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.
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.
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.