Anna Karenina (1935): Garbo at her Best as Tolstoy’s Tragic Heroine

Anna Karenina, Greta Garbo’s twenty-third film, was a remake of “Love,” in which she had co-starred with her then lover.

In the new version, directed by Clarence Brown, Garbo is paired with Frederic March as Count Vronsky.

Set in nineteenth-century Russia, Leo Tolstoy’s great novel about love and the wages of infidelity offers a wonderful text for Garbo, who rises above the limitations of the adaptation, a sumptuous MGM production that nonetheless leaves much to be desired in terms of narrative and characterizations.

Garbo plays Karenina, the married wife of wealthy government official Karenin (Basil Rathbone, better known for his character, villainous roles) and mother of young Sergei (David Bartholomew, the child star who appeared in George Cukor’s “David Copperfield,” also 1935).

Visiting her womanizing brother Stiva (Reginald Owen), to help save his marriage, she meets and falls hard for Count Bronsky (March). The affair continues when she returns home, and when Karenina asks her hubby for divorce, he refuses resolutely, and threatens to forfeit her claim to their son if she continues to be Brosky’s mistress.

Unfazed, and desperately in love, Karenina and Vronsky go abroad, to Venice, spending idyllic time, when he leaves the army. However, after a while, he begins to miss military life, and after a bad argument with Karenina, he rejoins the army, Karenina sneaks back to her house and has a long visit with her son, only to be caught and expelled by her husband.

When Karenina goes to the train station to bid farewell, she sees Vronsky with his mother (May Robson), who introduces him to a younger woman. Realizing that she has lost all that was meaningful in her life, she throws herself in front of the moving train, a tragic sight that’s never shown graphically on screen.

Most reviewers at the time praised Garbo, while criticizing the film. William Boehnel wrote in the New York World-Telegram: “There is always an excitement and interest about any role that Garbo portrays on the screen, and even though ‘Anna Karenina’ can hardly be called one of the best films she has ever made, it is as exciting as any because of the marvelously restrained performance. There’s nothing dull or dreary about Garbo.”

Later Versions

There have been at least half a dozen screen version of “Anna Karenina” starring Vivien Leigh, Jacqueline Bisset, Sophie Marceau, and most recently Keira Knightly.  Nonethelss, none of these actresses approximate the high-quality performance given by Garbo in one of her most iconic roles.

Other critics opined that, after years of being miscast, Garbo found “her own particular province of glamour and heartbreak,” noting that it was a good thing for the star to discard “all those extraordinary costumes which have made her look like a theatrical dressmaker’s advertisement.”

For “Anna Karenina,” Garbo reteamed with her frequent director, Clarence Brown, who previously worked with the Swedish-born star in “Romance,” Flesh and the Devil,” and Anna Christie.”

Exquisitely photographed by her favorite cinematographer, William Daniels, Garbo looks luminous, raising through her persuasive genius and grand beauty an outdated vehicle that’s not particularly written–despite the collaboration of three estimable writers.

MGM saw to it that a proper budget went to the reconstruction of the sets and costumes of St. Petersburgh high society in the 1870s. The film begins with the depiction of a lush dinner.

Cast

Ana Karenina (Greta Garbo)
Frederic March (Count Vronsky)
Freddie Bartholomew (Sergei)
Maureen O’Sullivan (Kitty)
May Robson (Countess Vronsky)
Basil Rathbone (Karenin)
Reginald Owen (Stiva)

Credits

Produced by David O. Selznick
Directed by Clarence Brown.
Screenplay: Clemence Dane, Salka Viertel, and S. N. Behrman, from the novel by Leo Tolstoy
Camera: William Daniels
Editing:
Music: Herbert Stothart