Combustible Celluloid
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With: Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Constance Bennett, Roland Young, Robert Sterling, Ruth Gordon, Frances Carson
Written by: S.N. Behrman, Salka Viertel, George Oppenheimer, based on a play by Ludwig Fulda
Directed by: George Cukor
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 90
Date: 11/30/1941

Two-Faced Woman (1941)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Twin Nothings

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Greta Garbo (1905-1990) was a star among stars. She brought it all to the screen. She was mysterious and sensual, passionate and alluring. She could even, it turned out fairly late, do comedy. Men fell helplessly in love with her and people flocked to her films; they were formula pieces, usually about some wonderful, doomed romance, but they always worked since Garbo felt them so deeply.

She also had one of the most unusual of all movie careers. She was born in Sweden and came to the U.S. in time for the talkies, where her heavy accent never burdened her at all; it became part of her persona. She was a queen for about ten years. She began working with bigger directors, and her films were getting better and better. But then, in 1941, she retired, and never made another movie again before her death, 49 years later.

Watching her final film, George Cukor's Two-Faced Woman, which was recently released to DVD through the wonderful Warner Archive, one can finally begin to understand part of the reason why. This is a clumsy, lazy film, which reminded me all too painfully of some of our modern-day clumsy, lazy romantic comedies.

Garbo had worked with director Cukor once before in the terrific Camille (1936), one of her best films. And she had worked with her co-star Melvyn Douglas once before in Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka (1939), also one of her best films. But, paired here with both Cukor and Douglas, nothing quite clicks. It feels as if Cukor were rushing, or haphazardly piecing things together. There are shots in which Garbo's hairstyle radically changes between cuts, as well as some rather bad process shots. Cukor was one of the most graceful of all Hollywood directors, but here he's positively ham-fisted.

The scenario doesn't help. It's one of those obnoxious things in which lovers must keep a lie going for the full running time. Garbo plays Karin Borg, a happy ski instructor who suddenly finds herself teaching the big city magazine mogul Lawrence Blake (Douglas). Trapped in the snow, they fall in love and hastily marry, without discussing where they're going to live. Lawrence goes back to New York, promises to return, but gets caught up in business.

So Karin follows, but a ridiculous predicament forces her to start pretending that she's Karin's fictitious twin sister Katherine. "Katherine" is a good-time gold-digger who doesn't mind taking what she can get from rich men. Her plan -- I guess -- is to drive her husband back to his wife, but instead Lawrence falls for Katherine. Or, not really... he actually really knows it's his wife, but he pretends it's not.

This is not very brilliant stuff. It's broad humor, and Garbo is not at her best, though she does manage to get in some delightfully playful licks; in one scene, she (Katherine) has decided to let Lawrence kiss her, but not yet. In the way she repeatedly says "not yet," she's invited every man who ever lived to wait patiently. Even poor Douglas, who was so nicely, humorously refined in Ninotchka, seems out of place, too flustered. And the slapstick skiing sequences are just painful.

On top of this, the movie was condemned for its lack of decency, and its "loose" interpretation of marriage vows. (Even though Karin and Lawrence are really married and there is no Katherine, they are both willing to jump into bed with another partner.) The movie flopped, and it has carried a less than spectacular reputation ever since. Seeing it again today, I was hoping to be able to defend it, but it's a poor film, and no amount of history or perspective is going to change that.

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