Friday, September 5, 2014

MATA HARI: Garbo goes undercover

This is my entry in the World War One in Classic Film Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently and Silent-ology. Click HERE for more war to end all wars brilliance.

Rhianna and JLo got nothing on this fashionista
"Mata Hari. She makes love for the papers."

Alicia Huberman, Notorious
Prostituting oneself for patriotism is apparently a virtue. Just ask 2 Hitchcock heroines Eve Kendall (North by Northwest) and Alicia Huberman (Notorious). Of course, they both ended with up with Cary Grant, so maybe it was worth it? But, I digress. Both of these ladies made fine spies, but they could never hold a candle to the original female spy, the woman whose name is synonymous with espionage and seduction, Mata Hari. And who better to portray the mystery, the sex, the cool that was Mata Hari than the mysterious, sexy and uber-cool Greta Garbo? That's what MGM thought in 1931. The result is an entertaining film of the Garbo formula: you know - an all-knowing woman of the world who is brought to her knees by the love of an innocent man/boy. Oh wait, is that Camille? The Kiss? Well, you get the picture....

And oh what a picture she is. Vamping around World War I Paris in costumes to die for, Garbo wears some of Adrian's most outrageous designs with panache and a much-admired seriousness. If anyone doubts Garbo was a great actress, just think of the great acting it took for her to wear some of these things with a straight and smoldering face. In fact, she never looked more beautiful.
Garbo really didn't need a hair dresser on this film

I like this colorization, as it is how I imagined the costume

But, back to the war. Garbo's Mata (I love that her lovers call her by her fake first name - Mata) is an exotic dancer/courtesan who is spying for the Germans. She's got French General Shubin (Lionel Barrymore) under her spell and spilling his guts and reports to her spymaster, Adriani (Lewis Stone). All is going well for Ms. Hari,as she is the toast of the town and no one can make the spy allegations stick. A fly enters the ointment in the person of Russian officer Rosanoff (Ramon Novarro). Well, I think he's Russian, but when he pronounces "mother" as "mow-ther" I think the family got sidetracked from Kiev to Juarez. Anyway, Rosanoff is hot and young and stupid and brave.  In other words, meat for Mata. 
Garbo looked incredibly uncomfortable during her cooch
dance, which one reviewer described as "polite"
But, because Mata is Garbo, love enters the picture and, as we all know, there is no room for love in the spy game. She shoots the jealous Shubin as he threatens to expose her and goes into hiding. But the Russian lover boy crashes his plane and loses his sight. Mata comes out of hiding to comfort her boy-toy and is arrested. Rosanoff remains blind in so many ways and Mata faces the firing squad like a man.
Basic black is always right for a firing squad
The film has lots of pre-code fun, and I must say that Ms. Garbo is quite a delight when she is pulling the wool over everyone's eyes. Her smile and laugh are adorable. I'm not so enamored of Mr. Novarro here. He is way too boyish to be of interest to such a worldly and glamorous creature. He acts as though he wants to carry her books rather than snuggle between the sheets. But, their scenes, thanks to Garbo, have some heat and the after-code release had some steamy moments cut out.

Was this film a dress rehearsal for Garbo?

The reclusive Garbo never tooted her own horn. While other stars publicly made contributions to the WWII effort (entertaining or fighting), secretive Greta, it seems, was actually in the employ of the British intelligence (MI6) Beginning in 1939, Garbo frequently left Hollywood for New York for "medical treatment." It turns out that "medical treatment" was her code word for a little espionage for the British.

Working with Alexander Korda (himself recruited by MI6), Garbo gathered information on Swedish millionaire Axel Wenner-Gren, a friend of Hermann Goering. This spying went on for several years and her missions resulted in great success (you can read more about Greta's spying days here).  Seems just playing Mata Hari was not enough for the great Garbo.

The real Mata Hari
As you can see, the real Mata Hari made Garbo, MGM, Adrian and the Pre-Code Hollywood look tame.

Mata Hari was a Dutch haus frau whose lousy marriage led her to Paris where she went from circus horse rider, artist model, exotic dancer and courtesan. In between it looks as though she did spy for the Germans and maybe even for the French. She did have a love affair with a Russian aviator and did end up on the wrong side of a firing squad. Whatever the truth, her name became synonymous with intrigue and seduction and dangerous women.


Caftan Woman said...

So, Ms. Garbo did her bit as a spy, eh? That is amazing. I wonder if there's a movie in there somewhere.

I started to watch "Mata Hari" once, but it didn't hold my attention. Another time, another mood and we may go through to the end.

DorianTB said...

Marsha, I really enjoyed your post about both the real Mata Hari and the movie version. Talk about moonlighting! Excellent post, as always!

Fritzi Kramer said...

Thanks so much for joining in! This film is definitely not Novarro's best. He was always better when he had righteousness combined with impishness and such parts were not easy to come by.

I too got a giggle out of his extremely New World accent. Poor man. He did try.

Anyway, thanks so much for the entertaining piece!


Well, I don't think the real Mata made Garbo look lame!
When I watched this film, I was psyched by Ramon Novarro, so I didn't have eyes for neither Barrymore nor Lewis Stone.
Great review about a great film. Long live Garbo's legacy!
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

Silver Screenings said...

Greta Garbo as a spy for the British? GET OUT! Now, there is a nice little tidbit for our next cocktail party.

Great review! Thoroughly enjoyed your witty observations.

Joe Thompson said...

Thank you for linking to that article about Garbo's real-life espionage. That's cool. I remember feeling sorry for Ramon Novarro as he tried to play a Russian. He tried hard. Thank you for sharing with all of us.

FlickChick said...

CW - I agree this is not Garbo's finest - though not her fault. She and Ramon have zero chemistry and she is just to wonderful to be shot!

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Dorian. Yes - Mata was a busy gal.

FlickChick said...

Fritzi - thanks for hosting!

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Le - loved your post.

FlickChick said...

Hi Joe - yes, por Ramon - he tried really hard!

FlickChick said...

Silver Screenings - yes, that Greta sure got around!

Inge Gregusch said...

Beautiful post. I've always found the movie kind of tepid, mostly because of Novarro, but Garbo shines and the costumes are stunning. Love the pics of the real Mata Hari!