When you think of silent film actresses most people think of Greta Garbo. Her beautiful chiseled face with those pencil thin eyebrows can stop any man’s throbbing heart, if only for a minute. She was an actress to be reckoned with and even for some time had a sound career, before she became fed up with MGM’s shenanigans and retired to a reclusive lifestyle. Flesh and the Devil was the film that made her famous in the States. It is also what helped to bring down her co-star John Gilbert. (drama!)
John Gilbert stars an Austrian military man right before World War I. He and his childhood friend, who is also in the military, look out for each other no matter what. They both get a leave of absence and Leo (Gilbert) goes to a grand ball where he meets Felicitas (Garbo). Their attraction to each other is palpable. In a great scene on the terrace, Felicitas asks Leo for a light for her cigarette. After he has struck a match, Felicitas blows it out and they kiss. (It’s a lot more steamy than I can describe trust me). Leo is head over heels for Felicitas and seemingly she is as well. As they are engaging in some passionate caresses, an old man walks. This man is in fact Felicitas’ husband. Her husband, outraged, challenges our strapping young Leo with a duel. Leo shoots her husband and is told by the military to disappear for a few years in Africa. Before he goes, he tells his best friend, Ulrich, to look after the newly widowed young woman but doesn’t tell him that he loves her. Ulrich was able to procure an early pardon for Leo and he rushes back to his love. But when he arrives, he sees that Ulrich had married Felicitas. (That tramp!) What is a lovesick Leo to do now that his best friend is now his enemy in love?
Gilbert and Garbo met on this set and began a whirlwind romance that resulted in Garbo leaving Gilbert at the altar. The first days of their gossip worthy romance is palpable in every scene that they shared. The camera lingers in close-ups of Garbo and Gilbert as they whisper sweet nothings to each other. The director clearly had an affection for this real life romance. Before this film was made, Gilbert was the bigger actor. With the death of Valentino, he was ushered in by the studios and fan magazines as the next romantic leading man. But after this film and a couple of others that he did with Garbo, his career faltered. The failed romance clearly had an effect on him and he didn’t have that same lusty sheen that he once had in his movies. By the advent of sound, his career was over. Gilbert was a victim just like Leo was in this movie of Garbo’s magnetism. One only has to look at this film to know why.