Inspiration (1931): Garbo’s Melodrama, based on the French Play Sappho

One of Garbo’s weakest films, Inspiration (1931) was a pale imitation of the previous year’s Romance, a superior melodrama that had garnered Garbo an Oscar nomination.

Based on Alphonse Daudet’s scandalous 1884 play “Sappho,” the story centers on a femme fatale named Yvonne Valbert (Garbo), who’s described as “the inspiration of all the artists in Paris’ Latin Quarter.”

In the opening sequence, a champagne fountain is seen filling in five glasses simultaneously at a gala. As Garbo smokes seductively, men hurl themselves at her feet. They are all artists, sculptors, painters, poets, but she’s tired of them all. “Are you really as heartless as you seem” asks Lewis Stone, her mentor-father figure. “You men are all alike,” she replies. “You only want the satisfaction of being through with us first, that’s all. So far, I have the good fortune of beating you to it”so I am heartless.”

Then, glancing a look and spotting a young elegant man, Garbo asks, “Who’s the boy over there” He is Andre (Robert Montgomery), a seemingly shy man who’s studying for the consular service. Upon introduction, Garbo describes herself to Andre as “I’m just a nice young woman,” only to negate this depiction immediately, “Not too young and not too nice.” (Garbo was 26 when she made the film, Montgomery a year younger).

Though Garbo comes to the party with another gentleman, she goes home with Andre. Climbing the stairs of his modest apartment, he carries her romantically into his room. Later, they look out the window at Paris. “There’s something magical about the first dawn two people see together,” Garbo says in one of the film’s few genuinely romantic and sexy moments.

After the first reel, heavy melodramatic kicks in. First, Andre refuses to let Garbo meet his family. Is he a priggish hypocritical cad or just an innocent, inexperienced man Then, Marjorie Rambeau warns Garbo that her romance with Andre will end up in the gutter, to which she replies: “I’ve known some very nice people in the Gutter.

Beryl Mercer (who made a stronger impression as James Cagney’s mother in “The Public Enemy”), plays Garbo’s loyal housekeeper. Also is a supporting role is Karen Morley, as Lewis Stone’s mistress. In the film’s harshest scenes, Stone gives her a check upon dismissing her in a cold, patronizing way. He slowly descends the steps, but when he lands at the lobby he discovers “to his and the audience’s shock “Morely’s body on the floor in what may be the quietest, least expected suicide in American film.

Worried that Garbo might do the same, Andre visits Garbo and is pressured to declare his love for her. She just wants to hear those three words that men have such problems expressing. He says them, and Garbo sighs with relief: “That makes up for all the misery,”.

The film is poorly staged by Clarence Brown, who nonetheless became Garbo’s favorite director. Brown had directed Garbo in two silent films, Flesh and the Devil and A Woman of Affairs, and he would direct five of her most successful talkies, among them “Anna Christie,” “Anna Karenina,” and “Conquest.”

Overall, the drama is dull and predictable, the dialogue stilted and full of clichs”of course, Garbo has to say at least once, “I want to be alone.” The film’s only decent review was in the trade magazine Variety, whose critic wrote: “Garbo has never looked or played better than in this picture.” Garbo, however, hated the picture and her part, claiming it was too old-fashioned. She even threatened to go back to Stockholm, which Metro didn’t take seriously since she had made these threats before.