Monday, 5 March 2018

Unsolvable... The Mysterious Lady (1928) with Carl Davis and the Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall

In the stalls at the Festival Hall there was no option but to just sit back and surrender to Carl Davis’ sound and Greta Garbo’s fury; both were overwhelming in their own way and the result was a unity of music and expression that you won’t find in Cineworld.

Crossing Hungerford Bridge after the show, I heard a complaint that the score had been “too loud” and “ill-matched” to the action but this is an opera without words and Garbo is radiating the same intensity as a stage full of singers with Puccini on full volume. If you want your Swede’s subtle and “silent” then maybe try some Ingmar Bergman instead?

The tempo is set early on when Austrian solder Captain Karl von Raden (Conrad Nagel) gets a last-minute ticket for the opera and finds Tania Fedorova (Greta Garbo) elegantly draping herself over the edge of their box as she watches Tosca. Karl is mesmerised and can hardly focus on the events on stage and Mr Davis’ score cleverly captures this by accompanying the interplay between the two leads as well as the performance on stage, quoting from the opera itself. Allegedly it’s an uncredited Betty Blythe playing the opera singer, but Conrad only has eyes for Tania… just as she planned (the minx!).

He doesn't even need to see her face...
Tania was due to meet her cousin, but he fails to turn up and, what do you know, she’s left her purse at home… like any gentleman faced with such a situation, Captain Karl races to the rescue and escorts her home in a handsome cab. He almost leaves only to find he has Tania’s carefully forgotten silk, returning it to her he accepts her offer of a “coffee” and enters her apartment not only abandoning all hope of an early night but also leaving his cab driver to soak in the pouring rain. Director Fred Niblo plays this for laughs and thankfully keeps the drama mellow just as Garbo herself injects the odd twinkle among the smouldering.

It’s been a while since I watched Greta in Hollywood and you can fully understand the impact she had on the American public with a forthright sexuality that slinked and scolded and yet was self-determined and not fully revealed. As author Zadie Smith recently put it, Garbo exhibited an “inviable selfhood, ultimately impenetrable by other people.” Here as elsewhere, Garbo’s character has a secret and yet another secret beyond that too… In the first instance she is a Russian spy and she has deliberately targeted the young Captain in order to take advantage but it’s a role she takes far more intensely than necessary.

Conrad Nagel and Greta Garbo
We are in Vienna in 1910 and Europe is bracing itself for conflict as the Russians and Germans eye the Balkans and each other. After their night after the Opera and a “perfect day” in the sun, the Captain is informed of Tania’s day job and is suitably vexed. Karl has a vital package to take to Berlin and his career and many lives depend on it, but he’s followed by Tania who “comes to him as his lover and leaves as his enemy…” such a difficult woman this mysterious lady.

She has the secrets and Karl has a court martial, ritually humiliated in front of his regiment who turn their backs as he is stripped of insignias and medals before being thrown in jail for treason. He’s given a shot at redemption when released by his uncle Colonel Eric von Raden (Edward Connelly) who sets him up with a trip to Warsaw under the guise of a Serbian pianist.

Karl naturally finds Tania at a cocktail party and plays Vissi d’arte, their aria… she turns in shock to find him playing these dangerous chords and luckily decides to follow her heart. But Tania is under the wing of General Boris Alexandroff (Gustav von Seyffertitz) and whilst he won’t wait forever for her to surrender to his very limited charms, he is also very suspicious of the pretty pianist. And why does he keep on playing Pucccini?!

The Mysterious Lady is a symphony of Garbo in shimmering silk and magnificently shaded close ups - devised and shot by William H Daniels, who specialised in setting up that face for the most devastating effect.  It works optically of course but all the more so because of the specific mysteries of the actress’ expression; she is constantly wrong-footing the watcher’s expectations with distracted agitation and we look that bit harder almost seeking her reassurance. She rides the edge of defined emotional response in a way that haunts us still. Worn down by pretty much everything at this point in America, film critic Alexander Walker describes how Garbo managed to make her exhaustion look like "romantic agony..." and that " film so clearly shows that, for Garbo, passion was a form of tragic depression."

For his part Conrad Nagel was ill-served by the example of Lars Hanson in the surviving nine minutes of The Divine Woman shown before the main feature. Large Handsome can go toe-to-toe with his compatriot and even deluged in dozens of Garbo kisses and with the actress – shockingly and perhaps to him, surprisingly – grabbing him by the hair, he keeps on responding no doubt urged on by guttural Swedish encouragement from director Victor Sjostrom. Conrad’s no dummy but he is outshone by the divine energy of his co-star as were so many others.

Lars and Greta amidst the rough and tumble
Such a shame that only one reel of The Divine Woman survives but what an explosive section it is as Lars and Greta play forcefully for each other’s affections as the clock ticks away his last moments before he must depart with his regiment: they have only right now and, as it happens, so do we.

Carl Davis conducted his own scores and he had the full might of the Philharmonia crammed on stage with him – an 87-piece ensemble of intricate power augmented by piano, harp and possibly even the sink from Carl’s kitchen. The score referenced far beyond my limited experience of contemporary classical music but was as expertly constructed around image and acting as you would expect: you don’t need to understand the method just feel the results. As with actress so with composer.

The natural volume of such an orchestra is quite different from the amplified power of, say, Mogwai who I have also seen in the Royal Festival Hall (front row, right by the bass speaker…) but the results are the same minus the ringing ears. This is music with which you have a tangible connection and which, interwoven with the action on screen leaves you stirred and smiling as those silent film endorphins race around for a few hours still. 

Both these films are available on the Garbo Silents collection from TCM, but you haven’t really lived them until you’ve watched them in cinema with Carl’s band.

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