Thursday, August 07, 2008

See For Yourself: "Mata Hari" (1931)

I was lucky to find this clip on YouTube, of a scene from the film Mata Hari featuring the electric chemistry of Greta Garbo and Ramon Novarro. Yeah... I doubt that even sophisticated CGI techniques could make a Republican believe there's so much as a glimmer of heterosexuality on display here.
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Screened: "Mata Hari" (1931)

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As entertainment, Hollywood movies cannot be beat, especially those from the 1930s and 40s; as history, though, Hollywood films from any age are never anything but pure hokum. Ah, but what gorgeous and entertaining hokum they are... A Dutch dancer with a Swedish accent (and an Indonesian name!), a Russian pilot with a Mexican accent, and a German spy with an American accent, all feature in a movie set in Paris (but clearly made in California); typically, the real story, while just as interesting, isn't half as much fun as this exotic tomfoolery.

Despite its unusually high hokum content (even by Hollywood standards) the film was a runaway success when it was released. Humans, it seems, are unable to resist a bit of myth-making, even if it means abrogating the truth; as always, it is one of the stated aims of the Pop Culture Institute to simultaneously exult in and help unmake these myths.

Greta Garbo plays the woman herself*, slinking from lover to lover in a series of increasingly slippery velvet dresses; plagued by his love for her is General Serge Shubin, played by Lionel Barrymore, one of the final romantic roles of his career before he was shipped off to play Andy Hardy's father. Ramon Novarro encloses their love triangle, as Lieutenant Alexis Rosanoff. However, none of Garbo's scenes - especially the love scenes - are in the least erotic. Small wonder; Lionel was the Barrymore least likely to ever enflame anyone's ardor, and mannish as she was - even though she's playing a dancer, she has all the grace of a tractor - Garbo was still too much woman for Novarro, who would have preferred that she hadn't been one at all. Scenes that once made millions swoon now look like... Well, like hokum.

As an aside, the film contains a significant reference to Our Lady of Kazan - last mentioned on this blog as recently as July 8th - who momentarily becomes "the other woman" whom our Russian swain betrays for lust. After their tryst, Garbo relights the eternal flame she'd made him snuff out previously with the sort of anti-Christian insouciance that had not only brought on the Motion Picture Code but subsequently caused it to be enforced.

Also scattered throughout the film are portraits of Tsar Nicholas II, another of our favourites here at the Pop Culture Institute; these would have added an extra layer of meaning, giving a Thirties audience the chills; the movie is set in 1917, the same year as his overthrow, events fresher in the public memory then than now.

So I would definitely recommend this movie to anyone, provided they don't have a report on Mata Hari due in which they will be marked for accuracy.

*Today would have been Margaretha Zelle's 132nd birthday.

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