Ah, the captivatingly immoral woman — a favourite trope of 1920s art. Despite that title which betrays a hint of the sensational however, one often forgets that the heroine of A Woman of Affairs is cast in this very mould. For in Brown’s adaptation of Arlen’s 1924 novel The Green Hat, the fallen woman with a shady past is acutely downplayed. (It doesn’t help either that Mrs Furness is played by Greta Garbo, who unconsciously exudes a kind of ethereality while trying to appear hopelessly reprehensible.) Indeed, under the auspices of censorship and sterilisation, syphilis is substituted for embezzlement, alcoholism for some “mysterious addiction to an unknown beverage” and a passionate night of infidelity just might be mistaken for à la Paris When it Sizzles, a quiet game of parcheesi. While the daring aspects of Arlen’s novel are quelled, his story’s melodramatic bent is magnified, so much so that, at times, the plot walks that curious line between vogue 20s play and Victorian absurdity.
Regardless of its eyebrow-raisingly ridiculous storyline, A Woman of Affairs remains unexpectedly watchable. This is due largely to the superb performance of Greta Garbo. At 23, she is the perfect age to play Diana Merrick, a woman caught in the exuberance and optimism characteristic not only of youth but of the very decade of the 1920s. What is even more impressive though is her transformation from this sweet, gamine girl to a fully fledged tragic heroine. When the carefree Diana Merrick is barred from marrying the love of her life, she settles instead for one of her most ardent admirers: David Furness. All seems well, but only for a moment. On the night of their honeymoon, David is greeted with an ominous pair of handcuffs (which I mistook for a gaudy set of bangles for about thirty seconds… so thirty embarrassing seconds too long) and promptly leaps to his death. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Diana develops into a most woeful heroine as she struggles to uphold her husband’s honour by selflessly forgoing her own.
But perhaps it is no surprise that Greta Garbo shines in the role of doomed woman —it seems she always does. Her costar, John Gilbert, is only adequate as her ill-fated lover Neville Holderness (perhaps that is no surprise either). What was unexpected was the staggering performance of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the role of Jeffry Merrick. His transformation too, although not central to the film as a whole, was no less unforgettable. Like Diana, Fairbanks’ Jeffry Merrick begins reasonably untroubled and his good-naturedness shines through easily. However, the seed of doubt hinted at during the first moments of the film snowballs into absolute self-loathing and self-destruction, as well as a burning hatred directed at those who hold him most dear.
However, the most remarkable thing about A Woman of Affairs is the great care with which it is filmed. Clarence Brown and William Daniels — permanent staples of the Garbo entourage and director and cinematographer respectively — deliver what must undoubtedly be Garbo’s finest triumph of the silver screen. Every shot has the air of dynamism and immediacy; but upon deeper analysis, we discover the great consideration that has gone into every frame. In no moment is their efficient but elegant style more powerful than in the moving hospital scene.
Diana emerges from her room in a daze, deliriously calling for the flowers sent to her by Neville. She sways unsteadily from side to side, crying mournfully for those flowers. Then, the figures in the room dissolve into a rapid dolly-in to the flowers; seeing through the eyes of Diana, the flowers seem to become a heavenly image. She reaches out and cradles the bouquet, gently rocking the flowers in her arms. Due to censorship it is never stated outright, but with this gesture, we realise that Diana has suffered a miscarriage. She shakes with pleasure to recover her lost child, and the words left unsaid make her illusion all the more poignant.
At its surface, A Woman of Affairs can seem a little trite. A poor(ish) boy falls for a rich girl, but his father frowns upon the match and tries to break it up — haven’t we all heard this story much too many times before? Yet, the cast and crew carry this tale with such sincerity that penny dreadful material transcends into authentic tragedy. Combined with its innovative style, which races and roars rather like the decade in which it was made, and the performance of Greta Garbo, whose presence lends everything a touch of the eternal, A Woman of Affairs is a film not only of its time, but one which will endure as a classic for the ages.