Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Astronomer's Dream (1898)

Looks like nine haikus about a dead elephant are more popular than a 1,100 word essay on a three-hour Scandinavian epic. I’m SHOCKED.

So here’s some more verse (I hope it’s not worse) than the last one. First though, you should watch the film itself, which is a mere three minutes long or so on YouTube.

Méliès’ The Astronomer’s Dream, Realized in Modified Anglo-Saxon Alliterative Verse

(To be declared in a loud voice, accompanied by small harp or ukulele)

Behold the bold               and brilliant man

whose scouring scope      the sky-fields raked:

for hours, orbs                 both old and new

his lens did locate,            light, and grow.

But slowly,                      Sleep demanded slake,

and quicker quaked         the questor’s quill

’till dim the discs              before him drew

and deskward did            his wise head drop.

Alas, Athene,                  by day abided,

now by night did              love him not;

this sovereign, sought      for sober thought.

A princess proved;          she propped him not.

Instead she paused,       while stared an imp

upon our prone and       powerless man;

a dream-time demon,    devious,

that great Athene          could've thrown with ease.

The imp slipped in,       and Imperiling Fear

the Man of Measurements’ mind now faced!

Gone, then back;         gone again his furnishings—

in blinks his bearings    borne away!

The scattered scholar’s schooling taught

that such a scene         unlikely seemed,

so fierce he thought,    and fixed his scope

to spy in space            some spiteful source.

But fierce, too, the      fouled firmament replied,

by swelling swift         its swarthy Moon,

whose large and         looming lunar mouth

soon ruled the room,  and rent the scope.

His tools thus trashed, our thinker fled,

but nowhere now      the nightmare led

but to the teeth         of the terrible Moon,

which duly did          dismember him.


Be warned, oh ye    who over-work:

The amusements of minds made too weary to wake

wage their battles with might,

though  might they be fakes.

Where to find The Astronomer’s Dream:
This film can be found on disc one of Flicker Alley’s magnificent five-disc set, George Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896 – 1913).

Silent Volume has reviewed several other Méliès films (all in prose): Jeanne d'Arc (1899); A Trip to the Moon (1902); and The Impossible Voyage (1904).

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924)

Gösta Berling’s the worst kind of screw-up: the talented kind. He was the best preacher his parishioners ever heard. He cared about them. But he was also a drunk, who emptied a bottle every night and found truth at the bottom. And so Gösta (Lars Hanson) got defrocked. Such was a deep-drinking, deep-thinking lad’s fate in 19th-century Sweden.

The Saga of Gösta Berling is about a preacher’s fall, at least on the surface. It’s also about Greta Garbo, who appears here as Elizabeth, a role that would bring her to America’s attention soon after. But there’s so much more. Over the course of an immense, but swift-moving 184 minutes, Gösta Berling takes aim at the foundation of society itself. That is, the tension between inspiration and deviance on one hand, and convention and conformity on the other. Both are necessary; both can be abused. And it is Gösta’s suffering, far more than Elizabeth’s, which makes this point. Don’t take my word for it, though; take Mauritz Stiller’s. He directed Gösta Berling, and though a supporter and friend of Garbo’s, even he was willing to keep Elizabeth off-screen for half the film.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Electrocuting An Elephant (1903)

Eight Haikus Honouring Topsy the Elephant


fall succeeds summer

new elephants are growing

fast; no room for more


execution day

Killer Elephant Meets Death

media on-hand


grey, damp, morning murk

the beast in its harness sweats

before the current.


buzzing, clouds of smoke

the pachyderm teeters, then

rolls on its old back.


fairground lumber piled

her docile corpse fidgets, her

limbs splayed like lumber


quiet labourmen

three trampled trainers avenged!

camera’s passive whirr.


lights flick against sky

Topsy’s turbulence is done

men she killed stay dead


Luna Park is nigh

Coney Island spectacles

no longer lethal

Where to find Electrocuting An Elephant:
Electrocuting An Elephant is among the many brief, 19th and early-20th century films found on Disc One of Kino International’s four-disc set, Edison: The Invention of the Movies. The film is about 90 seconds long.

