FLESH AND THE DEVIL

This legendary film has a set-up that promises a rattling good yarn —
two lifelong friends pitted against each other in mortal combat by a
callow but irresistible woman. It is directed in bravura style, with
flashes of cinematic brilliance, by a master of film narrative,
Clarence Brown, and it features two of the silent screen's most
appealing actors, Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. The result is
watchable, even entertaining — but deeply unsatisfying on almost every
level.


We see in this film what the 20th-Century, and the studio system in
Hollywood, did to the melodrama — perverting it meretriciously,
heartlessly, systematically, fatally.



The melodrama of the Victorian stage, of Griffith and Pickford and even
Murnau, was a stylized form in which a glamorized virtue was beset by
crude though recognizable obstacles which seemed invincible but which
virtue could vanquish, though often only by self-sacrifice and in death.



We may laugh at the form today, or find it charmingly quaint, but it
represented a sophisticated dramatic tradition capable of conveying
deep emotion and serious moral reflection. It is hardly more laughable
or quaint than modern forms, in which a superior display of aptitude
with firearms can right any wrong, in which glamor or cuteness alone
can resolve any romantic complication, in which material or
professional success signals the triumph of the good.



Melodrama only becomes grotesque and artificial when those who make it
lose faith, consciously or unconsciously, in virtue, especially in
self-sacrificial virtue. In our self-obsessed age, at least before 11
September 2001, virtue became suspect — a sucker's game — and sacrifice
unthinkable. Not being able to have it all seemed a crime against a
basic entitlement of humanity — or at least that part of it lucky
enough to be born into Western middle-class comfort.



This is why modern intellectual sophisticates laughed at the melodrama
of Titanic, though its moral complexity far exceeded the dime-store
nihilism, or self-referential fantasy, delivered by the hip filmmakers
of the 90's. It was taken seriously, however, by ordinary people — and
especially by teenage women, who knew on some level that the nihilism
and fantasy of their parents' generation had come to a dead end, had
not prepared them for the world they saw before them, the world of
Columbine and Osama bin Laden.




Flesh and the Devil
represents a first step in the destruction of
melodrama as a viable form — as Titanic may represent a first step
in its rehabilitation. In Flesh and the Devil, virtue is dessicated
— evil lush and ripe. Though the story tells us again and again that
Barbara Kent is the good girl and Greta Garbo the bad girl, every
single act of craft and genius on display in the film struggles to
persuade us otherwise.



We are far from Griffith and Pickford here, whose great heroines showed
us how appealing, energetic, sexy and even seductive virtue could be.
Greta Garbo becomes, in essence, the auteur of Flesh and the Devil,
because all its narrative ploys, all its moral stances, collapse into
worship of her mysterious presence, her oddly luminous flesh.




In strictly narrative terms, there has rarely been a more extreme
example of misogyny on film. Garbo's character is unremittingly evil —
her heartlessness, until the last unconvincing moments of the role, is
absolute, her greed and selfishness both repellent and unmitigated. But
Brown's camera and Brown's casting and Brown's staging worship at her
feet. All the other characters are perfunctorily drawn, wooden in
presentation, with two exceptions. One is the kindly old priest who is
roused to an almost sexual excitement by his hatred of the Garbo
character — a hatred which the narrative invites us to share. The
other is Gilbert . . . who struggles manfully to discover a complexity,
a moral gravity in his character. In his final scenes he almost
succeeds, but the odds are against him, the game was rigged from the
start. The film believes in nothing but Garbo — virtue has no defense
against her, can reassert itself only by killing her.



One thinks of what the film could have been if those who made it were
aware of this — had some sense of the moral questions it raises. If
Garbo's character had been granted a soul, instead of stripped of it,
if Barbara Kent's character had been given even a hint of Gish's or
Pickford's complexity and will and sensuality, the delicious
possibilities of the tale could have unfolded into real melodrama —
which is to say, real drama.



But this film is an early demonstration of the use of a star to avoid
drama, to avoid moral questions, to parade unfelt clichés and
undeveloped characters and irresponsible attitudes before an audience
mesmerized by glamor alone. A melodrama in which virtue has evaporated
is not melodrama anymore — it's more like Grand Guignol, without the
shameless energy, the giddy frissons, the amoral abandon of a real
Theater of Blood.




I'm not sure we can blame Garbo's collaborators too harshly for this,
though — she is sui generis. There is really no word for what she does
on screen. It's not acting, it's not even performing — she is simply a
creature who has her being on film . . . the camera devours her, every
molecule of her. The process leaves nothing behind — no memory of a
character, or even of a human being caught on film. She paradoxically
incarnates the gossamer moods of certain kinds of passion, certain
kinds of physical enchantment — and vanishes as mysteriously as they
do. But it's useless to deny how spectacular the phenomenon is, how
strange and pleasurable — just as it's useless to deny the charm of
falling in love.



Brown and his cameraman and his screenwriters and his actors may have
to be forgiven for losing their heads in her presence, and even for
hating her power to undo them so utterly.

