Monday, November 17, 2008

Leading Couples: Garbo and Gilbert

As I promised in my review of the new book Leading Couples, I watched the silent classic Flesh and the Devil (1926) to explore my fascination with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. The story is about two friends, Leo (Gilbert) and Ulrich, whose friendship is bound by blood with a ritual they performed as children on the Isle of Friendship. When Felicitas (Garbo), a temptress, falls in love with Leo, he is forced into a duel by her husband. Sent off to Africa, Ulrich takes care of Felicitas and marries her, not knowing Leo's previous romantic attachment to her. The triangle becomes a square as Ulrich's little sister, Hertha, is hopelessly in love with Leo. Can Leo and Ulrich's friendship survive Felicitas' temptations?

The love shared between the two men is so intense it borders on the homoerotic. Their love rivals that they share for Felicitas. It's quite interesting. Passion, in many forms, is the driving force of the story as well as the characters. Also, Gilbert and Garbo had such great chemistry that the screen seems to light up when they are together. They had a real-life romance on and off throughout the years they knew each other.

Two Moments of Eletricity

1) A cigarette in the garden.

Leo (Gilbert) says to Felicitas (Garbo) "You know... when you blow out the match... that's an invitation to kiss you." WOW! If only I could use that line in real life (any guys out there with matches handy?). Cigarettes are so symbolic in classic movies. They are one of the most important tools to show sexual attraction. And this scene is a great example of that.

2) The Den of Sin

Felicitas lures Leo into her "den of sin", as I like to call it. It's basically the bedroom in the home that she and her husband share. Here, hidden from the rest of the world, they proceed to be all up on each other. The scene is so long and it lingers on each kiss that the passion elevates to a sort of heightened eroticism. Hot!

Interesting Facts about Garbo & Gilbert from Leading Couples

1) Garbo never married. The one time she came close was when she left Gilbert at the altar. This may or may not be a rumor. Garbo fans, please let me know!

2) Garbo was a notoriously shy hermit. Gilbert was the only person who go her to come to a film premiere, Bardelys and the Magnificent (1926), and smile for the camera.

3) Garbo helped Gilbert get a talkie role when his star was falling. She insisted he be cast opposite her in Queen Christina (1934).

4) Gilbert alowed Garbo to share billing above the title in Flesh and the Devil (1926) (see above image), even though he could have sole billing.

5) Gilbert encouraged Garbo to host parities. She was the most sociable she had ever been when she was with him.

6) When Gilbert passed away, a rumor spread saying that Garbo's response was "What's that to me?" Garbo was so upset, that she held a press conference to denounce the rumor as false.


  1. As a Garbo fan, I found Flesh and the Devil surprisingly watchable. When she appeared with Gilbert years later in Queen Christina, his career was in decline because his voice did not quite work with the new sound films, but Flesh and the Devil managed to depict their love at its outset. Garbo seems very emotionally open--infatuated in her reserved way, and the combination of attraction and aloofness makes her performance compelling.

  2. Raquel,
    I must review Flesh And The Devil one of these days. It's ages since I saw it.

    Comments on your Garbo facts:

    1. I don't think she left Gilbert at the altar other than literally.
    Gilbert wanted to marry her but she was never willing to take "the final step". So there wasn't even a date set or anything but he definitely proposed to her on more than one occasion and I think she even said yes once or twice. :)

    2. True. Garbo hated to be out in the open being forced to deal with photographers and nosy reporters. She tried her best to stay away from anything public until her death. i know she had a handful of Swedish pre-fame friends she kept in touch with.

    3. True. MGM didn't want to touch Gilbert even with gloves on but Garbo simply refused to make the film without him. As I remember she even threatened to break her contract because of this dispute.
    Finally MGM gave in and got a swell picture. But sadly Gilbert's star was beyond repair.

    4&5. Gilbert was very helpful to Garbo (he was in love) in the beginning of her career, so she tried to help him back later when he needed her (she had been in love). Nice and very loyal I think.
    Gilbert was in many ways the opposite to Garbo. He was charming, loud and extremely outgoing. Naturally this was some kind of rush for her in the beginning of their relation. A rush she grew tired of after some time...

    6. True. I believe Gilbert was the only man she ever loved, at the same time she wasn't prepared to share her life with anyone. She had affairs with both women and men but never committed to anyone but herself. this is one of the reasons she's so fascinating i think.

  3. Film Dr - I agree, this film is very approachable and thus watchable. It also helps that it's gorgeous. Set decor, cinematography, landscape, etc. The actors were pretty good looking too.

    Jonas - My resident Garbo expert. Thanks so much for your help. I knew I could count on you.


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