkable, empty space and large objects making the room unbelievably intimidating.
Garbo and Nagel aren’t quite as smoldering here as they are in The Mysterious Lady, but then they’re not supposed to be. There’s a lot of restraint going on between them, and they’re able to express a great deal of feeling going on beneath the surface. He brings out the life in her which is missing with her husband, and Garbo glows in Nagels presense.
These two were a great silent team, and if you ever get the chance to see these movies, take it.
By Katie Richardson