The Mysterious Lady (1928)
This month marks TCM’s 25thanniversary! Yay! In honor of the anniversary, TCM’s April 2019 Star of the Month is the same star they featured as the very first SOTM 25 years ago:
I can’t tell you how excited I am to have the chance to write about Ms Garbo and watch some of her films this month! I think she is just so fascinating and talented.
Here is the downside of the TCM anniversary though: they have re-arranged the typical monthly schedule to make room for all of the anniversary films and themes they are celebrating this month. So, rather than getting a few Garbo films every Tuesday night for the month of April, TCM played all the Garbo films they will showcase this month LAST WEEK. A bit of a bummer! There just isn’t enough time to bask in Garbo’s talent and beauty before the films expire online at the end of this week!!!! (Unless you were super on top of things last week and are lucky enough to have DVR…!)
So because of the curveball TCM schedule, today I will review an excellent Garbo silent film, The Mysterious Lady (1928). Next week, I will write about her intriguing life/persona, and the last full week of the month I will review one of Garbo’s best-known films, Camille (1936), which THANKFULLY TCM will play again on April 30th. Check my TCM favorites film calendar for details, and add Camille to your calendar so you don’t miss it!
Now onto The Mysterious Lady!
If you didn’t already know, or gather from the 1928 release year of the film, The Mysterious Lady is a silent film. Personally, I really enjoy silents! Ok, ok, not all silent films are awesome. Some silent films are incredibly dated, complete with heavy make-up and over-acting. But The Mysterious Lady is NOT dated, thanks in large part to the timeless acting of Greta Garbo. So whether you are already a lover of silent films, or an open-minded individual willing to give silents a shot, you will not be disappointed with The Mysterious Lady!
The film is set in pre-WWI Austria. If you are a history fanatic like me, you are probably already intrigued! We meet our male protagonist, played by Conrad Nagel, almost immediately. He is Karl von Raden, an Austrian soldier, enjoying a night on the town. Karl decides to go see a show, and wouldn’t you know it, he ends up with a box seat, next to a mysterious lady he has never met. She is so incredibly beautiful as she takes in the play, Karl is immediately smitten. Can you guess who the lady is?
Yep, it is our SOTM, the beautiful Greta Garbo!
Little does Karl know, his seat next to this woman has all been carefully planned and arranged, for she is Russian spy Tania Fedorova, tasked with seducing Karl to get secret Austrian war plans back to the Russians!
Something the Russians and Tania don’t account for happens though: Tania and Karl fall in love. It doesn’t take much, a romantic evening together after the show, and a picnic in the woods the next day, but suddenly Tania finds herself torn between her duty to her country and her love for Karl.
But Karl must leave the day after their picnic, and a henchman of Tania’s boss/boyfriend General Boris Alexandroff (played by Gustav von Seyffertitz, who makes the perfect stock-character villain) comes to warn her that she must double cross Karl and get the Austrian plans, OR ELSE. Before Tania meets up with Karl on the train the next day, Karl learns Tania’s true identity from his Uncle Eric, a secret agent man. “No wonder you’re chief of the secret service, Uncle Eric!,” Karl exclaims, amazed at his uncle’s super advanced detective work.
Karl rightfully feels betrayed by Tania, and when she comes to his room on the train, he gives her a talking to. Tania, pride injured and frustrated that Karl does not believe her when she professes her love for him, leaves Karl’s room with a dramatic flourish: “I came to you as the woman who loved you–I leave–your enemy,” reads the card after this scene.
Tania steals the Austrian plans while Karl is sleeping, and disappears into the night. Back in Russia, while being heralded by her countrymen and Boris for a job well done, Tania learns that her handy work has led to Karl being deemed a traitor by his country. The Austrians believe Karl must be a double agent for “losing” the plans. His death has been scheduled, and Tania feels responsible.
But…Uncle Eric to the rescue! He sneaks Karl out of jail because he knows Karl is innocent, and sends him on a mission to Russia to prove his innocence. Which, as luck would have it, includes finding Tania by acting like a pianist in a joint that is the popular hang out spot for Boris and his hoity-toity crowd.
