Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Painted Veil (1934)

I'm not a big fan of Greta Garbo. But I do have to say that it's not her fault that The Painted Veil is a mess. The movie is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive, so you can watch and decide for yourself how much of a mess it is.

Garbo, at 28, plays unmarried Katrin, an Austrian who still lives with her parents. Her kid sister gets married, and one of the attendees is British Dr. Fane (Herbert Marshall), whose career involves studying cholera in Hong Kong and dealing with any outbreaks on the mainland. Garbo is so desperate that she decides to marry him and go off to China with him!

Katrin, now in Hong Kong, doesn't know anybody there, so she's bored out of her mind until she meets British civil servant Townsend (George Brent), also stationed in Hong Kong. Townsend seems to be relatively wealthy by Hong Kong standards, and is also intersted in Katrin. Katrin has nothing else to do because her husband is spending all his time on his epidemiology studies, so she naturally does what any woman in her situation would do, which is to take a lover in the afternoon.

Of course, Dr. Fane finds out and he's none too pleased. He has no desire to divorce her, but what's a good way to punish her? (Never mind the fact that he should have paid attention to her.) Well, the good doctor but lousy husband is in luck! A cholera epidemic has broken out on the mainland, and Dr. Fane is needed to treat the patients and find the source of the outbreak. Only this time, he's not going to leave Katrin behind to romance Townsend. Oh, no, he's going to take Katrin with him to middle-of-nowhere China even if it kills her. Or especially if it kills her. Of course, he's the one to get cholera eventually.

The Painted Veil is sunk by its thoroughly ludicrous plot. Garbo as a woman who is unmarried and not by her choice is nonsense. If she weren't married, it's because she didn't want a man, like the characters in the recently-mentioned Antonia's Line. The movie also completely overlooks the fact that both of them screwed up in the marriage. George Brent is also the sort of actor who would be right in Herbert Marshall's role, but not as the lover Katrin takes on the side. And the resolution of the whole cholera thing left me shaking my head at the improbability of it.

Still, as I said at the beginning, you may want to judge for yourself. The movie was based on a story by Somerset Maugham, and was remade about a decade ago. The 2007 version has actually been released as part of a box set, but not the Garbo version, which is only on the pricier standalone Warner Archive DVD.

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