THE PAINTED VEIL (1934)
Greta Garbo, Herbert Marshall, George Brent
• 1957 with Eleanor Parker (the Seventh Sin).
• 2006 with Naomi Watts.
Directed by Richard Boleslawski
Screenplay: John Meehan, Salka Viertel and Edith Fitzgerald
Based on the novel by Somerset Maugham (1925)
Film Editor: Hugh Wynn
Costumes by Adrian.
During the early 20s, Garbo made an extraordinary amount money for the studio. Feeling her power, she fought for and gained more control over her roles after a contract dispute in 1925 and 1925.
I suppose we can assume then that she was a big part in choosing this role for herself. As I wrote in the Part 1, I think almost all of the energy of the production was invested in Garbo to the detriment of the two male leads (George Brent and Herbert Marshall)
Marshall and Brent
Herbert Marshall and George Brent are two of my favorite male actors of this era. I was astounded when I first started reading the reviews of “The Painted Veil” when contributors were criticizing their performances. Some of the reviewers also commented that they didn’t find either actor attractive and didn’t find believable that Garbo would be involved with either one of them.
Now, I find both men attractive, especially Brent, but as soon as I started watching the film, I understood what the detractors were talking about.
I am guessing that the men didn’t get the most careful treatment in the script, or in the direction. They both had some terrible (howler) lines and neither man seemed comfortable in the role.
Cad, bounder, is not the usual role for George Brent. Brent played best the charming, handsome flirtatious man who loves women, truly appreciates them. My favorite of his movies are the ones he did with Bette Davis. There is just something about the way he looks at her, half-smiling that leads me to believe he genuinely enjoyed women.
But, in this role, he is a true cad. He is married, and seduces Garbo (who is married) consciously and methodically. When her husband finds out, he rather dutifully tells Garbo he’ll give up “everything” if she wants him to. He then reminds her that she will be giving up her reputation as well.
Garbo responds that he (Brent) knows full well that she would never ask him to give up everything and that’s why he’s offering to do it. That’s about it. Garbo runs out of the shop where they have met. In the next scene, she is already in inland cholera ridden China with Marshall.
I suspect that Brent was uncomfortable playing this “true cad” role and the director didn’t spend much time trying to help him work through it. I have a feeling that Brent (and Marshall) were treated like afterthoughts.
You get the feeling that Brent is walking his way through the performance, putting in a workmanlike job, but little more.
But then, I’m not sure what alternative he had. As I said, the lines were not very good, or believable. He’s a cad and therefore can’t be his true charming self. Whatever the problems were, him in this role just doesn’t work. One of the reviewers said that she thought Erroll Flynn might have done better, playing the role as a true charming snake. Brent just didn’t seem to be able to make the true “snake” work.
Marshall made a career out of playing badly done-by husbands. One of the reviewers said that she liked that fact that in this movie he at least took some kind of revenge on the offending woman, Garbo. He tells Garbo that if Brent will marry her, he will let her go, but when Brent doesn’t step up to the plate Marshall has no problems dragging her off to a cholera-infested place in inland China. To be fair, he discovered them together in his own house, pretty tacky (as they say in the South).
Until the two finally reconcile, almost at the end of the film, Marshall is alternatively whiny and distracted (to Garbo) and outraged (to the Chinese.) After he finds out that Garbo hasn’t left the plague zone and is working with the local nuns, he reestablishes himself as a fairly nice character.
In the novel, we are given to understand that Marshall takes pleasure in forcing Garbo to go to inland China with him where there is a cholera epidemic. There is a subplot where both Garbo and Marshall decide to eat salad every night, a very risky thing to do. It is as if they are both in such despair that they are suicidal.
But, there is none of this in the film. At one point, when Marshall comes in late at night after tending to the epidemic, Garbo makes coffee for him in what looks like a lame dress, and says that she sees him “killing himself.” But, Marshall says that he’s not doing that.
While We’re on the Subject of Lame
Garbo’s costumes in this film are wonderful if you dispense with the usual quibbles about why she would be wearing a slinky lame dress in a shack in the middle of China in the middle of a plague. (Picky, picky). I would point out one exception and that is when she is at a garden party near the beginning when she and Marshall first arrive in China.
For some reason, she is wearing this white dress and a little hat that looks like a sailor’s hat with a little nib on top. The nib reminds me of that little thing that was on the top of a Brownie beanie when I was of the age to be wearing such a thing. It’s a truly ridiculous hat.
Several of the reviewers complained about the lack of location shooting in the film. The shots of China are obviously cloudy stock footage with the actors filmed in front of a screen. These same China scenes were evidently was used again in “The Good Earth.”
Budget and Temple Scene
The budget for this film was large for the time, but I’ll be damned if I can see what they spent it on. There is nothing extraordinary about the sets. The only audacious set is behind a dance performance that is supposedly taking place in a temple and is watched by Garbo and Brent. One reviewer commented that the scene looks like something out of a stereotyped street fair in Chinatown, San Francisco. It is pretty cheesy and largely unnecessary.
If I were editing the film, I would have cut this entire segment out. It only serves to give the audience some time with Garbo and Brent while Brent seduces her by telling her about China. It’s not worth it, though.
There were evidently other scenes, however, that were cut.
Some reviewers pointed out that audiences at the time thought many of the scenes in the beginning of the film were too long and were cut. These must have been scenes of Garbo’s family life before she marries Marshall. There are a lot of actors in the cast list that are recorded as “scenes deleted.”
This happy family situation portrayed in the film is hardly the situation in the novel. Garbo was not a sweet, if somewhat spinsterish, sister in a small town, bored and missing her recently married sister. In the novel, she was a high society Londonite, spoiled and shallow. These are two different characters. But, it’s Hollywood.
I was going to write something about the man who played General Yu, but then found out that he was Swedish rather than Asian (Warner Oland). The woman who played Amah (Soo Yong) (1903-1984) was hawaiian and acted in “The Good Earth” (1937) and “Sayonara” (1957).
Walter Brennan is in the cast list, but it says that his scenes were deleted.
Forrester Harvey plays Waddington.