Poor Topsy even has her own Wikipedia entry.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Guest Post on 'Silents & Talkies'

Kate Gabrielle was kind enough to post a short article of mine on her blog this week. Silents & Talkies is an excellent (and oft-updated) resource for lovers of silent and early sound film, among other things. She's also an artist. Here's a drawing she did of silent and sound icon, Greta Garbo:

Check out her blog (and my guest post) here.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Impossible Voyage (1904)

I met Professor Kryschtloft for the first time at his home, in Paris. He requested that this interview be conducted there, and given the celebrity status that recent events had afforded him, our newspaper was willing to oblige. ‘Crowds,’ he informed us, ‘have become a concern.’

This was no small relief for my superior, the editor of The Times, Mr. George Semple. It was George’s opinion—or rather, his fear—that Prof. Kryschtloft now nursed a vendetta against the press as a whole. He had granted no interviews, nor even stood still for a photograph, for months. The Times had made several requests for a sitdown, all of which were flatly denied, if acknowledged at all. George’s only consolation was that our competitors, who were several and growing in 1905, were likewise frozen out.

The man had surely been offended, for it had once been unlike Prof. Kryschtloft to shun publicity of any kind. His fame, of course, had spread from Paris to all points in Europe and Asia, across the Channel, then across the seas. If there exist men in the Moon, as some have contended, then they, too, must know the name Kryschtloft: the man who proposed, planned and commanded the so-called ‘Impossible Voyage’ of 1904.

A passenger train, into which was built both a submarine and an automobile of exceptional girth. Tethered atop it, two dirigibles. A promise to travel around the world (and beyond) using only this mighty, compound vehicle. Proof, the professor had declared to this newspaper, before departing, that the 20th century would be a century in motion: one in which humanity might move faster, higher and farther than anyone dreamed previously.

Further, this magnificent travel would not be the privilege of scientists alone. Kryschtloft made clear—to the chagrin of those scientists, and several moralists, and some who counted themselves as both—that his Impossible Voyage would be undertaken by members of the general public. Kryschtloft, of course, considered the voyage entirely possible. All he requested was a considerable sum for tickets; a sum he considered bargain-rate, given the expense of research alone.

His passengers, who proved to be a motley crew of high society, all stand by him today. But this is to be expected, as he saved their lives more than once during their journey. They marched happily beneath him as he made his triumphant return to Paris, held aloft on their backs, his submarine’s shattered propeller slung heroically over one shoulder. No one questioned his judgement that day. But in the ensuing weeks, criticism bubbled up again. “Why,” asked The Globe-Post, “should public funding have been directed to an enterprise so clearly commercial?” “What scientific cause—of any sort—was advanced by the so-called ‘Impossible Voyage?” editorialized The Whig-Standard. The Times asked similar questions. The Times also struck at the heart of the matter, to whit: what man in his right mind would test an unproven machine with a car-load of Parisian citizens? Even if they paid him handsomely for the privilege? Prof. Kryschtloft answered no query; soon, he refused communiqués of any kind.

It was somewhat surprising, then, to read a telegram from Prof. Kryschtloft most recently, requesting I attend him for coffee and conversation in his study, on the subsequent Friday, at three o’clock. I would be granted one half-hour and should not expect to do very much talking. The professor would talk. I agreed.

We met, as planned, at three. The professor’s home is a modest one—a Parisian flat, well-constructed but unadorned. I was greeted at the door by a single servant, a young girl of adorable qualities, who invited me in and took my coat. From the foyer she led me into a main sitting area which occupied nearly the whole of the house. There the man sat, slung low in a mighty purple armchair, dead centre in a space piled high with books upon books, stacks of paper and various instruments of calculation. 

