Greta Garbo makes her Cinema in the Park debut — and on her birthday, aptly enough — in Fred Niblo’s 1928 romantic spy thriller The Mysterious Lady.
Garbo’s greatest work was arguably in the talkies (though it’s a wonder her career survived the first few of those!), with movies like Grand Hotel, Queen Christina and Anna Karenina. Yet there’s something inextricably right about the actress and the silent film — the slightly otherworldly quality to her beauty was a perfect match. And that’s even true when she’s in a slightly preposterous spy yarn like this one.
As with another small handful of stars, Garbo had the uncanny ability to be interesting without actually doing anything, making her a natural for the silent film. That same talent helped anchor even the most absurd stories she acted in to a semblance of believability. And nowhere did this prove a greater blessing than in The Mysterious Lady — a fascinating, very enjoyable, beautifully crafted film that never quite seems to know what it wants to be, but waffles about with such grace and style that you finally don’t care.
The Divine Miss G. plays Tania Fedorova, “the cleverest of all Russian spies,” whose mission is to steal Austria’s secret war plans from Capt. Karl von Raden (Conrad Nagel) by any means necessary. Of course, this being a movie, Tania’s going to fall for Karl and complications aplenty are going to pop up, especially since she’s the beloved of the head of the Russian secret service, Gen. Boris Alexandroff (Gustav von Seyffetitz).
Directed by the generally overlooked Fred Niblo (best remembered today for making the silent Ben Hur), The Mysterious Lady is a strange jumble of styles. Even though we know something more is afoot, the first 30 minutes wouldn’t be out of place in an Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedy, with Tania’s “accidentally” meeting Karl at the opera and letting him take her home, where an evening of wooing follows. (There’s an especially fine sequence involving lighting candles, and a very Lubitsch touch with the hapless cab driver waiting out in the rain.)
Once the plot proper kicks in and Tania’s real purpose becomes clear, the film switches gears and starts resembling nothing so much as a lightweight blueprint for Garbo’s rather leaden talkie, Mata Hari, or even Josef von Sternberg’s much more adept Marlene Dietrich vehicle, Dishonored. The resemblance to the latter is increased by the presence of a the great von Seyffertitz, who is not only in Dishonored, but here fulfills the typical Sternbergian role of the long-suffering would-be-lothario always kept at arm’s reach.
The plot is agreeably silly stuff, with its secret plans (surely it would make more sense to copy them than to let the enemy know you’ve pinched them!), secret passages, secret notes, secret meetings and secret secrets. Niblo keeps it all moving and occasionally pulls off some remarkable scenes — watch for the amazing moving-camera shot as Tania leaves her birthday party to meet Karl. But in the end, it’s Garbo’s show. Which is just fine, because there never has been so fascinating a movie star. And there will never be another quite like her.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[Cinema in the Park presents The Mysterious Lady Saturday, Sept. 18, at dark (about 8:30 p.m.) in Pritchard Park. Aaron Price and River Guerguerian will provide musical accompaniment.]