A Woman of Affairs (MGM, 1928)
What with it being a book about adultery, abortion, venereal disease, and homosexuality, Michael Arlen’s controversial 1924 novel The Green Hat was an odd choice for a screen adaptation. A Woman of Affairs (1928) does its best to sanitize the story and it changes some significant details that both lessen its impact and make the mystery rather farfetched (more on that later), but it couldn’t completely bowdlerize it.
I chose this to be the third installment in my series of reviews of gay-themed silents because of the Jeffry character (called Gerald in the novel – everyone’s got a new name in the film). He’s quite a long way from the laughing sissy stock character of The Soilers. He’s a morose, withdrawing young man, given to drink, whose only joy in life seems to be a man named David.
Since childhood, Diana Merrick (Greta Garbo) had been in love with Neville Holderness (John Gilbert). Neville loves Diana as well, but his father, Sir Morton (Hobart Bosworth), thoroughly disapproves of the Merricks and does everything in his power to keep the two apart. Sir Morton secures a job in Egypt for Neville and hopes that, in the two years he’s away, he’ll have moved on from Diana.
Neville isn’t Diana’s only admirer. David Furness (John Mack Brown), star of the rowing team, thrills to be near her, just as Diana’s brother Jeffry (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) thrills to be near him. Jeffry’s reliance on alcohol, always an issue for him, becomes more pronounced when David’s attention is monopolized by his sister.
It seems Diana couldn’t wait and she marries David while Neville is in Egypt. On their honeymoon in Deauville, two men appear at their hotel room door demanding to see David. One holds a pair of handcuffs. On seeing them, David leaps to his death from the window. At the inquest, Dr. Hugh Trevelyan (Lewis Stone), David’s doctor and an old friend of the Merricks, wants to declare it an accident, but Jeffry, drunk and highly agitated, forces Diana to admit that it was suicide. She won’t say why he killed himself, only that he did so “for decency”.
The film continues from there. Sir Morton, interpreting Diana’s words to mean that David killed himself for her decency, suggests that she not return to England. She stays on the Continent, moving from one affair to another with a countless number of men. Neville marries the acceptable Constance (Dorothy Sebastian), although he never loses his love for Diana. Jeffry shuts himself up in his apartment and slowly drinks himself to death.
The book is not ambiguous and makes Gerald’s motivation clear, but in the movie, Jeffry’s love of David is more subtextual. A less observant watcher may see it as simple idolization (David was the star of the rowing team, etc.) and be left to think that Jeffry wildly overreacts to David’s marriage to Diana and subsequent death, but an observant one will see it – it is there. For example, I’ve mentioned Jeffry’s drinking when separated from David, but notice how the exact same scene is repeated later in the film when Neville leaves Diana to return to his lie of a marriage.
The movie’s changes and glossing-over of details do make some segments perplexing to someone unfamiliar with the source. Diana is hospitalized for some sudden and mysterious malady – it goes unsaid that she’s recovering from an abortion; she became pregnant the night she allowed herself to “fall” with Neville. Dr. Trevelyan knows the reason for David’s suicide and keeps it a secret for Diana’s sake. Why? I won’t spoil either the book or movie, but it’s very clear why he knows in the former, but not at all in the latter. Changing David’s reason from being a personal to a public vice also asks the question why it didn’t come up at the inquest – even if Diana kept quiet about the two men who came to their room, surely they were seen by others at the hotel.
Compared to Garbo’s other silents, A Woman of Affairs isn’t that well remembered. The story definitely has its faults, but what can’t be denied is that it’s beautifully shot. Clarence Brown was mostly thought of as a “woman’s film” (a contemporary term roughly analogous to today’s “chick flicks”) director and I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves as a filmmaker. I especially love his long tracking shots, which he makes frequent use of here.
As I said, it isn’t a flawless work nor would I call it Garbo’s best, but with some reservation, I’d recommend A Woman of Affairs. I would suggest reading The Green Hat first, though.
My rating: I like it.