Flesh and the Devil
- Reviewed by: John Reents
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Current Rating 9.6/10 | 5 Votes
Starring John Gilbert, Greta Garbo, and Lars Hanson.
Flesh and the Devil is the story of army buddies Leo (Gilbert) and Ulrich (Hanson). They have been best friends - blood brothers, in fact – since childhood. One evening, Leo meets Felicitas (Garbo) at a ball and falls hard for her. What he doesn't know - and what she fails to tell him - is that she is married to a count (Marc McDermott). Her husband comes upon them in a moment of passion and challenges Leo to a duel. Leo kills the count but vows never to reveal the true reason behind the duel in order to spare Felicitas's reputation; the “official” reason given for the count’s untimely demise is a gambling debt.
Such was life in the silent films of 1926.
Unfortunately, Leo is called into active duty before he can marry Felicitas. He entrusts her care to Ulrich without revealing their affair, claiming that since he (Leo, that is) killed her husband over a "gambling debt," he is therefore responsible for her well-being. Leo returns from the army only to find that Felicitas and Ulrich have married.
Anyway, because a love triangle like this only has one possible ending in a silent film, it isn't a surprise to anyone that there's another duel, someone dies and the other two live happily ever after.
It seems like standard enough stuff for a
I mentioned that two became blood brothers as children. We actually see this ceremony in flashback. They row out to a Terabithian hideaway they call the Isle of Friendship with Ulrich's little sister Hertha in tow. They drape a cloth over Herthe so she looks like an angel and kneel before her. She places a hand on each of their heads and they recite the following title card:
"By this rite of blood we are united...in riches and in poverty...in love and in sorrow...in life and in death.....in undying friendship...forever and ever." Each boy then cuts himself and they hold the wounds together allowing the blood to flow between them.
At face value, I suppose one could say that this is two boys' way of showing their love for one another, blissfully unaware that their aping of the marriage vows adds an unintended gay subtext to their ceremony. After all, it is possible that two men can love each other without either of them being sexually attracted to the other. But there’s more. Leo and Ulrich are frequently framed in the same shot standing so close together that their noses are practically touching. Leo receives a letter addressed to "My beloved Leo" that turns out to be from Ulrich, not Felicitas. In their scenes together as husband and wife, Ulrich is utterly uninterested in Felicitas, coming to life only when Leo is in the room. Their relationship is solidified in the ending, which I’m about to reveal. Skip to the next paragraph to avoid spoilers. It is winter and the two men about to duel – again over Felicitas's honor – and Felicitas runs to try and stop them. In order to do so, she must cross the now-frozen lake that surrounds the Isle of Friendship. She falls through the ice to her death and her spell over Leo and Ulrich is broken. Through the magic of montage they suddenly remember all the happy times they've spent together. They drop the guns and embrace. The end.
This is no boating accident. This is a gay love story.
Yes, Leo leaves Ulrich for Felicitas, but that has less to do with his sexual orientation than it does with her being Greta Garbo at her most seductive. Leo is simply powerless to resist her. Ulrich’s marriage to Felicitas is a little more complex. We don't see the early stages of their relationship (so it can be a "surprise" when Leo comes home) and it stands to reason that Ulrich is just as defenseless against her charms as Leo. Still, I couldn't help but think that they marry because each sees Leo in the other. If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because the same thing happened to Skipper, Brick and Maggie the Cat on Broadway some 29 years later (and on celluloid three years after that).
Flesh and the Devil was Greta Garbo's third American film, yet it marked a couple of firsts for her: It was the first of 6 films she made for director Clarence Brown and the first of 4 she made with real-life love John Gilbert – 2 of which were directed by Brown. Garbo was type-cast very early in her career at MGM as the Ultimate Vamp and played roles like Felicitas again and again in virtually every silent film she made, including the title vixens in The Temptress (1926), The Mysterious Lady and A Woman of Affairs (both 1928). She apparently hated these roles, but she knew how to play them. Felicitas is a selfish woman who goes through three lovers and two marriages in the course of the film. Garbo knew better than to try and make us like Felicitas and instead made her fascinating; we may hate everything she does, but at least she does it with style, glamour and the indefinable Garbo Mystique.
Flesh and the Devil isn’t Garbo’s strongest vehicle, and that’s mostly the fault of the writing. Compared with the nuances of Leo and Ulrich’s relationship, the principle women in the picture come off as archetypes rather than actual living and breathing characters, leaving us with the Whore (Felicitas), the Virgin (Hertha) and the Mother (Leo’s). Unfortunately, the mistreatment of an entire gender is enough of a flaw to mar the rest of the picture. And that’s a shame, since everything involving the leading men is really quite special.
So there you have it. Before Longtime Companion, My Beautiful Launderette or Cabaret. Before the production code. Before the movies even learned to talk, audiences bore witness to an unconventional love story played without the slightest acknowledgement that anyone was doing anything out of the ordinary.
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