Mata Hari (1931): Garbo’s Most Commercially Popular (if Not Best) Movie, Starring Ramon Novarro

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

Mata Hari

Next to Ninotchka, made in 1939, this is Garbo’s best-known role and also, despite deficiencies, her most commercially successful star vehicle.

The tale benefits from the presence of the then big star, Ramon Novarro; his love scenes with Garbo (especially their final farewell) exude both pathos and passion.

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 for being a spy.

At her trial (a brief, routinely staged sequences), her lawyer Major Caron (Alec B. Francis) points out that Dubois’ case is weak, due to the prevalence of testimony that’s at best second-hand. However, under pressure, Mata Hari gives up.

Sentenced to death, she writes to Rosanoff a fake letter in which she relates 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.

As noted, the narrative is highly fictionalized and the dialogue often conventional, with the requisite lines to reinforce the actress’ screen image (as a strong woman, who wants to be alone).  But the movie is perfectly watchable due to the luminous beauty and of Garbo, then at her most attractive, here seen uncharacteristically in a short, slicked back hair.

The movie might have contained the largest number of close-ups to be seen in any Garbo movie, demonstrating her perfectly chiseled face and glorious profile.

Censorship Issues

Mata Hari, which was initially successful, was re-released by MGM several times. However, it was severely censored upon its reissues 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.  That scene was, of course, removed completely.

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


Directed by George Fitzmaurice
Written by Benjamin Glazer, Leo Birinsky, Doris Anderson, Gilbert Emery
Produced by George Fitzmaurice, Irving Thalberg
Cinematography William Daniels
Edited by Frank Sullivan
Music by William Axt (uncredited)

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Release date: December 26, 1931 (US)

Running time: 89 minutes

Budget $558,000
Box office $2,227,000 (worldwide rental)

Greta Garbo as Mata Hari
Ramon Novarro as Lieutenant Alexis Rosanoff
Lionel Barrymore as General Serge Shubin
Lewis Stone as Andriani
C. Henry Gordon as Dubois
Karen Morley as Carlotta
Alec B. Francis as Major Caron
Blanche Friderici as Sister Angelica
Edmund Breese as Warden
Helen Jerome Eddy as Sister Genevieve
Frank Reicher as The Cook-Spy, driven by Andriani to suicide for his failures