Karl ends up playing the tunes at one of Boris’ parties, and Tania sees him. Their love is reignited as Tania sings to Karl’s piano playing. Boris can tell there is something between them and becomes suspicious! Tania decides to prove her love to Karl by stealing some secret Russian plans from Boris. But Boris catches her! “I taught you everything you know, but not everything I know!!!” says Boris. Tania shoots him dead in his office, just before Boris’ right-hand man knocks on the door to say that they have just captured Karl.
Tania thinks fast, and moves the dead Boris to an oversized armchair, with the back of the chair facing the office door. She positions herself on his lap so that only her face and body, and Boris’ arm and hand—which she has arranged on herself to look like a romantic embrace—are visible from the office door. She tells Boris’ man to open the door and acts like the dead Boris and herself are…busy…she then pretends like Boris has whispered to her, and tells the man that General Alexandroff wishes to do away with Karl himself, and to bring him in the office and leave the three of them alone. Smart move Tania!!!
Naturally, Boris’ office has a secret passageway that leads out to the unguarded courtyard. Tania and Karl use the passageway to escape, and make their way to the Austrian border, which they successfully cross. Now they can start their life together, happy and free in Austria. The end!
Simple plotline, but totally intriguing, right?!! I mean, who doesn’t enjoy some romance, espionage, and suspense? The Mysterious Lady was directed by the now mostly forgotten Fred Niblo. I think Niblo does a superb job here. I would go so far as to say that Niblo creates a Hitchcockian feel in The Mysterious Lady. Yeah, if Hitchcock had made silents, I think The Mysterious Lady is a good example of what they would have been like.
The Mysterious Ladyis pretty perfectly cast, too. Garbo and Conrad Nagel reportedly got along really well on the set of the film. Some critics found Nagel a little boring. Though he is not at Garbo’s skill level (who is?), I still think Nagel does a great job, never overacting. Quite remarkable for a silent actor of the time. Nagel’s glances at Garbo in the theater balcony when they first meet are just perfect! He acts the “oh my gosh can anyone really be this gorgeous” bit perfectly, stealing looks at her, filled with longing, whenever possible. It’s pretty endearing.
And can you blame him?!!!!
Miss Garbo is absolutely breathtaking from the moment the camera allows us to lay eyes on her. The bright lighting lends Garbo an angelic quality, and she is simply luminous. The cinematographer on Mysterious Lady was William Daniels, who came to be known as Garbo’s cameraman. And you can see why, without fail, Garbo requested him for her films! Ms Garbo is always gorgeous, but through the capable lens of William Daniels, her beauty becomes immortal.
The Mysterious Lady was released two years into Greta Garbo’s Hollywood film career, and she was already revered for her immense acting talent and beauty. The screen had never seen anything like her before (and it hasn’t since!), and audiences of the time were absolutely nuts about her. To put Garbo into today’s perspective, think of her as an actress of Meryl Streep caliber with the looks and appeal of someone like Angelina Jolie. So YES! Her films and her life always generated excitement! And money for her studio, MGM.
In The Mysterious Lady, you get to see what all the fuss was about. Ms Garbo is utterly gorgeous in every scene. And her acting! Even without words, Garbo conveys exactly what her character is feeling, through the slightest eye movement, or a lift of the eyebrow. In the scene where she shoots Boris, and must quickly figure out what to do in order to save Karl’s life and keep herself from being caught, you can literally see every thought that crosses her mind as she concocts her plan. Again, she does this successfully with NO WORDS, and no overacting, just the subtlest of facial expression changes. Her performance in the film stands the test of time—this is not just a good performance for a 1920s silent, this is a good performance PERIOD.
The Mysterious Lady is not perfect, and there are some comical scenes that totally weren’t supposed to be funny. (For example, in the scene where Karl is receiving his death sentence by the heads of the Austrian army for losing the secret plans, one guy breaks Karl’s sword by simply bending it over his knee! I mean, why do the Austrians need swords, or an army at all, when they’ve got this guy around!!!) But The Mysterious Lady is completely worth watching! If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it as a great introduction to Garbo’s silent films, and silent films in general. I am strongly considering purchasing it, it is that good, and I enjoyed it that much.
Did any of you catch The Mysterious Lady? What were your thoughts on the film and Ms Garbo’s performance?