The room was lit high and bright, though it illuminated only artless walls of dark wood and basic plastering. Where we might have hung portraits of our loved ones, Prof. Kryschtloft found room for blackboards. Chalk dust hung on the worn spines of the thick volumes nearby. Dust lay even upon the sleeves of the professor’s waistcoat, leading me to believe he’d been furiously calculating only moments before my arrival. His black beard—favoured by Parisian men of his age and even moreso by the younger caricaturists of London—was wild as ever, even in these private quarters, with their still air. Behind the mane, his eyes observed me with furious energy. He did not rise, but instead bid me to sit opposite him, and partake of an urn of coffee placed on a small table between us. He warned me to let the beverage cool, for he personally liked it, he said, “hotter than the surface of the sun.”

The Times: My thanks, Prof. Kryschtloft, for your accommodation. Our readers are most interested to hear your thoughts.

Kryschtloft: On what subjects now, Mr. Murphy?

T: On many, Professor. Most particularly, on matters of hindsight. It has now been nearly one year since your return from the Impossible Voyage, and your critics, it must be said, grow louder.

Kryschtloft: Such are critics, Mr. Murphy. Were bombast fuel, they could reach the heavens with a single leap. And let us not begin by misrepresenting the events—the goals of the voyage were achieved. They are not, by definition, ‘impossible,’ since they were attempted and completed.

T: Indeed, sir, but at the expense of all machinery used to achieve them, and very nearly at the expense of several lives.

Kryschtloft: Great endeavours carry risk. Will your readership not understand that, Mr. Murphy? I proposed to design a craft incorporating the full range of human locomotion, and in so doing, exceed the very definition of travel as human beings have known it. By road, by rail, by sea, yes—and to the stars! Is there no nobility in that? And is there shame in partial victory after such mighty effort?

T: Your colleagues at the Institute of Incoherent Geography certainly agree with you.

Kryschtloft: Good men, all.

T: Though members of your sister organization, the Institute of Incoherent Astronomy, do not.

My subject now stiffened. Kryschtloft set down his cup, rose from his seat and began to pace the room, saying nothing. He turned to one of his blackboards, and for more than five minutes of our interview time he stood silent, marking upon it calculations of a most dense variety with a fat stick of chalk. His servant removed the coffee cups without being asked (and without my having sampled a drop from mine). When Kryschtloft returned to his chair, he leaned forward, still clutching the chalk. As we spoke, he rapped the chalk against the table to punctuate his rage.

Kryschtloft: Astronomers. Astronomers! A gaggle of dull top-hats, stuffed into a gigantic bullet and blasted into the moon—their challenge, sir, was as great as that of a small child aiming his toy gun at the side of a wall. For two years I listened to them brag, and spin their tales of explosive Moon men—it was absurd. It added nothing to the public good but another story of far-off dreams. And yet they were lauded. So I vowed to fashion a better quest. One that embodied the best technologies we have now, but enjoyable by average men. Gentlemen and ladies; men of commerce; men of sport. The very embodiments, Mr. Murphy, of the best our society can produce!

T: Several of whom, you must admit, proved less than vigorous.

Kryschtloft: Flawed, sir, but distinct individuals nonetheless. Look at the footage of those astronomers—I challenge you to tell one from the next. They’re but one type. My passengers are real people, and clearly so.

T: Including the well-regarded, but rather corpulent, Mrs. Kurpatov, who fell faint from the fumes of your half-built machine?

Kryschtloft: Mrs. Kurpatov appreciates dreams on a grand scale, as did all of them. I ask you, sir, does not the adversity my passengers willingly overcame stand as proof of the voyage’s worthiness? Our automobile: smashed to bits when it drove through an Alpine lodge; our submarine, blown to flaming wreckage after a fire aboard ship—did we not persevere? All of us, even poor, rotund Mrs. Kurpatov, so underestimated by you? Was she not willing to continue onward, after surviving a car accident concluded at the bottom of a cliff? And not toward some mediocre destination, but to the surface of the Sun itself!?

T: Yes, as to that—

Kryschtloft: —to its very fiery corona! A kaleidoscopic halo of yellows and oranges! It fairly blinded us as we approached!

T: The Institute of Incoherent Astronomy—

Kryschtloft: —to hell with them!—

T: —contends that your tale of the Sun’s surface is a complete fabrication. Their science suggests that it is, indeed, impossible to reach the Sun with a pair of dirigibles.

