Mata Hari (1931): Garbo’s Most Popular Movie

George Fitzmaurice directed this Pre-Code fictionalized version of Mata Hari, the exotic dancer and courtesan executed for espionage during WWI, played with great panache by Garbo.

Next to Ninotchka, this is Garbo’s best-known role and also most commercially successful star vehicle, which benefits from the presence of Ramon Novarro.

Set in 1917, the tale begins with Dubois (C. Henry Gordon), head of the French spy bureau, offering to spare the life of a captured agent if he will reveal some secrets. Dubois suspects it is Mata Hari, a celebrated exotic dancer, but the prisoner refuses to inform and gets executed.

Lieutenant Alexis Rosanoff  (Novarro) of the Imperial Russian Air Force lands in Paris after a risky flight, bringing important dispatches. He persuades his superior, General Serge Shubin, to take him to see Mata Hari that night.

Rosanoff, instantly smitten by Hari, persuades her to spend the night with him. However, the next morning, she makes it clear it was just a one-time stand.

Carlotta secretly instructs Mata Hari to report to Andriani, their spymaster. Andriani orders her to get from General Shubin (Lionel Barrymore) the dispatches brought by Rosanoff.

When Dubois discloses his suspicions about Mata Hari to Shubin, the general laughs them off as ridiculous. However, Shubin has himself passed secret information to his lover Hari.

Upon learning of Rosanoff’s mission, Hari arranges for a confederate to steal the dispatches, photograph them and return them undetected, while she keeps Rosanoff occupied.

Dubois informs Shubin of Hari’s recent activities, which causes jealousy. She tries but is unable to persuade him that she was just doing her job.  Shubin then informs Dubois that Mata Hari is a spy.  However, she shoots him dead before he can carry through on his threat to implicate Rosanoff.

Mata Hari goes into hiding, but when Andriani (Lewis Stone) informs her that Rosanoff was seriously injured on his way back to Russia, she goes to see him. Rosanoff is blind, but may recover his sight. After a joyful reunion, she is arrested by Dubois.

At her trial, her lawyer Major Caron (Alec B. Francis) points out that Dubois’ case is weak, due to second-hand testimony. However, under pressure, Mata Hari gives up. Sentenced to death, she writes to Rosanoff that she cannot see him as she is going to a sanatorium for her health.

Shortly before her execution, Rosanoff is brought to her, and the jailor and the attending nuns pretend that they are in a sanatorium.

Finally, Mata Hari is taken away to face the firing squad, with Rosanoff under the impression that she is going into surgery.

Censorship Issues

Mata Hari was severely censored upon its reissue after the enforcement of the Hays Office Production Code in 1934.

Mata’s erotic dance to the statue of Shiva was cut short (though it was always played in long shots by a double), with not much nudity in evidence.

In Rosanoff’s first visit to Mata, the fade-out that ends the scene was moved up, eliminating views of Mata after she changes into a see-through negligee.

In Mata’s visit to Rosanoff, after he blows out the candle carrying Mata off to his bedroom, there was an intimate scene of the pair in bed, discreetly lit only by their cigarettes, which was removed completely.

One line of dialogue, in which Rosanoff comments on Mata’s “ridiculously long” eyelashes, is referred to later in the film.