Cast: Greta Garbo, Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore
Oscar Nominations: Best Actress (Greta Garbo)
SUMMARY: Marguerite Gautier (Greta Garbo) lives a society life in Paris that is financed by numerous male admirers. Her looks and romances make her one of the most well-known women in Paris. However, her older friend has advised her to find a man to finally settle down with, as she is getting older and will not be able to sustain her current existence forever. This friend, Prudence, recommends the Baron de Varville for his wealth. She even arranges for the Baron and Marguerite to meet one evening after a musical revue. However, there is a mixup, and Marguerite instead meets a young man named Armand Duval (Robert Taylor). Armand has long been an admirer (from afar) of Marguerite, and is thrilled to finally meet her. Marguerite likes him, but is focused on landing the Baron and leaves Armand at the theater. However, the two run into each other again several weeks later. Marguerite is recovering from a lengthy illness, and learns that Armand came by her house to check on her every day; since the Baron is leaving on a trip to Russia, she invites Armand to her party that night. He attends the party, and the two end up sending the other guests away and spending the time together. The Baron unexpectedly returns, having canceled his trip, and Marguerite is forced to hide the evidence of Armand’s presence. Despite the Baron’s disapproval, she continues to spend time with Armand. Gradually, she falls for him; when he invites her to spend the summer with him at his country cottage, she makes the necessary excuses to the Baron.
Despite the fact that they can see the Baron’s much larger estate house from the cottage, the two enjoy a wonderful summer together. Marguerite decides to give up the Baron for good and be with Armand, but refuses to marry him when he asks. Then one day while Armand is away his father, Monsieur Duval (Lionel Barrymore) visits. He tells Marguerite that if Armand insists on being with her and/or marrying her, her reputation will cause his social ruin in Paris. The Duvals are not excessively wealthy, but Armand has the prospect of a good job; Monseiur Duval is afraid that this job prospect, and other future ones, will disappear due to Marguerite’s well-known past. Marguerite reluctantly agrees to break things off for good with Armand. That evening, she tells him that she has decided to return to the Baron, who can pay for her extravagant lifestyle. Armand is devastated, and leaves Paris for some time. When he finally returns, he finds that Marguerite did return to the Baron, and they are still together. Even though he is tremendously angry with her, Armand still loves Marguerite and detests the Baron for the way he treats her. He confronts her, but Marguerite sticks to her story, sending an angry Armand away again. Marguerite’s lingering illness (tuberculosis) now quickly gets the better of her, sending her to her deathbed. She tells her friend that she is waiting to die until she sees Armand one last time. Armand has been notified of her condition, but cannot bring himself to visit. Just as Marguerite gives up hope of him coming and summons a priest, he finally arrives. Armand does not realize the seriousness of her condition, and tells her that they will finally be able to be together. Marguerite agrees with him, and then dies in his arms.
MY TAKE: To me, this will always be the movie Annie goes to see in the 1982 version of the musical Annie. At the end of the film, Warbucks looks stunned (and a little confused), Grace is bawling, and Annie is asleep. The funny part is that before the three go to the movies, they sing the song “Let’s Go to the Movies”, which contains the lines, “Bette Davis is probably lying/And Greta Garbo is probably crying/While Robert Taylor is locked in her dying embrace”. This is an obvious allusion to this movie, but it’s sung before they actually see the film — so technically, they shouldn’t know that Garbo’s character dies at the end. Having seen Annie, I clearly did know that she would die. It’s also a dead giveaway when a character in a period movie keeps coughing into a handkerchief. This was apparently the universal sign that they had “consumption” (tuberculosis), and they virtually always die. Think of Moulin Rouge!, which is basically a flashier musical version of this story. Seriously, I know that as soon as I see a character frequently coughing into a hankie, they’re going to kick the bucket before the film is over. Apparently a lot of people regard this as Garbo’s best role, but I thought the movie was kinda melodramatic (I much preferred her in Ninotchka). It’s an overdone story: two people who are told by society that they can’t be together. Just once, I would like to see the characters tell everybody else to shove it, instead of listening and setting themselves up for heartbreak. Personally, I think it would be a lot more interesting (certainly more novel) to see them fight the social standards of the time. I don’t see why Armand and Marguerite couldn’t have just moved away from Paris, where her past wouldn’t be known. By the end of the movie I was just fed up with both of them and their ridiculous reasons for staying apart.
Point of interest: Ninotchka, released in 1939, was famously billed with the line, “Garbo laughs!” For the first few minutes of this film, released three years earlier, I think she laughed constantly.
RATING: Melodramatic take on an old story.