Wednesday, June 05, 2013

"She Makes Love for the Papers"

Five years before he played the father of her lover in Camille, Lionel Barrymore played one of Greta Garbo's lovers in 1931's version of Mata Hari. In a film industry that's usually content to pair men with women half a century younger than them, this is a testament to Garbo's power as a performer. Certainly she's far and away the best part of this movie which is otherwise a mildly charming melodrama, one that bears very little resemblance to the story of the real life Mata Hari.

Despite being a pre-code film we never see Mata Hari performing nude. Well, actually, we do see her naked on stage but it's so brief and shown so out of context I missed it until I was taking screenshots just now. The movie cuts immediately from a shot of her fully clothed, from the front, to this;

That might not even be Garbo, though Garbo was known to relax naked in her studio garden.

Mata Hari's working as a spy for the Germans in the movie, though she seems shocked when she visits a hospital and sees wounded French soldiers. The movie's very sympathetic to her and doesn't really connect her actions as a spy with any consequences. Mostly the movie concentrates on how a pilot played by Ramon Novarro finally captures her heart, taking her from a lifestyle in which she makes love to many men including the general played by Barrymore. Her affection for Novarro's character not only invites Barrymore's jealousy but inhibits her espionage.

When Novarro's only injury from a plane crash is somehow being struck blind, the last portion of the movie is a bizarre plot about how Mata Hari, imprisoned before being killed by firing squad (as the real Mata Hari was), tricks the blind Novarro into believing she's really in a hospital.

The good natured nuns and prison guards help her with her plan out of complete adoration and sympathy. In fact, the inspector who caught Mata Hari is the only person who seems really pleased about it. He comes off as something of a two dimensional villain, a somewhat charming symptom of how innocent this movie is.

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