Year: 1932
Director: Monta Bell
Cast: John Gilbert, Virginia Bruce, Paul Lucas, Bodil Rosing, Reginald Owen, Olga Baclanova, Hedda Hopper

Karl (Gilbert) arrives at his job as the new chauffer for the Baron and Baroness von Burgen (Owen and Balcanova) on the day of the butler, Albert’s (Lucas) wedding to Anna (Bruce), the Baroness’ maid. Everyone is charmed by Karl, but soon he proves to be a cad, trying to steal money from the cook, seducing Anna, and blackmailing the Baroness.

Watching Downstairs, it’s kind of hard to believe Gilbert’s sound career didn’t work out. Sure, he didn’t have voice most expected him to have when they watched him in silent films, but this movie is just a tour de force for him. Not only does he star in it, he also wrote the story, which is a pretty impressive one. And his performance is amazing. It’s kind of interesting to see a character who is so completely irredeemable, yet so charming at the same time. He’s a horrible person, but he’s attractive and sexy, and Gilbert owns the role completely. After watching him play the romantic hero so often in silent film, it’s amazing to see such a transformation.

Gilbert’s definitely the high point of the film. While the rest of the cast isn’t bad, they don’t shine the way he does. Virginia Bruce does give a very good performance, and I think she’s more beautiful here than she ever was. And, like I said, it is a very good performance. Anna becomes quite the complicated character. She starts out as a sweet, innocent wife. Then, when Karl seduces her, she’s almost overwhelmed with guilt. But the confrontation scene between her and her husband shows a different side. While she still feel guilty, she shows a strength and a morality that’s not exactly black and white. She’s sorry, but lays a good deal of the blame on her husband, for loving her in a way completely void of passion.

Paul Lukas is decent, compared to Karl and Anna, the character of Albert is pretty boring, even after his passion rises after discovering the affair. He’s a character that’s hard to like or feel really sorry for. In this case, all the sympathy goes to Anna in this situation.

Downstairs is a very tight and well told drama. All the scenes flow together very nicely. It’s really perfectly paced. Not a shot feels out of place or tacked on. They all tie into the story. And it’s so full of pre-code goodness. The fact alone that the main character is basically a villain is something you wouldn’t see in just a few films. Same with the fact that the wife is committed adultery and is still the heroine of the story in the end. And then there’s Karl’s ending, who seems to pay for his sins in the house of the Baron and Baronss. But after leaving that job, he simply moves on to another one, presumably to pull the same tricks yet again.

By Katie Richardson

Cast: Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Erich Von Stroheim, Owen Moore, Hedda Hopper

In one of Garbo’s strangest films, she plays amnesiac nightclub singer Zara, who only has a memory that goes ten years back. She lives with the controlling writer Carl Salter (Von Stroheim) in a twisted, sadistic relationship. Tony (Moore) comes along one night claiming that Zara is actually Maria Varelli, the vanished wife of his friend Bruno (Douglas). Zara goes with Tony, despite not really believing she’s Maria, to get away from Salter. Both Bruno and Tony completely believe that Zara is Maria. But Zara struggles between not really believing she is Maria and wanting to stay with Bruno.

The film is based on a play by Luigi Pirandello, and one has to wonder if the story was an inspiration on Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The two stories share extremely similar plot points and themes. As the viewer, we’re torn between Zara’s inability to believe she really is Maria, and Bruno’s certainty that she is, never certain which we believe. It’s very possible that Bruno and Tony, who have been clinging to an almost non existant hope for over ten years, are simply seeing what they want to see in Zara. It’s fascinating to watch Zara make the transformation from drunken nightclub singer to Italian Countess, and you have to wonder if she’s simply becoming who she always really was, or making a forced transformation to try to be what Bruno wants her to be. The only source of information we have on what Maria was really like is second hand, through the people who knew her and an old diary, so it’s hard to even tell if Zara is truly becoming like Maria at all. Even in the end, it’s left open and we don’t know for sure. It’s a really fascinating examination of perception, identity, and even hope.

Beyond those parts of the story, As You Desire Me also explores a really destructive relationship between Zara and Salter. Not a lot of screentime is given to the pair (an extended scene early in the film and the finale), but Salter’s need to control Zara is one of the main conflicts of the film, and leads to the climax. It’s interesting to compare Zara’s relationship with Bruno to her relationship with Salter. It could be argued that both are equally destructive (up until the conclusion, at least). While Salter may be more controlling and sadistic, with Bruno being gentle and loving, both relationships are initially based on the man seeing what they want to see in Zara, not necessarilly what’s really there. They project their own ideas on to her, essentially making her become what the want her to be (Thus the title). It’s a really interesting exploration of relationships. I don’t think people expect a film this emotionally and psychologically complex to come from 1930s Hollywood.

After seeing nearly every film Garbo made (there are still one or two of her European films I haven’t seen), I’m comfortable with saying that this is her best performance. The character falls in between the troubled vamps from early in her career and the self sacrificing tarnished angels from later in her career. Zara is so often confused, desperate, and even frightened that it would be easy for an actress to portray her as scatterbrained, weak, and pathetic. But Garbo gives her strength. She’s a strong women who’s endured extreme hardship, and while he situation is complicated and she’s certainly not sure what to do about it, she still has the strength to go on. And Garbo mixes that strength with a gentle vulnerability of spirit. It’s that combination that makes her so incredibly convincing and sympathetic in the role.

Both of the lead men (Von Stroheim and Douglas) give interesting performances. Von Stroheim’s Salter is pretty fascinating to watch. His desire to control a woman he so clearly holds a great deal of contempt for could come off as ridiculous, but Von Stroheim simply has the personality to make it believable. Again, he doesn’t have much screen time, but he makes his mark with just a few scenes. Douglas is much better known for his comedies, so it’s a little strange to see him in such a melodramatic role. Of the main three cast members, he is the weakest (I don’t really want to say ‘weakest’, since it’s not at all a bad performance. It’s just not as fantastic as the other two). He really pulls off a sort of urgent desperation in his scenes with Garbo, both for Zara to really be Maria, and to make up for ten years of lost time with his wife.

As You Desire Me is a really unique film to come out of the 1930s. I think it’s one that people who are a little wary of older films will really enjoy. It explores some pretty emotionally and psychologically complex themes that I don’t think people expect from older films. This is definitely one of my all time favorites.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7

By Katie Richardson