6 thoughts on “FLESH AND THE DEVIL

  1. Lloyd, I am likely out of my depth, but here goes.
    I know little of the silent cinema, and even less about Victorian melodrama. I think I understand what you are saying about Garbo, using only Ninotchka as guide, and you make your case with verve and eloquence.
    But you make some pretty dramatic claims, which really require elaboration and justification:
    “We see in this film what the 20th-Century, and the studio system in Hollywood, did to the melodrama — perverting it meretriciously, heartlessly, systematically, fatally.”
    How so? Were not the great Hollywood melodramas of the classic period an elegant and fluid modernisation?
    “We may laugh at the form today, or find it charmingly quaint, but it represented a sophisticated dramatic tradition capable of conveying deep emotion and serious moral reflection. It is hardly more laughable or quaint than modern forms, in which a superior display of aptitude with firearms can right any wrong, in which glamor or cuteness alone can resolve any romantic complication, in which material or professional success signals the triumph of the good.”
    Victorian melodrama is dated but has its historic place just like Vaudeville. Is not a film like Mildred Pierce a sophisticated drama conveying deep emotion and serious moral reflection, where guns solve nothing, wrong-doing is punished, and virtue vindicated? Is there not an element of melodrama in almost every fictional film where a human drama is played out?
    “Melodrama only becomes grotesque and artificial when those who make it lose faith, consciously or unconsciously, in virtue, especially in self-sacrificial virtue. In our self-obsessed age, at least before 11 September 2001, virtue became suspect — a sucker's game — and sacrifice unthinkable. Not being able to have it all seemed a crime against a basic entitlement of humanity — or at least that part of it lucky enough to be born into Western middle-class comfort… This is why modern intellectual sophisticates laughed at the melodrama of Titanic, though its moral complexity far exceeded the dime-store nihilism, or self-referential fantasy, delivered by the hip filmmakers of the 90's.”
    While you can see this in the work of Tarantino and others, there have always been and still are film-makers in Hollywood that make films that do not fit your critique: say In the Heat of the Night, Midnight Cowboy, and recently, Michael Clayton. Titanic was a derivative big-budget disaster movie with the usual hackneyed story of lovers from across the tracks and so on, with nothing much else to say about anything.
    “It was taken seriously, however, by ordinary people — and especially by teenage women, who knew on some level that the nihilism and fantasy of their parents' generation had come to a dead end, had not prepared them for the world they saw before them, the world of Columbine and Osama bin Laden.”
    You have drawn a very long bow here. Which generation are you talking about: Samuel Fuller's, Martin Scorcese's, or Tarantino's? And are film-makers that powerful, that we can lay Columbine and Sept 11 at their feet? As for teenage girls (they're not women yet), all they saw was a tragic romance – unless you have evidence to the contrary.
    “this film is an early demonstration of the use of a star to avoid drama, to avoid moral questions, to parade unfelt clichés and undeveloped characters and irresponsible attitudes before an audience mesmerized by glamor alone. A melodrama in which virtue has evaporated is not melodrama anymore — it's more like Grand Guignol, without the shameless energy, the giddy frissons, the amoral abandon of a real Theater of Blood.”
    Having not seen the movie, I can't comment, but you go on to contradict this statement with: “I'm not sure we can blame Garbo's collaborators too harshly for this, though — she is sui generis… Brown and his cameraman and his screenwriters and his actors may have to be forgiven for losing their heads in her presence, and even for hating her power to undo them so utterly.” You can't say Garbo was “used” and claim the film's makers are guilty of actively avoiding moral questions, parading unfelt cliches, and irresponsible attitudes, when it was all Garbo's fault…

  2. Thanks as always for the comments!
    Melodrama has survived in Hollywood as a form — what Hollywood has forgotten how to do is glamorize virtue. This is not the same as tacking a “moral” ending onto a film that glamorizes evil. “Flesh and the Devil” has a “moral” ending — the bad woman gets her just desserts — but the film exists primarily to glamorize her.
    My last remarks about the filmmakers undone by Garbo were meant with a certain amount of irony. One forgives the men who used Garbo because they were pretty sorry excuses for men.
    One might argue that they paid her fabulous amounts of money for the privilege of turning her into an image that didn't make them quake in their boots. In Hollywood, for the most part, strong, self-sufficient woman equals bad, dead woman.

  3. Interestingly, TCM ran another Garbo-Gilbert vehicle the other night, “Love”, adapted from “Anna Karenina”. Comparing these films with earlier works by Griffith, the difference in the approach to melodrama is immensely evident. I've been rewatching the Griffith Biograph shorts, and he approaches the melodrama elements with utter conviction and without a trace of irony.

  4. In movies as in life, evil often comes in glamorous packaging. I think you need to distinguish between “glamorizing evil” and an evil person being attractive or glamorous. In Tourneur's Out of the Past, we have the good girl and the bad girl: the bad girl is glamorous and the good girl is not, but the good girl's virtue shines. Ultmately it is the protagonist who must make a choice between virtue and vice…

  5. Good point, and “Out Of the Past” is a good film to look at when considering this subject. In that film, the good girl and the life Mitchum leads with her ARE glamorized, and the bad girl is both sympathetic and repellent. Mitchum has a real choice to make — but only in theory, of course, since it's a film noir, set in a moral universe where nobody has much choice about anything.
    I guess you could say that film noir is a kind of melodrama in which virtue is both attractive and (usually) unattainable. In “Flesh and the Devil”, virtue is boring.

  6. When filmmakers grow cynical about virtue, melodrama turns into manipulative formula. As I suggest below, it's possible to be hopeless about virtue, existentially pessimistic, while still valuing it — as film noir values it. Film noir gets its tension, it's power, from the conflict between a yearning for honor and decency and the impossibility of achieving these things in a world gone haywire. That's a long way from treating virtue as just a plot point or a joke.

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