Kryschtloft: Instead, we should have shot ourselves into the Moon’s ‘eye’?

T: You did claim the Sun ‘swallowed’ your craft. Literally, through its mouth.

Kryschtloft: Mr. Murphy. Speaking as one of the world’s few citizens to have apprehended the Sun from a distance of one hundred feet, I can assure you it has a face—a rather disagreeable one. And indeed, it was by plunging into the gullet of the orb that we ultimately reached its surface. By what physics that was accomplished, I’m not at liberty to say. I merely say, being the gentleman that I am, that it is true.

T: Once landed on the surface of the Sun, your passengers immediately felt the effects of intense heat. And, as both they and you tell it, you saved their lives. First, by placing them within an ice-box car in your train, and then, by forcing them into the submarine, which you promptly pushed to the edge of the sun, tipped over that edge, and sent plunging back to Earth.

Kryschtloft: Yes. That is what happened.

T: Are you claiming, Prof. Kryschtloft, that you possess the strength required to push a cast-iron submarine, with a complement of nearly ten passengers, even one inch?

Kryschtloft: If my humble friends the astronomers possess the ability to see Moon Men, Mr. Murphy, then yes, I claim it. Now, if you look through the window to your left, you will notice the sundial in my yard. Your time is short.

T: Yes. Let me ask you, then, why you chose this moment to speak to the press? Your silence has been a source of concern for many of my colleagues.

Kryschtloft: I’ve only invited you here, Mr. Murphy, to announce that I am not cowed. That I cannot abide the word ‘impossible,’ even if it suits a journalist’s thirst for base poetry. A man such as myself can stay silent only so long in the face of flawed public perception. I presume you understand.

T: I do. I ask you then, Prof. Kryschtloft, if you have any regrets. This voyage, though it has brought you fame, has made the endeavours of hard science a blurrier business than ever. What would you do differently, if anything?

Kryschtloft: I would add one more car to my train, Mr. Murphy. A flat one, of considerable size.

T: One more car?

Kryschtloft: Yes. And upon it, a cannon. And in it, a shell, that would have blasted myself and my crew of common dreamers past the Moon, past even the Sun; onward, to the unlit reaches of deepest space.


Where to find The Impossible Voyage:
The approximately 20-minute Impossible Voyage can be found on disc three of Flicker Alley’s magnificent five-disc set, George Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896 – 1913).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

I Think in Links

Busy week for me, so here's a few interesting links to slake your silent thirst:

The ever-informative Bioscope reminds us again that silent film is as fresh as we want to make it, revealing plans to market an animated series based on Charlie Chaplin, as well as Melies in 3-D. Take THAT, Avatar.

Oh By Jingo! Oh By Gee! (a blog I enjoy, but can never spell--thank god for drop-down menus) is featuring picture postcards of houses owned by silent stars. Included in list #2 are the domiciles of Norma Talmadge (Buster Keaton's one-time sister-in-law) and Charles Ray, one of the silent era's finest male actors.

Noir and Chick Flicks has another useful capsule-profile on a silent star; in this case, Dolores Del Rio.

Finally, Kate Gabrielle's blog, Silents & Talkies, provides food-for-thought on the subject of actor-versus-role. Though her example is a sound star, the point is especially relevant for fans of silent film. Typecasting was perhaps never stronger than during the silent era, and that, plus the advent of sound, ultimately destroyed the careers of several great stars.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Tokyo Chorus (1931)

Many of my friends have kids now. The experience transforms them--in their faces I see a centred look, replacing the effects of a million gnawing details that used to get to them. I wouldn’t call that ‘peace,’ exactly. I’d call it the weird calm that comes with a sense of purpose and the awareness of an absolute, incontestable good: the love of one’s child.

I don’t have any kids myself, and neither did one of my favorite directors, Yasujiro Ozu. But he sure understood them. In his films they are wonderful and terrible, all at once, and always their parents’ imperative. They feel real. They remind me of children I know.

