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22 February 2017

Garbo's Artistry on Display in an Old-Fashioned Romance


Garbo as Madame Cavallini

Amidst the new content recently added to the Warner Archive streaming channel is a 1930 vehicle for MGM's biggest star, Greta Garbo, entitled Romance, based on a play that was old-fashioned at the time. At first this seems like an odd project, but that's because today we don't know the story behind it -- in 1930, everybody did. And the personal significance this production had for most of the people involved gave it added resonance.

This is the backstory: The play was a Broadway hit of 1913, starring Doris Keane, and was successfully revived on Broadway in 1921 after a silent film version was released in 1920. It is charming and well-crafted, but there was another reason for so many productions.

Romance was written by Edward Sheldon, a very talented writer who scored an enormous hit at the age of 23 with the play "Salvation Nell," which was so popular that it was revived on Broadway several times, and made into movies three times. He was not only professionally accomplished, but also extremely well-liked around the New York theater scene, frequently acting as a script doctor, director, and acting coach.

You can see from this film version of Romance that Sheldon perfectly understood the construction of a well-made, popular play that would not be too difficult to produce, provides satisfying starring roles for established players, and wouldn't require either expensive sets or a large cast, so it wasperfect for regional and repertory theaters. (Of course, MGM didn't have to worry about keeping the budget under contol on a Garbo picture, so they were happy to go all out.)

The story, set in New York in the 1860's (allowing for beautiful, nostalgic costumes for the leading lady), is about a famed Italian operatic diva and her hopeless love affair with an innocent young American clergyman. The central character, Madame Cavallini, is lovely, tempestuous, emotional, and has a hint of scandal in her background -- enough for audiences of 1913 to find a bit naughty but not actually sinful, making them feel quite agreeably sophisticated. Her doomed romance is quite touching, if rather obvious; but it makes a satisfying story. What Romance really depends on is star quality -- Mme. Cavallini must be irresistably attractive and bewitching.

And so she is. Garbo is simply brilliant in this role. In her lush costumes, elaborate hairstyles, and glorious beauty, she transforms into an exotic, mercurial, exquisite artist, obviously the toast of any town she happens to visit. (How the great designer Adrian must have enjoyed creating these gorgeous costumes!) The young men of New York literally pull her carriage through the streets. She is completely convincing.
Her supporting players Gavin Gordon and Lewis Stone, are also excellent, but this was designed as a star vehicle, and Garbo is it.

Now back to the frequent productions. In 1919, the playwright, Ned Sheldon, having made a place for himself in the theater world, suddenly became crippled with an extreme form of rhumatoid arthritis. Over the next few years, he almost completely lost the ability to move at all, and eventually went blind, as well. You would think this would be the end of his career.

But since he could no longer see plays, go to first nights, and direct shows and performances, through the following years, week after week and day after day, the New York theater world went to him. For the rest of his life, the top stars, directors, and theater folk made time in their crowded, reputedly self-absorbed lives to visit Sheldon regularly; not a day went by without a Barrymore, a Cornell, a Hayes, a producer like Tyrone Guthrie, or a writer like Alexander Woolcott or Thornton Wilder spending time with him. (This included, by the way, a very young Orson Welles.) From his darkened bedroom, without being able to move or see, he was still able to collaborate on plays and even continue as an acting coach. The world that he loved so much loved him back.

When this movie was made, this story was well-known. Cynical denizens of the Great White Way did not brag about it but I can't help feeling that they might have been quite proud of how they cared for one of their own.