Flesh and the Devil is one of the very best examples of the palpable romantic eroticism that can often be found in silent films. A huge hit in its own day, it is still remarkably sexy and entertaining, a great example of how movies could provide a private, alone-in-the-dark viewing experience that evoked passionate love. Flesh and the Devil stars John Gilbert and Greta Garbo, two beautiful people of talent who, even if they had hated each other, could have generated the sensuousness needed for the plot. As it happens, they didn’t hate each other. Quite the contrary. They were madly, recklessly in love. Everyone working around them could clearly see and hear their mutual obsession. (Garbo called Gilbert her “Yacky” and he called her “Flicka”, the Swedish word for girl.) Director Clarence Brown said, “they were in that blissful state of love which is so like a rosy cloud that they imagined themselves hidden behind it, as well as lost in it.” The camera captured their “no one but us ever felt this way” attitude, which gives Flesh and the Devil an immediacy, a modern kind of zing. Garbo and Gilbert are like two teenagers in love, except, of course, they are very beautiful, very sophisticated, and very experienced teenagers with really ritzy wardrobes.
There are three key people who shaped Flesh and the Devil’s success: Garbo, Gilbert, and the director Clarence Brown. At the time of the film’s original release, it was Gilbert’s film not Garbo’s. He was already a huge star, having appeared in hits such as The Big Parade (1925) and The Merry Widow (1925). His only real rival as a screen lover was Rudolph Valentino, who died suddenly and tragically in August of 1926, leaving Gilbert the undisputed king of the matinee idols. Proof of his stature is reflected in the film’s original billing: “John Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil with Greta Garbo.” Gilbert has been misrepresented in film history as an example of how the coming of sound ruined careers (because of his allegedly high-pitched voice). However, he actually had a successful sound career. He lost his place at the top because changing times rendered his type of romanticism obsolete and created the desire for a rougher, more down-to-earth leading man (á la Clark Gable), and because personal demons (primarily alcoholism) destroyed his ability to work. Flesh and the Devil shows Gilbert at his best. His stardom transcended the term “matinee idol.”
Garbo is obviously the more famous of the two today. Garbo is Garbo. She’s unique, a “one and only” presence. Beautiful, exotic, erotic, and somehow both a real woman and a fantasy creature, she had the singular ability that is crucial to movie stardom, especially silent movie stardom: when the camera lingers on her face, audiences believe they know what she’s thinking and feeling. By the time Flesh and the Devil had circulated widely, Garbo had taken her place beside Gilbert as an equally great movie star. They are the perfect couple to enact the plot of Flesh and the Devil with or without their offscreen passion. With it, they lift Flesh and the Devil onto the list of great silent movies. Both performers are at a peak of beauty and, although they are unquestionably star personalities, they are also serious and talented actors. Both face the camera without fear, exuding professional self-confidence.
Garbo and Gilbert were fortunate to find themselves under the guidance of Brown, one of the lesser known, but most capable directors of their era. Garbo was comfortable with Brown and he became a favorite of hers. Brown directed some of Hollywood’s most enduring movies, among them The Rains Came, National Velvet, The Yearling, and Intruder in the Dust. (Besides Flesh and the Devil, he directed Garbo in A Woman of Affairs, Anna Christie, Romance, Inspiration, Anna Karenina, and Conquest.) Brown’s forte was the ability to create an atmosphere that supported and extended actors’ performances. Brown felt atmosphere. He could present the erotic and sensuous world of Flesh and the Devil, but also the honest small-town life of Ah, Wilderness, the sassy, success-driven world of Wife vs. Secretary, the historical periods of The Gorgeous Hussy and Edison the Man, and the sacrifice of the World War II home front in The Human Comedy. His willingness to support, not suppress, the offscreen feelings of Garbo and Gilbert lifts the movie to a higher level than it otherwise might have had. Garbo and Gilbert, of course, are not the only famous movie stars whose love affair was captured in their first film together. There’s also Bogart and Bacall with their lessons on how to whistle in To Have and Have Not (1944) as well as the great scandal of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatra (1964). But Garbo and Gilbert are fully captured at the height of their short-lived passion, largely due to Brown’s willingness to give their love all the time and space it needed. Brown allowed William Daniels (who became Garbo’s favorite “go-to” cinematographer) to shoot his two stars in slow and languorous close-ups, beautifully lit and erotically expressive. Brown delivers love and sex on a silver nitrate platter.
Flesh and the Devil is an experience for the senses, a film that motivates an audience to let go of logic. Garbo and Gilbert walk through softly falling snow, yearn toward each other in front of gigantic fireplaces, and swan around on privately owned islands. They make love on huge pillows, with cigarette smoke curling upward around their heads. She wears silk and brocade, and elegant shoes. He’s in ornate, superbly tailored military uniforms. Everything is posh, elegant, and expensive. (I first saw this film in the 1950s, and when Garbo falls through the ice on a lake wearing the most magnificent fur coat ever seen on the screen, a woman in the audience yelled out, “Quick! Save that fur!”)
When Gilbert first sees Garbo at a train station, he stands transfixed, his jaw dropping, an unabashed portrait of a young man struck dumb by love at first sight. When he meets her again later that night at a glamorous ball, he holds the single rose he stole from the bouquet she had been carrying. When he sees her, he goes directly to her as if there’s no one else in the room. He pulls her into his arms and sweeps her wordlessly out onto the dance floor. She herself is no slouch at this game. She enters his arms completely, sinking physically up against him, almost letting her lips touch his. Off they go in a dancing whirl, round and round, and then they move outside into the moonlight for an unforgettable love scene. “Who are you?” he asks. “Does it matter?” she answers. Well, as it turns out later, it does matter, but who really cares? Garbo places a cigarette between her lips, which are wet and open, and then she puts it in his mouth instead. When he starts to light it, the illumination of the match reveals two of the most beautiful faces in film history. Today’s movies are too cool, too cynical for scenes like these.
Seeing Flesh and the Devil affords the modern moviegoer an opportunity to surrender to a world that never really existed, but that nevertheless offers something very real: the heat between two amazing people, and the quiet glamour that only silent film could create.
Presented at SFSFF 2015 with live music by the Matti Bye Ensemble