Ozu is most famous for his weighty sound pictures of the 1940s and ’50s. However, he began directing in the silent era and as it happens, the silent era lasted a little longer in Japan than it did in the West. Many of these early films are also light comedies, which may surprise newer fans of his work. Tokyo Chorus, though typically Ozu-like in its examination of a family in crisis, is hardly emotionally gruelling, heavyweight art like Late Spring (1949), Tokyo Story (1953) or Floating Weeds (1959). Those films focus on the painful disconnect between parents and children, and in the first two cases, the pain is inevitable. But it must be said that a successful family spans the generation gap with good humour, too, and Tokyo Chorus, because it can laugh at itself, embodies this truth.

Tokyo Chorus stars Tokihiko Okada as Shinji Okajima, a young accounts manager at an insurance company. Shinji is married to the patient, practical, Tsuma Sugako (Emiko Yagumo). They have three kids: a son of about seven, a daughter about a year younger, and a very chubby six-month-old. Everyone is happy and healthy, and Shinji’s son is eagerly awaiting a new bike, to be purchased with his father’s bonus. A more predictable film would've denied Shinji that bonus, generating conflicts from there. In this case, Shinji simply stands up for an elderly colleague and gets both of them fired.

This is funnier than it sounds. Each man has an unhealthy obsession with his co-workers’ bonus envelopes—several sneak their envelopes into the urinal to open them, and are spied on even there. Shinji’s showdown with the boss is a glorified slap-fight with ceremonial fans. And by the way, if you’re bowing to someone as you leave his office, make sure he’s not closing the door at the same time.

Shinji’s firing is the mid-way point between two brilliant comic sequences that, in their circularity, form the heart of Tokyo Chorus. Before he leaves for work, Shinji discovers his son trying to reach some records on top of a bureau by balancing, very unsafely, on a potty that is resting on the floor. Shinji scolds his son with a light swat, but that almost knocks the boy off the potty, so he has to catch him. The records fall and smash.

Then Shinji leaves for work. When he returns, he gives his son a scooter, which is much cheaper than a bike. The boy is enraged. Shinji tries to scold him again, this time with a spanking. As the boy wails and struggles to get free, Ozu cuts to the baby, looking curiously at the potty on the floor. Shinji’s fate is clear: One day that baby will be on that potty; from there it will grow to the age of its brother and cause Shinji the same grief. Shinji’s victory is temporary at best.

The family structure, Ozu tells us, is immutable, even though families are not. It will persist, repeating itself in a continuous loop that propels Shinji forward, preserving and finally dissolving his family unit, as it must. Ozu’s symbol for this is the bicycle. The bicycle’s wheels stay fixed in their frame, revolving forever, perhaps, but never going anywhere on their own. However, their turning is also the means by which the cyclist moves to a new place. No, I’m not over-thinking this: watch how many times bicycles show up during key moments in Tokyo Chorus, including an adult bicycle in a scene where Shinji must make a very difficult decision.

Ozu’s calm touch and two excellent lead actors keep things above the level of farce, and carrying us confidently toward the finale. Okada and Yagumo play a convincing couple, never soft-pedalling Shinji’s loss of income simply for the sake of laughs. Yagumo grounds the film with her reserved and rather grave performance; Okada, meanwhile, balances his character’s natural positivity with the poisonous pride and rigidity that led him to get fired in the first place. His wife is stoic; but he is a swirl of emotions, all of them honest to the viewer. We believe that a man like this could have the troubles he does. And yet, we have faith in the strength of his family, and his love for his children, and believe that healing is possible. If the lessons of Tokyo Chorus are bittersweet, well then, so is life.

Silent Volume has also featured Yasujiro Ozu’s A Story of Floating Weeds (1934).

**Tokihiko Okada’s work in this and other Japanese films should have led to a long career, but unfortunately, he succumbed to tuberculosis only three years after Tokyo Chorus was released.

