Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Single Standard (1929)

I like a lot of scenes in The Single Standard, but there’s only one I love.

It’s night, it’s raining. Arden Stuart (Great Garbo), in need of a walk, leaves her home anyway. As she joins hundreds of others carrying their umbrellas along a city street, a smiling man sidles up to her and begins to flirt.

“I’m walking alone because I want to walk alone,” she tells him.

He keeps in lockstep with her, still talking. He grabs the stem of her umbrella. And so she simply turns and crosses the street, still in the downpour, leaving him holding it. That is all you need to know about Arden Stuart.

The Single Standard is a late, late silent, and one of Garbo’s last. It takes for granted several things: one of them being its star’s innate sex appeal; another, her innate ill-ease with ordinary life. These things come through regardless of the strength of her performance. The film also presumes an audience ready and willing to see something transgressive. So much so that there are moments in The Single Standard when you wonder if Arden was a role better suited to Barbara Stanwyck. A few years later it might have been hers.

Arden is restless. More than a woman who wants to be left alone, she’s one who wants the freedom to make her own choices. She’s liberal-minded, too. Early in the film she observes a group of rich young men (her equals in class) exiting a car filled with girls. These girls are not their wives. One of the men sees Arden and worries they’ll be ratted out. Another assures him it’s fine. Arden is, to put it in modern terms, cool.

But that doesn’t mean she gives men a free ride. It’s really her excuse to misbehave right alongside them. Arden chafes against her role as a demure and faithful lady—something the film barely even needs to show, since casting Greta Garbo in the role of a woman leading a dull life is like lighting a fuse.

Who will take Arden away from all this? From this life of bored eligibility, pursued by handsome men with limited minds but endless means? She catches the eye of many, but none so much as the earnest Tommy (Johnny Mack Brown), who seems to love her truly, but expects her to be exactly the kind of wife and mother she’s afraid of becoming. Does Tommy love Arden, or the woman he believes she can be molded into? She’ll soon meet a man who sees things differently.

“Packy” Cannon (Nils Asther) is a painter—and an ex-prize fighter and navy man. An all-round interesting cat. Single, moneyed and unattached; bold and handsome, he appears in Arden’s life entirely by chance, which struck me as appropriate. Packy owns a boat (the “All Alone”) and plans to take a long trip aboard it very soon. Arden, with only a staid courtship and an interminable marriage in front of her, has no good reason not to join him.

This is a fling. A passionate one, but still a fling, and the film makes no real effort to pretend otherwise. Nor does it do much to disguise the fact that Arden and Packy are sleeping together. It’s at about this point—after shot upon shot of the lovers luxuriating in each others’ arms, or the rigging—that we begin wondering how things are going to develop. Conflict must come, surely, but how will it be resolved? Packy is a dreamboat; this is a Romance, is it not? We know the formula, just not the particulars.

In fact, The Singles Standard’s second act shifts it from romance to something else entirely—still some kind of a relationship drama, sure, but one much darker than Packy and Arden’s whirlwind affair prepares us for. Tommy’s role, which I’d expected to wither to nothing, instead grows to pivotal importance. He’s no villain either—arguably he’s not even the foil anymore. Meanwhile Packy, the more interesting, but perhaps less sympathetic, of Arden’s two suitors, departs for a bit; robbing the film of its spark. It seems like he’s gone longer than he really is.

Garbo’s greatest gift was not her sex appeal. It was her ability to convey, without words, the irresistible, aching power of sexual desire. Watch her in any of her better silent films and you’ll see it: the near-magnetic pull she creates between her lips and her lover’s body. Even in The Single Standard she manages it, bringing emotional credibility to the film’s increasingly contrived string of events. She’s notably weaker when forced to evoke any other emotion. This is not one of the Sphinx’s great performances, but her chemistry with Asther improves the film overall.

I’ve seen a lot of late silents like The Single Standard: films that tease a spicy turn, then pull back to safe waters in the end. It’s always disappointing. One of the ironies of silent filmmaking is that it was a medium capable of unmatched emotional power, trapped within an era that prided old, even prudish values, at least onscreen. Infidelity, a moral failing propelled by frustration, lust, nihilism and rage, was one that silent films could have delved into deeper and truer than any other artform, had they been allowed to. They could have dramatized it, challenged it, and resolved it on the plane of pure feeling, which is where we usually must deal with it, if we ever dare to. But they rarely did.

I wish The Single Standard had dared a little more.

Where to find The Single Standard:
The Single Standard is available as a made-for-order DVD though

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