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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Between the Words


There are rare moments where love is captured for eternity. I got to see one of them last Saturday at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

The 8pm presentation of Flesh and the Devil, the starmaking melodrama with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, was shown to a packed house. The 35mm print, on loan from the Library of Congress, was given to the library's archives after the film was restored in the mid-80s by Warner Brothers. According to the archivist who flew out from Washington DC for the festival and gave the audience an introduction to the film, this print had never been shown before.

Acclaimed musician Dennis James, who is widely known on the silent film circuit for his amazing performances on piano and organ, provided the film's accompaniment on the Castro Theatre's Wurlitzer organ. Having live music playing while you watch a film raises the viewing of that film to an event. It becomes a total experience.

I had tried to do my homework before seeing this film, so I already knew that it was the vehicle that made Greta Garbo a huge star. I also knew that this film began the real-life stormy love affair of the two stars. However, even if you did not know that Garbo and Gilbert were lovers offscreen, you would have figured it out very quickly upon seeing them together.


There was no artifice in their scenes together. The first scene where Gilbert sees Garbo as she gets off the train at the station--that look is one of a man completely besotted by love. It gives you the chills to peek into someone's heart like that.

Here is an illuminating quote about the film, from another blog I enjoy, The Crowd Roars:

John Gilbert's friend at the time, Adela St. Johns, said many years later of the actor's love for Garbo:

"It was an explosion. I've never seen two people so violently, excitedly in love. I mean when she walked through a door if he was in the room he went white and took a great, long breath and then walked toward her as though he were being yanked by a magnet or something." ...Director Clarence Brown said that when he would shoot a love scene with the two he would finish the filming and leave them alone. "It was embarrassing," he said, feeling like an intruder.

I wish more people were exposed to and had the chance to learn to enjoy these movies. The perception that they are irrelevant could not be more untrue. To quote The Boy: Silent movies are anything but silent. The way Garbo hands Gilbert the cigarette that she has been toying with in her lips...um, that cigarette is anything but a cigarette. She knows it, he knows it, and so do you. These movies are full of moments of extreme feeling and emotion because actors need more than dialogue to tell you their story.

What I love about these films are the nuances. The things that exist between the words. If you know what to look for and even if you don't.

3 comments:

Alex December 7, 2007 at 5:28 AM  

Great post Baby! You definitely have a way with words...and your thoughts...the way you think...is simply sublime...I just love smart women...

Don't even get me started about the gist of your post...I would go on and on...ad nauseum...

Reading your blog makes me a better person.

msHedgehog December 7, 2007 at 11:08 AM  

All the best films have very little dialogue.

tangobaby December 7, 2007 at 3:23 PM  

Alex, wow.

Thank you for the wonderful, kind compliment. It's left me somewhat flustered (in a good way) but without the right words to thank you properly. So I'll just say that it makes me very happy to know you like what I've written.

Please do add your thoughts about this subject, if you want. You always have wonderful observations, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who would like to hear more of them.

xo