Where to find Tokyo Chorus:
Criterion’s Silent Ozu—Three Family Comedies is a box set containing Tokyo Chorus, I Was Born, But... (1932), and Passing Fancy (1933). Being part of Criterion’s Eclipse series, these discs are light on extras. But hey, it’s Ozu... just watching them will impress your friends.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

They Might Have Mimed

I argue for the timelessness of silent films, and the eternal power of great acting. So who, among the bright lights of modern stardom, could have made it in the Silent Days? They Might Have Mimed is a continuing feature designed to answer this question. I’ll be updating this list as often as I’m inspired to do it.

#2: Clint Eastwood

It was television, not the movies, which brought Clint Eastwood his early fame. In 1959, the 29-year-old Eastwood originated the role of Rowdy Yates on Rawhide, a popular Western. Eastwood slowly developed his character from a frivolous boy to someone more turmoiled—enough that, by 1963, observers were speculating on his career path beyond the show. That year, he was recommended for the role of The Man With No Name in A Fistful of Dollars, part one of Sergio Leone’s ‘dollars trilogy’ of spaghetti westerns. Eastwood’s performance is, of course, well-remembered today. Perhaps even more famous is police officer—and borderline anarchist—Harry Callahan, whom Eastwood first portrayed in Dirty Harry (1971).

As his career matured, Eastwood gained the freedom to express his talent in other ways. He directed his first film, Play Misty for Me, in 1971, and has since directed Academy Award winners Unforgiven (1992) and Million Dollar Baby (2004) among many others. He is also a composer, having scored several of his own films, including last year’s hit, Gran Torino.

Why could Eastwood have made it as a silent actor? Well, how often do his iconic characters actually talk? Dirty Harry is famous for his one-liners, but that’s partly because they are pithy phrases; summations made by a man who spares words. And his portrayal of The Man With No Name? Of this role, Eastwood reportedly said: “I wanted to play it with an economy of words and create this whole feeling through attitude and movement... I felt the less he said the stronger he became and the more he grew in the imagination of the audience.”

Eastwood’s approach recalls a much earlier Western star, William S. Hart.

Like Eastwood’s mercenary drifter in the dollars trilogy, Hart’s characters found redemption via the hard road. They were wounded inside, and though they made honourable choices in the end, it wasn’t often clear why they did so. Our only clues lay in the actor’s face. Hart, like any silent star, could project his characters’ inner conflict through changes of expression—aided, of course, by generously long takes. Like Eastwood, he could also project stoicism and moral certitude by emoting nothing at all. Active or passive, the face spoke.

Eastwood could have been great in the Silent Era, just as he has been in his own; in fact, his success suggests the continued willingness of today’s audiences to accept the silent aesthetic. His men call for authority by refusing to chat, and are we not transfixed just the same? Indeed, we are.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Mysterious Lady (1928)

The Mysterious Lady has the hottest sex scene in all of silent film.

Oh yes. No Pickfords preserving their chastity here. No damsels saved from the clutches of a thirsty villain. In this film, the thirst is ours, and the tall, cool drink we hope will slake us, is Greta Garbo.

My Greta. Sensual, pristine, lovely Greta, with her symmetrical looks and angular grace, and hint of tragedy. It’s tragedy that makes her seem, in her silent roles, slightly attainable. But her male companions have bad news ahead of them.

Garbo is Tania Federova, a Russian spy, living in 1919 Vienna. We aren’t privy to the spy-part right away, but this being a Garbo role, we can assume she’d be up to something. Her male lead is Conrad Nagel, playing Karl von Raden, a young but well-regarded captain in the Austrian army. Von Raden’s uncle is chief of the Austrian secret service, meaning he, as the man’s nephew, has access to certain secret plans. This makes him a juicy target for Tania. Von Raden, however, must come to her.

One of the pleasures of an early Garbo film is its star’s first appearance on camera—often accompanied by a double-take, then awed gaze, from her future lover. Garbo’s men apprehend her as though all their prior experiences with women amounted to a desert and here, before them now, is a freshwater lake. We, too, are overwhelmed.

