Friday, December 25, 2009

Mata Hari (George Fitzmaurice) ***

Director: George Fitzmaurice

Cast: Greta Garbo, Ramon Novarro, Lionel Barrymore

Background: Greta Garbo continued her successful transition into talkies, following double Oscar nominations the previous year. Ramon Novarro fills in for usual Garbo costar John Gilbert, whose career had begun to fall apart in 1929. Longtime film star Lionel Barrymore rounded out the cast.

Story: Very loosely based on a true story, Mata Hari (Garbo) is a legendary spy outwitting the secret police. She has seduced a Russian General (Barrymore), but problems arise when she develops feelings for the young Lieutenant (Novarro) who is the target of her latest mission.

Thoughts: This is a fairly straightforward film without a lot of depth, but it is nonetheless entertaining thanks to an interesting story and solid performances from the entire cast. Garbo had issues the previous year in Anna Christie, which was her first talkie, but they seem to have been fixed as she gives a confident, relaxed performance here. Lionel Barrymore is much better here than his hammy Oscar winning performance in A Free Soul. And it's nice to see the talented Ramon Novarro (so good in Lubitsch's The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg) in a talkie for the first time. The story unfolds at a nice pace as we gradually begin to like each of the characters, giving the film some emotional resonance. This is much, much better than Garbo's earlier spy film The Mysterious Lady, which included ridiculously idiotic mistakes by the supposedly great spies. None of the stupidity that doomed that film exists here. Instead, we get a fun story about a cool female spy and the men who love her.

Postscript: Barrymore's career was far from over. After winning an Oscar for A Free Soul, he would continue acting for another two decades, including a memorable turn in It's a Wonderful Life. Garbo would receive two more Oscar nominations (Camille, Ninotchka), but would retire in 1941.

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