Garbo’s first scene in Flesh and the Devil (1926) conveys these feelings with genius, but The Mysterious Lady grants us a Garbo-glimpse so exaggerated it borders on parody. Von Raden has gone to the opera, where a private box awaits him. He is late, and so the show has already begun. He enters the box, (now shot from the front, so Nagel is in the background) and discovers Tania, lounged thoughtfully over the railing’s edge.

Von Raden’s already transfixed... and he’s only seen the back of her head! In case we don’t get it, director Fred Niblo makes sure to light the shot from Garbo’s lower right, so rays beam backward from her body and bathe him. She’s literally luminous.

The opera is a love story. When it ends, Von Raden discovers, gleefully, that it’s raining outside. He offers Tania a lift to her home in his coach. He drops her off, and bids her goodnight. Alas, she has left her gloves in the coach. He returns them to her minutes later, and as thanks, she invites him in for coffee... or cognac.

This is fantasy as concocted by a 15-year-old boy. The great beauty is kept in Von Raden’s company not by any deliberate effort on his part (which would carry with it a risk of humiliation), but instead, by a series of happy accidents that make her view him with affection and trust. Von Raden should find all of this suspicious, but frankly, I can sympathize.

Now comes the seduction, in which teasing Tania colludes with Niblo’s willing camera. Garbo’s hair shimmers as she pulls her brush through it. She sings to Von Raden’s piano playing, bearing her throat while the lens pulls close enough to caress it. The lights in her house flicker, then die, and Tania slinks behind a candelabra, lighting each wick with a long match, then disappearing behind a tuft of smoke. Von Raden can’t stand it—he clasps his hand over hers. Her hand is on her breast. The whole magnificent thing can be found here.

All fantasies must end. The next day, Tania leaves for Warsaw (not telling Von Raden why) and he, in turn, is informed by his uncle that Tania is a spy. Unwisely, his uncle then entrusts him with a set of secret plans, which Tania promptly steals before disappearing a second time.

Many a male character’s been destroyed by Garbo’s black widowhood, but most of them got to suffer in silence. Not Von Raden. Before being jailed for a (possibly capital) crime, he is led to a courtyard and ritually humiliated in front of an assemblage of the Austrian High Command. They snap his sword in two. They even pull the gold buttons off his coat.

Now, such a thing should burn out the core of a nobleman. Too bad Nagel reduces all possible rage and bitterness to mere petulance, thanks to a performance made entirely of pursed lips and clenching. His portrayal is uncreative at best; at its worst, it turns a serious scene into comedy.

The secretly freed Von Raden is sent to infiltrate Tania’s spy ring in Warsaw. She is back with her domineering commander and sometimes-lover, General Alexandroff (Gustav von Seyffertitz). Von Raden, posing as a pianist, inserts himself as the entertainment at a party they’re hosting. Alexandroff, who loves Tania’s voice, bids her to sing and the pianist to play.

Von Raden is simmering on the inside, and we must know it. Through double exposure, we see a ghostly vision rise up from Nagel’s still-playing real self, and throttle Tania, whose real self, of course, continues to sing. This image is a little cornball to begin with, but a better actor, I believe, might have kept it on track. Nagel just sits scrunched on his piano bench, pouting and punching the keys like a toddler tossing his blocks. The scene fails because Nagel never makes us think he actually could strangle Garbo. There’s no tension.

The Mysterious Lady continues down its path of fluffy caper-dom. Will Tania and Karl reconcile? Will they even survive? Can Tania outwit the wily Alexandroff, and if she does, must she also defect? Do we care?

A bit, yes. We care about Tania, to the extent we always care about the intriguing Greta Garbo and her sad, lovely personas. And though this flick is Garbo boilerplate—a box-checked, erotic thriller with a plot thinner than its star’s negligees—it also asks little of us in exchange. Ninety minutes with the sexiest woman on film? I’ll take it.

Where to fine The Mysterious Lady:
The Mysterious Lady, along with the 1926 Garbo film, The Temptress, occupy one disc of a TCM two-disc set, The Garbo Silents Collection. The second disc features Garbo’s superior 1926 film, Flesh and the Devil.

**Special thanks to Jason Cramp, who purchased this DVD set for me. Best Secret Santa ever.